NEW YORK - There's no clearer sign that the United States has sunk into a recession than New York's empty streets at the height of the Christmas shopping season. Those used to waiting a long time in check-out lines may be surprised to find out there's no one in front of them at the cash register, and that bored shop assistants are happy to help. Only outside the Victoria's Secret branch on Madison Avenue was there a long line stretching around the corner. The retailer held a fashion show with supermodels in lingerie, an event that drew more people than the big discounts at nearby stores.
Talks with Americans reveal their concerns about the savings they lost, their houses' dropping value, and the unclear future in general. Think tanks have eulogized the end of the U.S. empire, its lost dominance around the world and its collapse under the strain of huge debts to China and the oil producers.
America's troubles have given Israel a unique opportunity to strengthen its national resilience and growth potential. Israel's ability to stop the brain drain and bring back the social capital it lost increases as the recession in the United States worsens and opportunities there decrease. Israel has no natural resources but the minds of its young people, many of whom have left for the United States in search of better-paying jobs. Now is the time to bring them back and benefit from the interest, as it were, in the form of the education and experience they picked up at U.S. universities and companies.
Just as immigration from the former Soviet Union brought social capital and experience to Israel and allowed the economy to flourish over the past two decades, Israel could revitalize its economy by bringing back its citizens living in Western countries. At a time when U.S. President-elect Barack Obama believes investing in public works will help to cure the recession, Israel should invest in its people as a way to push forward. It must not miss this opportunity.
Over the past year, the government tried to bring back Israelis from abroad during the country's 60th birthday. Headed by Erez Halfon, the director-general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the initiative offered improved conditions like tax breaks, help in finding employment and advice to small businesses. Around 1 million Israelis abroad and their children were his target audience and a few thousand have already returned. This week the ministry is holding events in eight locations in North America, London and Paris in an attempt to entice back Israelis concerned about the recession.
But the unique opportunity demands a special effort. While the absorption minister's attempts are important, they are not enough. Now is the time for a joint campaign by the government, business and Diaspora to bring back tens of thousands of Israeli academics. Offering incentives and waiting for people to come is not enough. They need to be gathered one by one. The campaign must pinpoint Israelis working in the financial markets of London or New York, Silicon Valley or Boston who have been laid off or whose jobs are in danger.
What will those who return do? During the recession, the market cannot provide everyone with jobs. Returning Israelis should be offered alternative places of employment; managers of big companies should be persuaded to harness the minds of Israelis abroad and receive government assistance. Some have already begun. Teva, the pharmaceutical giant, is offering jobs here to 60 Israelis with PhDs living abroad. So far 30 such families have returned. More programs like this should be created; for instance, the government should set up bodies that will hire Israelis fired from Wall Street and focus on creating products for when the storm abates.
Some may say that the state must first take care of those who stayed, not those who left. Another argument may be made that many people in Israel are currently out of work and there won't be many jobs available for those who return. And many say the dwindling donations from Diaspora Jews should be given to the poor and shrinking welfare services, not to VIPs from the United States.
But that would be a mistake. Israel should invest in high-yielding assets precisely when a financial crisis looms. There's no better investment for Israel than people with a good education, even if some of them go back to the United States when the recession ends.
Thus, a national program should be formed, headed by an ad-hoc committee that formulates guidelines and raises capital. To prevent the program from becoming politicized due to the upcoming election, it should be headed by President Shimon Peres. Who understands the importance of knowledge and education better than Peres? Who else is more accepted as a man of vision and initiative? Just as he harnessed the Israeli establishment and world Jewry to help build the Dimona nuclear reactor in the 1950s, he should now lead the "brain aliyah" project.
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