An article by Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, published today in the Forward, directly takes on the popular notion that “millions” of Israelis live abroad. If Herman is right, rather than facing an ongoing drain of some of its most successful Jewish citizens, Israel has been largely successful in either retaining them or recapturing those who left to spend significant time abroad.
In other words, even after a decade that has seen 1,000 Israelis killed in the worst terrorist onslaught in the history of modern Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, two inconclusive wars, an ongoing and seemingly insoluble conflict with the Palestinians, the rise to power of Islamists across its near abroad, the steady march of a foe committed to its destruction toward nuclear weapons, and rising condemnations of its very existence seemingly in every corner of the globe, the Jewish state continues to be the home of choice for its citizens, even those with easy opportunities to move their lives to other friendly and developed countries.
Herman bases his argument on a new study from Pew that found only 230,000 Jewish Israelis are now living outside of the country. He writes, “The new data confirms that Israel, at 4 percent, has retained its Jewish native-born population at a higher rate, usually double the average 8 percent retention of native borns of most other countries in the world.” Many Israelis return to their native country after spending time abroad picking up skills in valuable industries like high-tech that then become assets for the development of more initiatives based in Israel itself. So instead of draining talent, Israeli emigration is often circulatory, enabling an ever higher percentage of talented Israelis to find the work opportunities they seek without leaving home.
Some of the best-known recent success stories of Israelis confirm Herman’s idea. Tal Ben-Shahar achieved extraordinary success in the United States through his teaching of a popular course at Harvard on popular psychology, which itself led to the publication of a popular book, and appearances on “60 Minutes,” “The Daily Show,” and other popular media, opening the possibility of a lucrative and satisfying career on his subject matter of choice in the United States. Instead, as he explains in a new movie he narrates about life in Israel, after more than a decade in America he returned to Israel to be with his family and where he feels most at home. (While in the United States Ben-Shahar was also one of the early thought leaders behind The David Project.)
Similarly, as described in Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start-Up Nation, Israeli engineer Michael Laor had proven himself so important to Cisco in California that when he decided to return to Israel in 1997, they built their first R&D center outside of the United States in Israel in order to keep him.
Even many of Israel’s supporters have the strange habit of seeing in its successes – whether they are military victories or the creation of native industries – dangers to its ultimate survival. Serious challenges do indeed exist. But that’s no reason not to look with a clear eye at all the Jewish state has going in its favor.