For Shalom Simchon, Israeli Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, trade missions involve more than drumming up business for Israeli companies and boosting investments by U.S. businesses in Israel.
Also on his agenda during visits to leading businesses in the San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound areas this month were meetings with Israeli technology aces who might someday come home, Simchon said over breakfast at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle on February 7.
With his second in command, Industry, Trade and Labor Director General Sharon Kedmi as translator, Simchon said Israel has more world-quality scientists, software designers, doctors and other high-end workers than the nation’s economy can absorb, even while out-performing much of the rest of the developed world.
“It’s very understandable that some of these brains will seek opportunities outside of Israel,” he said. “We are looking forward to see these brains returning back to Israel. There are places in academia and industry that sometimes lack these brains.”
While the recent elections cost Simchon the seat he held in the Knesset for nearly 17 years, as well as the ministerial post he received in January 2011, he spoke at length — albeit in general terms — about the emergence of brain drain as a political, social, and economic issue.
A government statistical study cited by Israeli newspaper Haaretz in December of last year found that as of 2011, more than 14 percent of Israelis holding doctorates in science or engineering had been living abroad to work and/or study for at least three years.
According to the same article, a survey of graduates who had been abroad for at least three years as of 2010 found that fewer than 7 percent returned to Israel over the following year.
The Israeli Centers of Research Excellence, instituted in May 2012, is an initiative designed to boost the return rate and attract non-Israelis with high pay, good working conditions, and emphasis on collaboration across scientific disciplines.
As described by the Jerusalem Post, the initial five-year budget is $365 million for four centers, one each devoted to alternative energy sources, the molecular basis of disease, cognitive science, and advanced computer sciences.
Haaretz reported that as of December, the program had attracted about 300 new researchers, two-thirds of them returning Israelis. Eventually, backers hope to open 26 more centers and lure back as many as 2,400 Israelis.
Simchon sidestepped a question of whether he found the initial results satisfactory, but said the standoff with the Palestinians, among other factors, would likely keep Israel an exporter of brainpower for years to come.
“Maybe when peace occurs, there could be an Israeli Apple,” he said.
Hosting research centers for multinational businesses which then promote Israelis to bigger and better positions in the U.S. or Europe is a lot better than what happens in many less technologically advanced countries, he said.
“Should we export…workers who will work at low wages around the world, or should we export our [surplus] brains and knowledge?” Simchon asked.
Israel “has managed to actually utilize these brains that are maybe physically outside the State of Israel, but they are utilized for our needs even from abroad,” he said.
Born in 1956 in Kfar Saba, about 12 miles northeast of Tel Aviv, Simchon is married, has two children and lives in Moshav Even Menahem, about 10 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea in the far north of Israel.
Simchon began his political career with the Labor Party and later switched to the newer Kadima party, which fared poorly in the recent Israeli elections.
Serving in the Knesset from 1996 until shortly before the trade mission arrived in San Francisco, he considers himself the principal voice for moshavim and kibbutzim, Israel’s collectivist communities, in the central government. He was minister of agriculture and rural development in 2001–02, minister of the environment in 2005, and minister of agriculture in 2006–11.
Planning to return to the civil service, he said his agency should fare well and gain prominence in the next ruling coalition.
“It is actually the right and exact ministry to deal with the two biggest problems that the Israeli society has in these days…Dealing with the middle class and decreasing the cost of living,” in addition to moving more Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the labor force, he said.
Meanwhile, during his final trade mission, talking up Apple, Google, and Samsung in California, and Boeing and Microsoft in Washington State for new and expanded joint ventures in research and development, as well as for investment in and partnerships with Israeli businesses, Simchon said, “We put a lot of effort in order to, first, locate [expatriates].”
Simchon sees them as unofficially “on reserve duty” from Israeli citizenship. He cited a senior vice president at Apple whom he met a day before the interview.
He knew instantly the man was Israeli, “but only back in the car, on the way back, did I realize he is an Israeli Arab, a Christian Arab from Haifa. He spoke of Israel with a lot of passion,” Simchon said.
“I fully understand that his heart is in his home in Israel. On the other hand, I understand that Israel is too small for him.
“I asked him, ‘When will you return home?’ He answered, ‘I don’t know,’ but he did say, ‘My heart is there.’”
The minister said that was far from unusual.
“Frankly speaking, I think that part of the Israelis that actually live here know in their hearts that they will not return, but they still think about it,” he said. “This is part of our objective in this visit…We will try first to interact with them and then see how we can make the opportunity for them.”