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Reverse "Brain Drain?"

"Without visas, will Israeli talent return home during coronavirus?"

With half a million Israeli workers and academics living abroad, who are facing the pandemic and recent changes in US immigration policy, decision-makers see a chance to reverse 'brain-drain'

Now is the time to bring back tens of thousands of Israelis who are currently working in the United States, Shas MK Moshe Arbel said earlier this month when he learned that US President Donald Trump has suspended new work visas and blocked the renewal of H-1B visas for skilled hi-tech workers until the end of the year.

“Israel must not miss out on this great growth-engine," Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser said. “This could really pull us forward for the next 25 years.”

He reminded fellow MKs of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s policy that refused to allow new Soviet Jewish immigrants to maintain Israeli citizenship if they relocated to the US in the 1980s, shortly after the country took them in. Hauser said this policy helped retain some of the nation’s most talented people.

The Trump administration policy is rooted in helping US citizens at a time when unemployment is exceedingly high. The administration claimed that as a result of suspending two types of visas – H-2B temporary non-agricultural worker visas and J exchange visas – some 525,000 jobs will become open to American workers. Moreover, the administration has stopped approving educational workers, interns and summer laborers from entering the US.

Israelis have been discussing what is commonly known as the “brain-drain” since the country was established. Those who sought education or a better life outside of the Jewish state were often described as yordim – “descenders.”

There are presently an estimated 500,000 yordim living mainly in Western developed countries. This figure does not include their children if they were born abroad, even if they hold Israeli citizenship.

With COVID-19, the thought is that now there might be a chance to reclaim some of those who have settled abroad. In April, Israel's Interior Ministry reported that 500,000 Israelis had returned home, about 15% of them following an “extended stay” overseas.

Additionally, Israel is seeing a strong increase in interest in immigration.

According to the Jewish Agency, some 3,236 American Jews expressed formal interest in immigrating to Israel in June, The Marker reported. In addition, from France some 731 requests were received, as well as 583 from South America. Immigration offices in Russia and Eastern Europe are now closed, but it's possible that a surge of interest from those regions is also forthcoming.

While official figures show Israeli-raised academics do leave the country to seek teaching or research positions elsewhere, it is also true the Jewish state accepts many highly educated immigrants.

In 2015, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 1,360 Israelis opted to remain outside the country, but 14,870 academic immigrants came to Israel during the same year. Between 1980 and 2010, some 30,000 Israeli-raised academics left their homeland, while 290,000 academic immigrants arrived.

The report noted that 25,000 of those newcomers eventually left the country.

Hagay Hacohen, July 30th, 2020

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