Think Again: Whatever happened to the future?

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“It is frantic, disorganized, exceptionally neurotic, but somehow the necessary things get done – a metaphor for all of Israeli life.” So Martin Sieff describes Israel’s UN mission, in a Jerusalem Report review of Gregory Levey’s memoir of his stint as the mission’s chief speechwriter. Unfortunately, it is far from clear that the metaphor still works and “the necessary things get done.”

In recent weeks, at least two “crises” briefly gained media attention. The first concerns the country’s “worst water crisis” ever; the second the continued viability of our higher education, with Nobel Prize winner Aharon Ciechanower comparing the brain drain of Israeli academics to that of Jewish scientists and thinkers from Germany after the Nazis’ rise to power.

After garnering headlines, both “crises” just as quickly receded from the limelight. Only in this country could forecasts of an impending lack of water to drink not even merit front-page headlines. And that is part of the problem. Our media, like our politicians, suffer from severe attention deficit disorder.
Sure, there are plenty of distractions: the ongoing corruption investigations of the prime minister and a host of other senior government officials, past or present; the Iranian nuclear threat; the never-ending jockeying in the governing coalition.

Yet the failure over much of the past decade to attend sufficiently to either the water or the educational crisis will have as much impact on our future as those “distractions,” with the obvious exception of a possible nuclear attack by Iran. Even in the unlikely event that a sustainable peace was possible with a Palestinian entity or Syria, chronic water shortages would make peace negotiations dramatically more difficult and create an ongoing tinderbox if they were successfully concluded. Currently one-third of Israel’s water comes via the Golan, and aquifers under land likely to be part of any Palestinian state contribute significantly. A parched country could not dispense with those water sources.

True, since the last time water merited large headlines in 2001, Israel has built the world’s largest desalination plant in Ashkelon. But even so, its total capacity combined with that of three desalination plants currently projected to be completed by 2012 are only equal to the capacity that the Water Authority’s master plan projected for 2004.

In the meantime, both the Kinneret and the coastal aquifer have nearly reached or fallen below their black lines, beyond which further pumping is impossible. Since 2001 virtually nothing has been done about purification of brackish underground water or conservation. Even now, there is no sustained effort to raise the public’s consciousness of its role in lowering consumption.

The crisis in education is no less serious. Israel is a country almost totally lacking in natural resources other than the brainpower of its citizens. The economic miracle of present-day Israel is powered entirely by intellectual creativity. Yet our brainpower is not being replenished; indeed it is being depleted almost as fast as our water.

In the 1950s, a far poorer country ranked at or near the top of all international testing of elementary and high-school students. For the past decade, however, Israeli students have consistently ranked below those of countries from which we import manual workers. And yet not one single serious reform of the education system has been successfully implemented by a succession of education ministers.

At the upper levels of academia, where those who will sustain economic growth must be produced, the situation is equally grave. Academic degree holders are 2.5 times as likely to emigrate as the less educated, making this one of the only developed countries with a significant brain drain. From 2002 to 2004, the rate of emigration of academics nearly doubled, and few return. The number of Israeli professors on American campuses is nearly a quarter of all those in Israel itself.

Some of the causes of that drain are obvious. At every level, American academics command salaries many times their Israeli counterparts. And even for those who wish to remain, there are simply too few jobs. The country’s most prestigious research universities – the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and the Technion – have either lost positions or remained the same over the past three decades, even as the country’s population has doubled. Again, none of these problems have been addressed, even though they are well known.

THE CAUSES of the failure to address issues of such long-range consequence are many. One, of course, is the well-known Israeli propensity to think that things will somehow work out – an assumption increasingly in doubt since the Second Lebanon War. At the time of the last great water crisis in 2001, it was pointed out that already in 1990 the state comptroller had issued a scathing critique of the previous 25 years of water mismanagement and nothing had been done about it in the intervening decade.

The pervasive corruption of the country’s political leadership greatly exacerbates the failure to plan for the future. Who can think about anything beyond those matters requiring immediate attention while spending all one’s time trying to stay out of jail or thwarting the designs of those seeking to depose you?

Nor is the problem limited to those under multiple criminal investigations. Even the ceaseless self-promotion of those accused of no wrongdoing takes its toll. Can there be a group anywhere in the world so shameless about proclaiming themselves the most qualified for any available cabinet position as Israeli politicians? And on so little evidence?

Our ministers jump from one position to another as more prestigious ones open up. And it often appears that they are so busy plotting their next career move that they have little time left for supervising their ministry or worrying about the problems they are charged with solving. Many make no secret of the fact that they consider their ministries beneath their abilities and therefore their attention.

The failure to enact a Norwegian Law, requiring ministers to give up their seats in the Knesset, ensures that even fairly high-ranking ministers like the minister of national infrastructure will spend most of their day in coalition politics and other matters having nothing to do with their ministries.
The high self-regard of our politicians and pursuit of their personal interests demoralizes the entire society. As Yossi Klein Halevi has observed, in no country is widespread cynicism about the country’s leaders so pernicious because in no country are so many of the leaders’ decisions ones of life or death, or the burdens of citizenship so high.

In her sharp essay on the brain drain, “Losing Our Minds” (Azure, Spring 2008), Marla Braverman notes that the Zionist ethos of individual sacrifice for collective goals is in critical condition in Israel, and nearly without a pulse in academia. When our best young minds view the nation’s leaders as concerned primarily with their self-interest, they inevitably ask: Why shouldn’t I do the same, even if it means leaving the country?

Finding leaders capable of thinking beyond their own self-interest to focus on planning for the future holds the key to convincing our enemies and ourselves that we have one.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Friday, July 24, 2008

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6 Responses

  1. Barzilai says:

    Who is on the horizon in the Israeli political scene, who is has a chance to introduce principled and disciplined and informed political leadership? I wonder where we could find someone with a broad education, but with a sensitivity to religious belief; someone with a good understanding of the Israeli and the world political reality, but who wouldn’t lead by popularity poll; someone whose powers of persuasion would teach the citizenry to do the right thing, easy or not; someone that doesn’t scare either the right or the left, whether in the political or the religious arena. And most important, someone that is a true outsider, with no obligations or debts that can be brought to bear.

    Hmmm, I’m not thinking about Dallas, why do the initials JR seem to mean something here?

    Seriously: the most qualified candidates instinctively recoil from the dirty world of political reality, and it is just that revulsion which ought to be the primary qualification for running for office.

  2. Ori says:

    What expenses would you cut from the Israeli government’s budget to finance additional university spending? Israel is already taxing its productive citizens enough to drive many of its best milk cows to live under cheaper governments.

  3. Barry Simon says:

    As someone who has been spending 2-3 months each year as an academic visitor to Israel, I can confirm the crisis. Quite simply, the government which supports higher education has decimated the budget and is not fixing the problem. There were months long strikes both last year (by students) and this year (by faculty) and the solutions were cosmetic and did not truly address the problems which continue to fester.

    As a sign of the quality of Israeli minds, I note that every four years, the European Math Society awards ten prizes to truly outstanding European mathematicians under the age of 35. European means born or currently working there and for these purposes Israel is considered a European country (go figure). This year two of the ten were given to Israeli born and educated mathematicians – both of them currently in the USA (as a sign that Israel is not alone in having problems, two others of the ten are also working in the US!). Of the last batch of prizes, one went to an Israeli also now in the US.

    Barry Simon, Caltech

  4. Ori says:

    Ben-David, Jonathan Rosenblum bemoaned on this very blog the lack of secular studies in Israeli Charedi society. Those segments of Israeli Charedi society that do not teach secular subjects to the point where their young adults can get good job and decide to rely on charity and the government for a living are incredibly short sighted. I’m pretty sure Jonathan Rosenblum says so in the proper forums.

    However, that does not mean that the Israeli government does not suffer from the same malady, or that it is not proper for an Israeli citizen to criticize it for that.

  5. Charles B. Hall says:

    Lots of professors like myself would love to make aliyah, but the jobs are lacking — at any salary. The combined research budgets of every Israeli university put together are about equal to that of a single medium sized university in the United States. My own institution has many Israeli researchers who are quite successful here; given this picture I can’t blame them for making yeridah.

  6. Ben-David says:

    It’s incredibly ironic to read R. Rosenblum – one of the the haredi world’s foremost apologists – decrying the “brain drain” in Israel.

    It’s even more ironic that this article appears just days after haredi politicians (working the corrupt system of patronage Rosenblum describes) passed a law that locks the children of the burgeoning haredi sector out of academia – and leaves them unqualified for most productive work.

    The law cements government funding for a haredi school system that refuses to teach its students the basics of science and technology.

    But Rosenblum cries that there aren’t even Israeli academics. Maybe the haredi community should do its part to stop the “brain drain” – they could start by preparing their own children to support themselves, giving them the skills that would allow them to take their place in Israel’s technology-driven economy.