If leaving the country was once frowned upon, today those who leave are sometimes viewed as Start-up Nation ambassadors

Zionism jilted as Israelis flock to far lands in tech push

At event held, ironically, in Herzliya, 140 of Israel’s brightest gather to find out how to smoothly navigate their transition to Silicon Valley

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Young Israelis attend relocation meeting in Herzliya, (Courtesy: Shoshanna Solomon)
Young Israelis attend relocation meeting in Herzliya, (Courtesy: Shoshanna Solomon)

As Israeli engineers, academics and high tech workers leave their homes to conquer foreign markets, one cannot but help wonder what the founder of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl would have to say on the matter.

Ironically in the Israeli town of Herzliya, named after Herzl, some 140 of Israel’s brightest attended a gathering on Tuesday evening to find out how to navigate their transition to Silicon Valley in the smoothest possible way. Most of them will soon join as many as 50,000 other Israelis that are said populate the strip between San Francisco and San Jose working in high tech jobs there.

The gathering was of people, mainly in their 30s, who were both hopeful and fearful of their future ahead. It also highlighted how far Israel, the Start-Up Nation has moved from the days in which those who left the country were looked down upon as betrayers of the Zionist dream.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once dubbed those leaving Israel, “Nefolet shel nemoshot“, loosely translated as the “falling of the weak” and the term has seared the minds of Israelis. Today however, academics and high-tech workers who leave for foreign shores are seen as pioneers of Israeli technology who set sail to flaunt Israel’s talent, create ties and push their careers forward. They are viewed as the lucky ones.

And if and when they come back, they are viewed as bringing their knowledge and acquired experiences to the benefit of the nation. They leave with their heads held high.

“This is definitely not a falling of the weak,” said Oded Solomon, 35 (no relation to this reporter) who attended the meeting. “This is the falling of the stronger ones. People who can leave are perceived as those who have an advantage over others. This is the falling of the successful ones.”

Solomon and his wife Lihi, 35, will be leaving for Silicon Valley, possibly Sunnyvale, in December because of his job with Nokia. They don’t have a home yet, but hope to find one close to where other Israelis are located. They have a four-year old child and a baby on the way.

They are leaving indefinitely. It is a “one-way ticket”, said Solomon. “Our parents are sad but they support us. My father talks about Zionism and how important it is to come back. He worries we won’t.”

According to figures provided by Ogen, a relocation company that organized the gathering, there are about 50,000 Israelis who live in the Silicon Valley area, based on figures provided by the Israeli consulates.

“They generally come for two or three years but then stay for five years or more,” said 39-year old Aya Shmueli Levkovitz, the organizer of the conference and the founder of Ogen. “Most of them come back to Israel, even if it is after 12 years, and generally before their children go to middle school or high school because that is when they change schools anyway.”

Israelis at relocation gathering in Herzliya, organized by Ogen (Courtesy: Shoshanna Solomon)
Israelis at relocation gathering in Herzliya, organized by Ogen (Courtesy: Shoshanna Solomon)

Levkovitz also moved to Sunnyvale, California 10 years ago following the high-tech job of her husband. Spotting a need, she set up her company together with another Israeli partner in 2012. Since then, Ogen has helped steer a “few hundreds of families” through the quagmire of getting visas,finding a home and the best supermarket for those who have relocated, said Levkovitz.

“There is a significant change in attitude of Israel’s government,” said Dr. Nurit Eyal, director of a government program set up three years ago to lure academics and high tech professionals back to Israel.

“If once people who left the country were viewed as rotten fruit that should be shunned, today the attitude is that relocation is part of the Israeli academic and hi-tech ecosystem and when they want to come home we are here to help them,” Eyal said.

Eyal believes Ogen’s figure about Israelis living in Silicon Valley is too high. According to the program’s data based on the Central Bureau of Statistics, there are about 27,856 Israeli academics living abroad – for a period of three or more years, compared with 24,503 in 2012 – 75 percent of them in the US.

The statistics bureau figures also show that over the last three years there has been an average net outflow (more people leaving than coming back) of academics (in all sectors of academia) of around 1,000 people a year.

“From our experience most come back” at one point or another, Eyal said. But not enough long-term data is available on the matter, she said.

Ogen's relocation gathering, Herzliya (Courtesy: Shoshanna Solomon)
Ogen’s relocation gathering, Herzliya (Courtesy: Shoshanna Solomon)

Even so, the phenomenon of leaving Israelis cannot be avoided, said Eyal.

“Israel has opened up and has become global, the know-how is global and we are part of this trend. Today we don’t talk about brain drain but about brain cycling. Many people relocate, perhaps even more than once,” she said.

“People have an alternative to live and work elsewhere in the era of globalization. Companies are competing for workers worldwide and the Israeli government recognizes this. That is why we try to make it as easy as possible to return,” Eyal added.

The Israel National Brain Gain program that Eyal heads can match returning Israelis to a network of 350 companies in Israel and it also assists them with bureaucratic and other issues that may deter their return.

Initial findings of a recent survey conducted by the program among 800 people who are living abroad or returned via the program found that most of the program’s academics living abroad left Israel for career reasons. And those who return, do so because they view Israel as their country and because their family is here, Eyal said.

Dar, 32, and Adi, 31, are married and prefer not to disclose their family name as they are still not sure if they will be relocating. Both are bio-medical engineers and are still checking out the work options available abroad. Both have jobs in Israel and said their motivation is to advance their careers and climb the economic ladder.

“Economically the value you get for the work you do is higher abroad than in Israel,” said Dar. His brother also left, and came back to Israel after 10 years abroad. “My mother raises the issue of Zionism and she says there is no place like Israel. But we are a different generation. We have done our bit for the country by going to the Army and now we want to get ahead economically. In Israel it is almost impossible to get ahead, to exist.”

The high cost of living and the deterioration of public services and education in Israel drove citizens to the streets in protests in the summer of 2011, spurring the government to take steps to lower prices for its citizens.

“The exit of highly skilled Israelis to work and live abroad – with some of them staying abroad is unavoidable if Israel wants to be part of the global world and global economy. It would be disastrous if Israel tried to be a closed economy,” said Omer Moav, professor of economics at the University of Warwick and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “However the government must take this brain drain problem into account in terms of policy. We need to allow Israelis to have a reasonable life here, especially for those who have higher education and who have the ability to push our economy forward. The returns-to-skills shouldn’t be taxed so heavily.”

“The Zionist dream is to have people here and a successful state,” Moav said. “A dictatorship that just locks people in is not an attractive option nor a reasonable scenario. But another way is to create a country that is great to live in. Unfortunately that is not the case in terms of housing, cost of living, bureaucracy, or security for that matter. When the Zionist dream, with its strong socialist roots, meets the global economy, a change in policy is required to maintain the skilled Israelis in Israel.”

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