Menachem Ben-Sasson, the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former member of Knesset for Kadima, is a scholar who obtained a PhD at the university he now heads, and a post-doctorate at the University of Cambridge.
Ben-Sasson, who was in Toronto in May to meet with members of the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University at the home of CFHU board member Judy Bronfman, answered questions about the Israeli “brain drain” – the trend that sees educated professionals emigrating out of their homeland to seek employment elsewhere – and Hebrew University’s role in addressing it.
The Israeli brain drain is a phenomenon people have been worrying about for decades. Why do you think it’s still important to draw attention to it?
Because the volume of the needs haven’t changed. In order to do decent research nowadays, it’s not a question of tens of thousands of dollars, but hundreds of thousands, to millions. That’s the change between 20 years ago to today.
We have to pave the way with proper equipment, laboratories, and [meet] the needs of the researchers. They would love to come – that’s the power of our country – but research has to be done properly. Otherwise it can’t be done.
How badly is Israel affected by the brain drain?
If Israel has around 1,000 doctorate students who finish their studies every year, I estimate that only fewer than one-fifth go abroad. The others stay in Israel anyhow.
We became world players on the stage of science… We are strong enough to play on this playground and we do not want to miss the opportunity. It’s not an individual issue. It’s a national issue, and it became a national issue, not because of the brain drain, but because of the needs for the future. To simplify it, we say it’s an issue of the brain drain. In real terms, it’s about the future of the State of Israel. The real meaning of Zionism nowadays is to bring back the best of the best in order to create the excellence in Israel.
How would it help Israel to be able to retain its home-grown talent?
Let’s talk about protecting the State of Israel. For that you need professors of physics, astronomy, chemistry, computer science… You cannot afford to have those who don’t know the answers to modern threats concerning the state.
Why do we have to build on warfare? Because we do not have a choice. Our neighbours aren’t necessarily helping us. From time to time, one country or another helps us, but in dire times, they would tend to forget it… Since 1948, we have not had any choice but to develop everything ourselves.
That’s the negative part, the protective part, the reactive part.
The proactive one has to do with seeing the future… We have to be far ahead of any other country. All of this will never come without good, basic science. Scientists know the questions of the modern world… and will bring them to the library or lab and analyze the questions they ask. That is what scientists do. They broaden the horizons of science, of our understanding of the world.
What’s your reaction to the theory that Israel’s brain drain is not the issue, rather since Israel produces so many scholars and scientists, more per capita than most countries, there aren’t enough positions to accommodate them?
The best students in the world are in Israel. Why? Because they are mature 23-year-olds, they’ve had life experience in the army. They were given responsibilities for life as colleagues, friends and soldiers… My claim is that it is a waste that we do not use these talents and the experiences that we gave to our children from the age of 18 and more.
If someone thinks that a young doctor must have a position at the university, he is the one who is making a mistake. We need high school teachers with PhDs, we need industrial advisers in research groups with PhDs. We need people in educational institutes with PhDs. We need politicians with PhDs. You hire the quality people.
When I say that only 150 or so a year, out of a cohort of 1,000, go abroad, the other 850 – we need them… We want to elevate the level of teachers in high school.
If you insist that you want to be a professor, you stay at [the University of Toronto] and you feel confused for all your life because you missed your goal to go back and live a normal life in Israel.
You might fulfil it after you retire – it depends how devoted you are to the idea. It could take a few years before you find your way back to Israel. One way or the other, those who want to come back will.
Do you have a message for the Canadian Jewish community about what Hebrew University is doing to address the issue?
We created in all of our chapters young, bright lay leaders… who are devoted to Hebrew University, to the messages from Hebrew University, and [Canadians] are going to see more of us through their leadership. I expect the Canadian community, a very serious, devoted community, to be involved in our activities, to be exposed to our achievements and to be proud of what we achieve.
Even if they cannot participate in the activity, I would love for them to come from time to time to our university website [http://new.huji.ac.il/en] and the Friends’ site [www.cfhu.org] and to enjoy it, to take nachas, to take the feeling that they are participating in one of the greatest achievements in the world… It’s like having a great kid. You enjoy them and you’re very proud.