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Exodus? Israel's Identity Crisis Over Brain Drain To U.S. And Germany

Article illustrative image Partner logo At Frankfurt airport

TEL AVIV — The Nobel Prize ceremony is usually an occasion for celebration in Israel, as there is often at least one Israeli citizen among the honorees. This year, two Israelis were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but the country’s pride was bittersweet since both scientists live in the United States.

The rise in emigration among the most well-educated is a challenge faced by many countries, but in Israel the debate has taken on undertones of virtual desperation. The brain drain here is more severe than in other Western countries, and Israel has been seized by a fear that its people are starting to jump ship.

The debate about emigration is turning into a national identity crisis. Israel depends on Jewish immigration for its survival. The highly sought-after immigrants are called olim, meaning “those who ascend,” while emigrants are yordim, or “those who descend.”

Emigration clearly has an image problem, but according to a survey by Israeli Channel 10 this does not diminish its appeal for ordinary citizens. Of those surveyed, 51% admitted having thought about leaving their homeland.

The exodus of scientists is often linked to the state’s decision to cut funding for education to bolster the military and to finance construction of new settlements. According to a new study, for every three scientists who stay in Israel, one moves to the United States. But scientists are not the only group leaving their home behind. Young people and those in creative industries are also leaving in droves — and many are heading to Germany.

To Berlin and back

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who lived in the U.S. for a few years himself, recently spoke out against those “who are prepared to throw away the only homeland the Jews possess simply because life is more comfortable in Berlin.” There was more than a whiff of accusation in the air when he spoke of the estimated 17,000 Israelis who currently live in the German capital.

It’s not just the parties and cultural life that draw them to Germany. The lower cost of living is also an important factor. According to the newspaper Haaretz, Berliners need to save 67 months’ salary to buy an apartment, while in Tel Aviv the figure is 170.

But the debate goes far beyond the bare figures. The German ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis, was quick to point out that most Berlin-based Israelis do not stay in the city on a permanent basis. Instead they return to their homeland “inspired,” which he characterized as a sign of a good partnership. Of the 15,000 citizens who leave Israel each year, 10,000 return. At eight million, Israel’s population is 10 times what it was when the state was founded 65 years ago. But the country is still plagued by a fear that the Zionist dream will falter.

When the father of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl developed his plan for a “homeland for all Jews” during the era of nation states, he could not have predicted how globalization would affect his dream. Now the country he helped to create in the ancient land must face a very modern crisis of identity. 

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