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Israel Is Dying

• October 12, 2013 • 11:30 AM

Faculty of Industrial Engineering & Management at the Technion in Haifa. (PHOTO: DAVID SHANKBONE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The country really needs greater density and world class urban amenities so talent won’t have to look elsewhere.

What else is one supposed to think when the Associated Press offers up such click bait, “Israeli ex-pats’ Nobel win highlights brain drain”? Success only found outside of Israel! Exodus Ireland Israel! Yes, Israel is dying:

In its early years, Israel built a half-dozen top-flight universities that have become among the world’s finest. Israeli academics, for instance, have won six Nobel prizes in chemistry and economics in the past decade alone.

But the country’s higher education system has fallen onto hard times. In its latest survey of the world’s top universities, Times Higher Education, a British publication, lowered the rankings of leading Israeli institutions. The Hebrew University fell to 191 from 137 last year, Tel Aviv University fell to 199 from 158, and the Technion, Israel’s top technological university, fell out of the top 200.

The country’s infectious entrepreneurial spirit was nurtured by generous government backing of R&D in the 1990s to create a hi-tech boom that earned it the nickname “startup nation.” The military proved to be a fertile training ground for promising engineers, and a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the past two decades gave a sharp boost to science and technology. Numerous breakthroughs were pioneered in Israel, such as Wi-Fi technology, the computer firewall and instant messaging.

Emphasis added. Oh yeah, one million immigrants from just one country might have a thing or two to do with innovation. That said, Israel really needs greater density and world class urban amenities so talent won’t have to look elsewhere. Nobel-winning expats Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt are proof.

Levitt left Israel in the 1980s, before the tech boom of the ’90s. Suffice to say, he was pushed out:

“I can’t say I moved [to Stanford] because the conditions in Israel were not satisfactory,” Levitt told Israel Army Radio. “In all honesty, to this day I can’t quite say why I left the country, my connection to it being very strong. [...] My wife is Israeli, I have two sons living in Israel.”

Ouch. Little wonder why brain drain is such a huge problem in Israel. Regarding Warshel, he bolted for the United States in the late 1970s. As a place, Israel is failing:

“The primary reason I left [the Weitzmann Institute] was the difficulties I had in progressing [there],” said Warshel, interviewed Wednesday on Channel 2. “I didn’t leave by choice, so I am not a good example for the ‘brain drain’ issue,” he added.

Double ouch. Not much has changed in Israel over the last 25-30 years. Noted above, one million Russians showed up and lived on the dole. Earlier this month, Richard Florida revisited the sorry state of creativity:

By combining all three of these measures, we end up with an overall Global Technology Index, a broad assessment of the technological and innovative capabilities of the world’s leading nations. The United States ranks third. Finland takes the top spot, followed by Japan. Israel’s fourth place finish may come as a surprise to some. But as Dan Senor and Saul Singer argue in Start-up Nation, Israel has relentlessly pursued an economic development strategy based on launching innovative firms. Israel has the highest concentration of engineers in the world—135 per 10,000 people, compared to 85 per 10,000 people in the United States. Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Korea, Germany, and Singapore round out the top ten.

Emphasis added. Awarding the Nobel Prize to Warshel and Levitt was a cheap shot, rubbing salt in Israel’s open wound. It might also serve as a wake up call. Perhaps internships and a streetcar would help? Take it from Dan Gilbert and Detroit, that’s all Israel has to do to avoid Bob Simon calling it the next Somalia.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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