Most Israelis who are headed abroad in search of economic opportunities or furthering their professional careers have their sights set on the United States, although the ultimate destination is largely a function of educational achievements. Emigrants from Israel to the United States tend to be more educated or professionally qualified than those choosing other destinations, according to a study by Ayelet Cohen-Castro, a researcher in the Central Bureau of Statistics' department of international immigration and emigration.
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Among emigrant families where both spouses were born in Israel, 64% went to the United States, 18% to central or western Europe, 3% to eastern Europe and 15% to other destinations. The figures reflect agency data on 34,047 Israeli families who have lived abroad for at least one year. Some of these families are still overseas, while others returned to Israel between 1996 and 2008 after at least one year's absence, and after having at least one child while abroad.
Of the emigrants with undergraduate degrees, 60% went to the United States and 20% to Europe, while for those with a master's degree these figures were 62% and 19%, respectively. Among the Israeli emigrants with a medical degree, 72% chose the United States and 7.6% headed to Europe. For those with a Ph.D., these numbers were nearly 80% and 13%, respectively.
Dr. Sigal Shelach, director of JDC-Tevet, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s employment initiative in Israel, points out that the figures bear out a well-known demographic theory: that highly educated emigrants usually go to countries with a high degree of economic inequality, in order to maximize the return on their investment in education. In other words, countries with pronounced economic inequality offer greater rewards for highly skilled individuals.
"You'll rarely see emigration by the well-educated to countries with little inequality," says Shelach.
Cohen-Castro says the findings indicate that the United States is seen as offering Israelis in general and those who are highly educated in particular the most rewarding professional and economic opportunities. The attraction is particularly powerful in light of Israel's high cost of living, relatively low pay scale in many professions and dearth of jobs in academia and certain other fields.
These factors, together with the feeling among many middle-class Israelis that they are shouldering a disproportionate share of the country's economic burden, were highlighted during the 2011 social protests and are considered the main force motivating Israel's "brain drain."
"People don't just pick up and go for no reason," stresses Cohen-Castro. "They move to where there's a stronger chance of succeeding, and the United States represents such promise. The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to emigrate to the United States."
"Israelis go to the United States for research grants, education, or job offers," she continues. "The 'brain drain' isn't exclusively an Israeli phenomenon but one that is seen in other Western countries too. But in our case opportunities overseas appeal to many people due to constraints in certain fields of employment like the academic world and difficult economic circumstances," says Cohen-Castro.
The CEO of Relocation Jobs, Eynat Guez, says that in the past year her company has seen rising interest among Israelis in work opportunities in the United States and also in a wider range of other countries. But she acknowledges that America remains a favorite destination both because of the economic opportunities it offers and the relative ease of acculturation.
Guez says that Israelis in the fields of finance, medicine and the pharmaceutical industry can expect significantly higher pay and more rapid career advancement in the United States than at home, but cautions that salaries in the U.S. tech sector are comparable to wages paid in Israel.
"It's harder to move abroad than before, even though more and more Israelis are interested in doing so," Guez says, noting that in the past year the United States has reduced the number of work permits it issues to foreign nationals. "It's true that Israel is more economically stable than the West but, from what I hear, confidence in Israel's future has been shaken. Israel is economically stable but many Israelis see a bleak horizon and poor quality of life ahead," Gues says.
Prof. Eran Razin of the Hebrew University's geography department says that the number of Israelis emigrating to the United States has actually been declining in recent years. "Ties between Israelis and the United States have always been strong, therefore it was and remains, a desirable destination," he explains. "Many Jews in the American academic world help strengthen ties with Israeli academia. Canada is also quite desirable these days. Migration to the United States has actually decreased slightly in recent years because the economic situation in Israel has been good."
Razin notes that U.S. and Canadian immigration policy favors educated immigrants. "The Canadians roll out the red carpet for educated and rich immigrants," he says, adding, "It's been said that U.S. economic success over the past 200 years was a result of being able to attract the best minds from other countries. The U.S. economy depends on immigration," Razin says.
Many of the educated new immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s continued their migratory path until they reached the United States. Nearly half of the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe with advanced degrees who eventually left Israel moved to the United States. This group, together with those who moved to central or western European states, accounted for fully 65% of the highly educated former Soviets who left Israel after coming here in the 1990s. Only 15% returned to their countries of origin.