Opinion |

Could Avigdor Lieberman Be Startup Nation’s Savior?

Taking on the Haredim over the draft is a start because the brain-drain data shows: Israel can no longer tolerate a growing uneducated, unskilled minority

David Rosenberg
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Avigdor Lieberman
David Rosenberg

Avigdor Lieberman is an unlikely savior for Israel’s best and brightest, who according to the latest brain-drain data, are leaving the country in droves.

True, he is a Hebrew University graduate and even reputedly aspired to be a poet in his youth, but even by the low standard of Israeli politics, his reputation is as a vulgarian who appeals to his voters’ basest instincts.

The time hasn’t yet arrived to award Lieberman an honorary degree or publish a hagiographic volume of his writings (if there are any), but the fact is, at midnight on Wednesday, he struck a blow for the Israel of skilled and educated people -- the denizens of Startup Nation and all those Israelis who have made the country prosperous and powerful -- when he forced Netanyahu into calling new elections.

Lieberman probably doesn’t see what he did as more than a tactical political maneuver -- and neither do the people who may one day benefit.  But it’s bigger than that.

By insisting that he would not join a government that doesn’t support drafting ultra-Orthodox men, he was effectively drawing a line on Haredi political power and its ability to continue doing damage to Israeli society and the economy.

Israel has a lot of problems producing educated and skilled workers: Its schools are bad and its universities are underfunded. The very real achievements we have made in high-tech, science and culture rely on a tiny minority of people. The great majority doesn’t have skills that match those in the developed world.

But one of the most serious problems Israel faces is the fact that the Haredim are the fastest-growing segment of society, and their leaders disparage the very knowledge and skills that make Israel prosperous, and subsidize the ultra-Orthodox way of life. The Haredi schools don’t teach core topics badly: they don’t teach them at all.

Drafting the ultra-Orthodox  should be part of a multi-pronged effort by the government to change that. Army service not only provides training but could serve as a segue to the non-Haredi world. That explains why rabbis and Haredi politicians are so resolutely opposed to the draft.

In practice, Lieberman was striking a blow against Netanyahu’s long-standing policy of appeasing the Haredim for the sake of coalition politics: by quashing the equal-conscription law, by allowing them to continue ignoring the core curriculum in their schools, and by showering them with government allowances and budgets for their yeshivot.

“I am for the State of Israel, I am for a Jewish state, but I am against a state of halacha,” Lieberman wrote on Facebook a day before the Knesset vote. It may be cynical politics, but Lieberman has found his cause -- not out of principle, possibly. But he surely understands that Israel cannot afford to continue to carry the economic burden of supporting the ultra-Orthodox community.

The time has come. For all their achievements and contributions to society, the Israel’s sectoral politics have turned Israel's educated minority into as second-class citizens. 

Going, going, gone

Theoretically, educated Israel is represented by Kahlon Lavan and its predecessors, as well as Labor and Meretz, but these parties don’t think of themselves as representing it and don’t pursue its interests.

Seeing that their votes don’t count at the ballot box, many members of educated Israel have been voting with their feet and are leaving the country.

Coincidentally, that phenomenon is documented in a study by the Shoresh Institution that was published the same day the Knesset was voting. The report, written by Prof. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University, estimates that brainy Israel numbers just 130,000 people out of a population of nine million.

These 130,000 are Israel's high-tech entrepreneurs and engineers, its doctors and its academics. Theygenerate a disproportionate share of Israel’s exports and attract nearly all its foreign investment inward. They provide its healthcare and make its universities among the world’s leaders. The top 20% of this class pay two thirds of Israeli taxes.

It's a bad outlook when a national economy is based almost entirely on the skills and knowledge of its population. What’s worse, as the Shoresh report shows, is that many of the very people Israel needs are leaving.

Exactly how many is hard to say. But one telling statistic is that the number of Israelis applying for Green Cards in the United States has risen far faster than Israel’s population.

In absolute terms the brain drain isn’t huge. But because the number of brains in Israel isn’t that big to begin each departing Israeli has an outsized effect.

As the Shoresh report warns: “The fragile size of this group means that emigration by a critical mass out of the total – even if only numbering several tens of thousands – could generate catastrophic consequences for the entire country.”

The bottom line is that Israel needs more educated and skilled people -- and the Haredim can't confine themselves to the yeshiva. They have be part of the increase. Whatever his motivation might have been, let’s hope Lieberman’s political maneuver is the start of the process.