Jewish Journal


Three Comments on Nobel Winners and Israeli Whiners

by Shmuel Rosner

October 10, 2013 | 7:08 am

University of Southern California professor Arieh Warshel
talks on the phone with Israeli President Shimon Peres
after hearing he won the Nobel chemistry prize,
Los Angeles, California October 9, 2013.

Two Israelis won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Is this a day of pride for Israel or a day of sorrow?

Pride was the first choice of many, but then came the second wave – the wave of bickering. The Prize-winning Israelis don’t live in Israel. They left Israel many years ago and work and live abroad. They live and work abroad like many Israeli scientists. They are the exemplary manifestation of the “unparalleled academic brain drain” to the United States, the one that was described two days ago by an Israeli research institute. The best and the brightest can’t make it in Israel- they can’t get tenure so they leave. That Israel is proud of them is no more than “a clumsy attempt to claim a scientist who left Israel more than 40 years ago”, lamented Haaretz writer Or Kashti. University professors and managers were quick to use the example of the leaving laureates to demand more funds and resources. Opposition leaders attacked the government for presumably not investing enough in “building serious academic infrastructure”.

I wrote extensively about emigration from Israel and the brain drain earlier this week and I don’t want to repeat myself (read it here)- just to remind the readers that Israel will always be a small country with limited resources, and thus is ever destined to lose some of its bright scientists to other countries, notably the US. The issue of "the brain drain" is a serious one, and it merits a detailed discussion of limitations and means. Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, a leading expert on Israel’s demography, wrote not long ago that “the issue of brain drain is a prominent and worrying feature on the agenda”, but also that Israel’s situation is “not unlike Switzerland and other societies of similar size and quality. Israel faces the dilemma of providing efficient training facilities, including highly developed higher education systems. Such countries tend to produce talented individuals whose numbers are appreciably larger than the absorption capacity of the respective local markets”.

But today I’d like to focus on the Nobel Prize situation and the responses to it with the following three comments:

  1. We don’t know- and we have no way of knowing- that the Nobel Prize winners could have achieved what they did had they stayed in Israel. Assuming that the outcome of their work would have been the same had they received tenure at an Israeli institution would be baseless. In fact, one can easily make the counter argument: it is good that many Israeli scientists are bright enough to get work elsewhere and to aim for the stars. The spreading of Israeli ingenuity around the world might be the reason Israel has so many Nobel Prize laureates.
  2. True, Israel always rushes to claim the winning scientists. They get calls from the President and the Prime Minister. There’s something provincial about it, and somewhat sticky, but it's also very Israeli. Besides, I didn’t hear the winners complain about all the attention, I didn’t see them rebuff the calls, or shun the celebratory congratulations. In fact, they seem quite happy with it – and for good reason. As they say, as they emphasize, they still feel Israeli, they still feel a sense of belonging to the country they left to pursue their careers. So maybe the embrace is a little tight, and the enthusiasm a little tacky, yet doing the opposite – attempting to disclaim them, to push them away, to mock their sense of belonging and Israelis’ sense of pride - is much worse, and no less provincial.
  3. I’m sorry to say that there seems to be a suspicious connection between the urge to be a Nobel Prize party-pooper and one's political beliefs. For some reason it is mostly Israelis of left-wing persuasion who are trying to ruin it for the rest of the country. They will tell you it is because they are the ones who care more for higher education and excellence in science. Yet somehow it often feels more like just another attempt to bash the country and emphasize its faults even when the occasion seems to be one for celebration.
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