Israelis are legitimately proud of their country’s economic achievements. Specifically, the nation’s export strength across a broad range of industries demonstrates its ability to compete on a global stage. Israel has come a long way from when her most ubiquitous export was the Jaffa orange.
Geopolitical factors in the Middle East have always forced Israeli companies to identify markets well beyond their home region. And they have succeeded. In 2008, Israel’s exports were nearly $50 billion, about 40% represented by various technologies, including many developed in the military that now also enjoy civilian applications. There are more Israeli companies traded on US-based exchanges than any from any other foreign country, except Canada.
However, alongside this badge of courage, there is a parallel export that has historically been met with derision and social stigma - the departure of Israelis from their native land. Even the Hebrew term attached to them - yordim - denotes a descent into the valley of abandonment. No other country relates to migration in such binary terms, a distinction replicated only when describing asset values. As any shareholder will attest, they are pleased when their stock’s price goes up, sad when it goes down. Modern Hebrew, with aliya and yerida, has extended these descriptions to the human capital markets as well.
I submit that this is unfortunate and, ultimately, very expensive. Well before the establishment of the modern state of Israel, residents of the yishuv and their co-religionists in the Diaspora found common ground. The latter played a major role in smuggling weapons and sending money to support the fledgling community. The level of cooperation intensified after independence. Today, the felicitous partnership between Israel and Jews around the world is a global asset of incalculable value.
A stroll in any Israeli university or hospital, or along the boulevards and squares of Israeli cities large and small, will reveal the names of hundreds of donor families, nearly all of them Jewish, and almost all of whom live outside the country. Many of these institutions have “friends of” organizations around the world. They raise money from folks who once were once asked to help Israel survive and now are eager to help Israel thrive.
Having lived in Montreal, Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Miami, I have been privileged to attend countless fundraisers for numerous Israeli organizations. In my experience, hardly any of the many Israelis living in those cities attend those events. Israelis abroad are massively under-represented in the purchase of Israel Bonds, participation in local federations and the support of Israeli cities, schools and hospitals. However, there is one notable and major exception: Friends of the Israel Defense Force (FIDF).
Soldiers on overseas service
In my view, FIDF is by far the most successful organization in bringing all Jews (and even non-Jews) who care about Israel’s soldiers together in a joint philanthropic cause. For anyone who believes in learning from best practices, I submit that the group should serve as the North Star in the constellation of Israel-oriented charitable organizations -- and in the overall relationship between Israel and its citizens living overseas.
Uniquely, the FIDF has enabled erstwhile Israeli residents, most of whom served in the army, to feel like heroes rather than traitors. As new crops of soldiers are feted as guardians of our precious patrimony, IDF alumni can reminisce about their own experience and accept the gratitude for the roles they played while they protected Fortress Israel.
The same community olive branch ought to be extended to all Israelis living abroad, and especially to the many Israelis who have succeeded on Wall Street, in real estate, other businesses, academia and any other discipline. Their accomplishments, albeit outside of Israel, should be applauded. Granted, they could have stayed “home” and contributed to the Israeli legal, financial, cultural and academic landscape. Yet for every talented Israeli who distinguished himself abroad, there was an eager, ambitious and invariably equally talented person to fill the vacancy.
The miraculous Russian immigration of the 1990s demonstrated that there were limits to how many musicians, artists, teachers, doctors and scientists the country could absorb. Those who left to forge careers elsewhere should be embraced, not shunned. The scope of Israeli ambition is greater than the country’s capacity to satisfy it.
Except for World Cup competitions every four years, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho spend most of their careers playing for various teams in Europe. But does anyone think of them as anything other than pure Brazilians? Even had his career in the US succeeded, could David Beckham ever have lost his British identity? Israeli lawyers, scientists and engineers living and working anywhere else in the world should be made to feel as Israeli as Eyal Berkovic, Haim Revivo, Yosi Benayoun or Omer Casspi.
Any other attitude would be a shameful rejection of enormous potential. Over 25% of Israeli academics currently hold positions overseas. In some disciplines, like computer science and economics, the numbers are particularly high (33% and 29%, respectively). Many see this as a net-loss to Israel. I see it as an incredibly fertile ambassadorial corps that should be cultivated and nourished. I see it as a means for Israelis to perform voluntary, constructive reserve duty while living abroad. Moreover, someone else is paying their salaries. Without a doubt, the closer our Diaspora colleagues feel to Israel, the more enthusiastic and effective they’ll be in representing the country. Our most profound influence on those around us is informal - at social functions within our community, at professional conferences, and around the water cooler. I think it is imperative that these critical human assets and their progeny remain culturally, intellectually and emotionally connected to Israel.
Voting with the heart
The question whether Israelis abroad should be allowed to vote in Israeli elections is being discussed with greater than ever intensity. I recognize the arguments on both sides. However, while that debate rages on, let’s encourage our brothers and sisters, uncles and cousins to vote their time, their hearts, their mentorship and their wallets in advancing pro-Israel causes.
In that spirit, I suggest that we stop shrilling the “brain drain” refrain. Rather, we should hum the “flight of the bumble-bee.” Israel’s best and brightest minds at home and abroad are participating in the greatest cross-pollination of ideas in human history. Those who leave shouldn’t be like Orpheus trapped in the underworld. For, while some may stay abroad forever, many are often back, to fructify their homeland.
Lyon (Lenny) Roth is a senior executive at an international wealth management firm and a member of Ben Gurion University's Board of Governors.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 27, 2010
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010