Israel's Internal Brain Drain: Arab Talent Going to Waste

The problem isn't only Israelis leaving the country, it's that talented people are shut outside the academic establishment.

Jihad El-Sana
David Zonsheine
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Social differences get perpetuated: A protest by Arab students outside the University of Haifa, May 19, 2014.Credit: Rami Chelouche
Jihad El-Sana
David Zonsheine

There are many reasons why Israel gained the reputation of a high-tech powerhouse and dramatic force in the world of startups. One is Israel’s scientific strength in fields relevant to high-tech. The Shanghai Ranking of world universities shows that no fewer than four Israeli schools – the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, the Weizmann Institute, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University – are among the world’s top fifty universities in computer science, for instance.

However, Israel's potential is far from being fully exploited, because two communities that together account for nearly a third of Israel’s population – Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews – do not participate in this academic excellence. Consequently, potentially talented people remain outside the talent pool.

It is true that about 20% of computer science students at the Technion and more than 40% of computer science students at Haifa University are Arabs. But only two of 270 computer science professors are Arabs (which is just 0.7%).

Stranger to diversity

Israeli society has diverse capabilities and has made enormous achievements, but sorely needs to create a functioning model of an integrated society that would shatter the glass ceiling blocking these students from integrating into the advanced levels of R&D, either in academia or industry.

This applies to the excellent academic institutions cited above, where – though they have significant Arab student populations - Jewish and Arab students conduct their academic life separately. They maintain separate social circles, in habitation, socialization and work.

This may be an extension of general life in Israel, where Jews and Arabs live in separate towns, cities and neighborhoods; they go to different schools; and in practice, few have lasting personal acquaintance with each other.

The repercussions of this lack of integration are critical. Despite its historic structure as a nation of immigrants, Israeli society (like many others) is still, in many aspects, a stranger to the concept of diversity. This is all the more true of the elites which constitute Israeli hi-tech industry and academia.

Though this type of seclusion is by no means intentional, or even conscious, in reality those of the hegemonic group tend to hire, tutor, sponsor and promote the individuals with whom they feel they have better communication.

Outside the hegemony

For Arab students and graduates, whose detachment from the country’s hegemonic groups’ codes of speech, acquaintances and relations is even wider, such barriers become often a critical factor in deciding their future. And while the first years at the university could have been a period in which the varied populations of students would be better introduced to each other, the social tendency to maintain the separation means that hardly any windows into the majority’s networks are opened to Arab students.

Add to that the fact that Israeli army, with its advanced technical and intelligence units, is often an incubator for top-notch high-tech manpower. Arabs rarely do military service in Israel, and therefore also lack the advantage of experience in working on large-scale projects. They do not gain knowledge of the latest technologies and therefore, do not benefit from the massive governmental investment in the military financing this excellence.

There are internal obstacles in Arab society, some similar to those of other minorities around the world, one being a tendency to focus on professions that provide job security, such as medicine, law, and construction engineering. Another is a reluctance to pursue scientific research, where competition over the scarce jobs is fierce; and there is the resistance to move far from the family for post-doctoral work in the U.S. or Europe.

The upshot is a lack of Arab researchers who could serve as role models for the students and demonstrate that significant jobs in the field are open to them, and that academic excellence can confer a reasonable chance to realize their goal of working in scientific research.

The very obstacles that Arab students and graduates face have created a vicious circle: with few role models, constrained networking options and poor prospects for good jobs in academia or research, Israeli Arabs face grim prospects in R&D, despite the increasing integration in the industry: only 2% of the workers in Israeli R&D are Arab.

The state invests substantial resources in Israel’s leading research institutions in order to produce top-notch researchers and high-quality research. Therefore, if students who complete their graduate studies in the sciences end up working as school teachers or other positions that do not reflect their abilities and the state’s investment in their studies – this constitutes a significant internal brain drain.

Tragic waste of resources

The result is a huge waste of resources that are vital to Israel’s academic and economic development, and have a direct impact on GDP. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has mentioned lost income of 31 billion shekels a year.

Various organizations have grasped the importance of solving this problem. The first was the Landa Program, led by Professor Daoud Bshouty at the Technion.

With the aim of preventing Arab undergraduates from dropping out, the Landa program developed tools to help Arab students hampered by their socio-economic situation, insufficient knowledge of Hebrew and the lack of social integration at the university.

The Israeli government and the Council for Higher Education adopted the Landa model, which now operates at the various universities.

Ultimately the Landa Project reduced the extent of Arab students’s dropout in the Technion during bachelor studies from 70% to 16%. This is still a higher rate than for Jewish students, but it shows how effective a properly done plan and investment can be.

The State of Israel provides scholarships for Arab students and salary subsidies for the first year of employment of Arab faculty (contingent on their employment continuing after that first year). These programs operate in all academic fields, and not only in the sciences.

Nevertheless, the gaps are still significant and their ramifications, as said above, are critical.

Despite the important endeavors initiated and run by the state’s institutions and by NGOs, advanced study and jobs within Israeli academia, in high tech-related fields, remain largely inaccessible to Arab students. Yet these advanced posts, academic degrees and advanced research are the basis for faculty membership and for high-level research posts in the industry.

Anyway, the scholarships for Arab students aren't enough to close the gaps. And more importantly, these programs are on an individual basis, whereas what's needed is to tear down the barriers that the Arab population in Israel faces as a collective as well.

iChange, which we are working on together, is a collaborative initiative by Jewish and Arab Israeli computer science professors. The concept is to select outstanding graduates holding first and second degrees and consolidate and mentor them - as a group, not as individuals. The goal is to be a role model for mutual excellence and shared society. Specifically, it aims to help the group advance in Israeli science and R&D for their own behalf - and also to advance the cause of Arab science education in Israel, with the help of their visibility and good example. They would also serve as role models, for both Jewish students – exposing great talent – and for Arab students, helping them feel "welcome" in the field.

Just as the state invests in countering the external brain drain and in bringing high-quality researchers back to Israel, it should invest resources and efforts in the minds and talents of students who are not fulfilling their potential and who face barriers that prevent them from propelling Israel toward even greater economic and scientific success.

Jihad El-Sana is a professor of Computer Science at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. David Zonsheine is a former high-tech executive and a social entrepreneur. Both are among the founders of iChange – A Jewish-Arab Computer science organization working to help Israeli Arab citizens pursue advanced degrees in computer science, and apply for research positions at the Israeli universities.