Israel's Brain Drain

AP Images/Eric Risberg

Nobel Prize-winner and Israeli citizen, Michael Levitt. 

A band was warming up for a free concert on the green quad of Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus before noon yesterday. The vocalist belted out a few lines of Amy Winehouse in English—"They tried to make me go to rehab"—then switched into Hebrew to talk to the soundman. Across the crowded lawn in front of the neural computation and life sciences buildings, a student was learning to walk a low tightrope stretched between two trees, and mostly falling off. The Israeli academic year starts only in October, and classes are finally back in session.

Givat Ram is the physical sciences campus of Hebrew University. Among the scientists who do not have labs there, and who will not be teaching there or at any other Israeli university this year, are Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt. Warshel and Levitt were named earlier this month as two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Warshel, who was born in Israel and studied through his doctorate at Israeli universities, teaches at USC in Los Angeles. South African-born Levitt, who taught at Israel’s Weizmann Institute in the 1980s and holds Israeli citizenship, is at Stanford. The prize makes them stand out; the geography of their career paths does not. Israel suffers worse brain drain than any other developed country. Its scholars might as well receive suitcases rather than diplomas. "What's the best Israeli 'university'? The one composed of all the Israeli academics abroad," a professor told me this week in a bittersweet tone.

In a committee room in the depths of the Knesset Wednesday, just a few hundred meters from the quad where the band was warming up, the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Ruth Arnon, was a delivering a thick report on the state of the country's academic research. A brief abstract could read: "We were once stars on the world stage; we are going downhill; talent is leaving. We need money." A separate study on Israeli academia, due to be published next month, paints an even starker picture. For every ten tenured or tenure-track faculty at Israel's colleges and universities, there are nearly three Israelis in parallel positions in the United States, according to the Taub Center, a Jerusalem-based social-policy institute. This is a rate of intellectual exodus on a greater scale than that of any other country in the world.

The reasons for Israel's brain drain are not solely economic. But government funding—or lack of funding—for higher education is a core problem. The financial starving of academia is a function of the wider shift in government policy away from the welfare state and toward privatization—and toward spending an unknown part of national resources on settlement and on the ultra-Orthodox segment of Israeli society. And a crisis in relations with the European Union over settlement policy threatens a major remaining source of funding for research.

With rare exceptions, Israeli scholars aren't leaving for ideological reasons. They aren't boycotting their country. Israelis leaving for foreign universities normally say that they intend to come home after their doctorate or the post-doc, or that the offer of a tenure-track position or better research conditions abroad is too good to refuse.

Ironically, the emigration rate is partly due to the success of Israeli academia. "We educate a lot of people to a very high level," and professors are well known at universities abroad, says Jonathan Fine, a Bar-Ilan University linguist. So they are able to help place their protégés in doctoral programs or post-doctoral slots at top institutions overseas. 

To maintain their own level, Israeli institutions want to hire scholars trained at the best American and British universities—which also happen to have more fellowship funds than their Israeli counterparts. Yet those scholars are the most likely to get offers to stay overseas. Back home, the number of tenure-track openings has shrunk with budget cuts; research funding is leaner; salaries are smaller than they are across the sea, especially in fields such as business and engineering. Even professional literature in the humanities is harder to get. A professor explained to me that Israeli university libraries subscribe to fewer online journals. It's a form of privatization, he said, only a quarter in jest. To get many articles, a scholar has to pay out of his own research funds or personal cash.

So we're back to budgets. Here the Taub report, written by Ben-David, presents a stunning picture. During Israel's first 25 years of independence, from 1948 to 1973, it invested generously, dedicatedly, in higher education. It was still a developing country. In the earliest of those years, Israel was so poor that food was rationed, the report notes. The country was flooded with Jewish refugees from Europe and Islamic countries who were living in tents. The country acted like poor parents working long hours at their corner market to send their kids to college. The ratio of university faculty to the population rose steeply, until it approached the U.S. level in 1973. From that peak, the ratio of professors to population took a sharp turn down and has continued to slide. Other indicators show the same slide. In real terms, public funding per student in higher education today is a third the level it was in 1979.

The initial catalyst for cutbacks, it appears, was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which exacted a huge economic as well as human cost on Israel. But funding kept falling after the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, which led to a steady drop in defense outlays. The country joined the developed world; high-tech became the engine of the economy. Yet higher education suffered. When I spoke with Ben-David this week, he noted that a delayed effect of the war was that the Labor Party lost power for the first time in 1977.  But, he said, the trend of cutbacks continued even during periods when Labor returned to power. To that comment, let me add a gloss: By the time Labor was back in government, the party's name was a historical relic of its social democratic past. The major parties barely differed in their pro-market, pro-privatization policies. But the private sector wasn't making up for government investments in basic scientific research, much less in humanities faculties.

Ben-David focuses his criticism on government's spending priorities and the lack of transparency in its budget. "No one has a clue," he points out, about how much the Israeli government spends on West Bank settlements, or on supporting an ever-growing number of ultra-Orthodox families in which the men devote their lives to religious study rather than work.

One potential cost of settlement, however, is quite public. Israeli researchers depend heavily on European Union grants and partnerships. Israel is now negotiating with the European Union on participation in Horizon 2020, Europe's next seven-year research and development partnership. But the EU guidelines issued in July finally put teeth in Europe's policy that sovereign Israeli territory is defined by the pre-1967 border, or Green Line. EU research grants are not to be spent beyond that border, and the guidelines specify that any new agreements with Israel must explicitly state this condition. "Not signing the scientific cooperation agreement with the European Union is an irreversible and disastrous step for Israeli science and the country as a whole," warned Arnon, president of the Academy of Sciences, In an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week. Since she has a nonpolitical position, she did not state the subtext: Refusing to acknowledge that the occupied territories are, well, occupied would be the final blow to research in Israel.

When the Nobel Prize in chemistry was announced, Netanyahu phoned Arieh Warshel on the far side of the globe to tell him, "We are proud of you." If it weren't for the policies of Netanyahu and his predecessors, perhaps that would have been a local call. As it is, Israeli universities very much need a rehabilitation program.  

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