In Israel, Who Decides Who Is One of Us?

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The contrast between the orderly conduct of Israeli newsrooms on Monday morning and the chaos that swept them 48 hours later was both amusing and illuminating.

As the long deathwatch for Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef drew to an end, all the major websites had lengthy obituaries prepared and updated in advance. Teams of reporters had been spread out at the Hadassah University Hospital, at his home in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood and at the Western Wall, where thousands were praying for his recovery.

Pundits, commentators and Shasologs were already lined up for the television studios and radio channels, which all went into full coverage emergency mode, and while much of the tone was comically over-reverential, there was no lack of information and perspective on the man, his long career and the implications for the movement he led.

Compare that with the way the media dealt on Wednesday morning with the news that two Israeli scientists had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

As the announcement came through from Stockholm, Arieh Warshel’s name elicited little recognition — there was absolutely nothing about him on the web in Hebrew but his English Wikipedia entry mentioned he was born on a kibbutz, had served in the Israeli army, and studied at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology and Weizmann Institute of Science, where he also taught for a short while before leaving for California in 1976.

Slowly, details were collected (within half an hour a Hebrew Wikipedia page was created, so that was a help) and then, when science writers were still trying to understand what the complex research Warshel was receiving the Nobel Prize for was even about, the penny dropped that one of his two partners, South African-born Michael Levitt, may also be an Israeli citizen. Cue another mad rush for details while the headlines were already blaring on the web; yes we did it again: Two more Israelis win the world’s highest accolade for scientific achievement.

The easiest conclusion drawn from this is that Israel cares much more for its rabbis than it does for its top scientists, and there is of course much truth in that, but there are also mitigating circumstances. At any given moment there are hundreds, probably thousands of veteran Israeli researchers out there who could be eligible for one of the Nobels. A handful of the more obvious cases were identified in advance and a few paragraphs prepared on them before the Nobel committees delivered their judgment. Rabbi Ovadia, on the other hand, was a constant presence in Israeli public life for over 40 years, millions of words and an entire bookshelf of biographies have been written about him in this time. For hundreds of thousands of followers his death was a major event and there was ample time to prepare.

It’s not inconceivable that many of those who flocked to his funeral in Jerusalem had been the beneficiaries of Levitt and Warshel’s research, perhaps even Yosef himself was treated with medications developed on the basis of the research by Levitt, Warshel and their co-winner Martin Karplus, but few scientists become celebrities, no matter how major their contribution to humanity. After all, that’s what the Nobels are for — to award a few of them some belated recognition. But what made this win that more poignant was the fact that while a small part of the research was carried out at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, where Levitt still lives part of the year, the major bulk of their research and careers have been in California, a detail that both detracted from the nationalist festival that automatically ensues the moment an Israeli emerges triumphant in Stockholm and played into the current furor in Israel over the attitude toward Israelis living abroad.

Of course, it’s not a new debate — from the dawn of Zionism, Jews not only emigrated to the Promised Land but also left, sometimes in droves. The negative attitude was encapsulated by Yitzhak Rabin, who in a 1976 pre-Independence Day interview during his first term as prime minister described the yordim, (itself a pejorative term — those who descend, opposite from immigrants, the ascendant olim), as literally “a cascade of wimps.” This time it was kicked off by a series of features on Channel 10 about Israelis proudly living in Europe, particularly the young burgeoning community in Berlin.

Cue a dismissive post on Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Facebook page, written apparently in Budapest, the city his father was forced to leave during the Holocaust. “Forgive me if I’m a bit impatient with people who are prepared to throw in the trash the only country the Jews have because Berlin is more comfortable.” And the on the heels of this, literally on the eve of the Nobel announcement came the report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel saying that Israel has the worst “brain drain” in the Western world, with 29 Israeli academics in the United States for every 100 faculty members remaining in Israel.

But it’s an artificial debate. The castigation of young people leaving Israel and of the academic brain drain are as useful as the consternation of some secular commentators over the reported 850,000 people thronging Rabbi Ovadia’s funeral (of course there weren’t even half that number, the police routinely exaggerate to cover themselves if something goes wrong, but that’s immaterial) and the anguished reactions to the results of the Pew survey on U.S. Jews.

Even if the Israeli government transferred all the funding of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to the higher education budget and then doubled it, the basic facts on the ground will remain. Seven world-class universities in a country of eight million stuck in the Middle East will never be able to offer as many jobs and opportunities as are available overseas. The only way to reverse the “brain drain” is to produce fewer scientists and researchers, which is obviously not the required solution. Israeli academia can and should put up a better fight for the cream of its own crop, but a significant number will always pursue their future elsewhere.

In the same way, ultra-Orthodox communities will always have much higher birth rates than other types of Jews (and they turn out in their multitudes for funerals). Open-minded young people will not always continue in their parents’ footsteps — the price of liberalism is that the next generation never comes out in the numbers and the form expected. If you don’t like that, make tshuva, but if you prefer to remain enlightened, don’t indulge in demographic despair.

The numbers are almost immaterial as long as communities remain vital and vibrant and when they dwindle, new centers emerge elsewhere. Intermarriage, assimilation and emigration have always been an integral part of Jewish life, and after a century of Jews flocking to Israel, the pendulum is swinging and it’s Israelis who are now moving outwards and enriching Jewish life throughout the Diaspora. Israel has a long list of problems to fix before it can start attracting back some of these migrants, but until then, the success of its sons and daughters abroad is the least of its troubles and a symptom of its success.

Even if the Israeli government transferred all the funding of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to the higher education budget and then doubled it, the basic facts on the ground will remain. Seven world-class universities in a country of eight million stuck in the Middle East will never be able to offer as many jobs and opportunities as are available overseas. The only way to reverse the “brain drain” is to produce fewer scientists and researchers.

Israeli scientist and Nobel Prize in Chemistry laureate Arieh Warshel did not even have a Hebrew Wikipedia page devoted to him before Wednesday.Credit: Wikipedia

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