At the end of January, two close friends, let’s call them Rachel and Jacob, decided to move from the Tel Aviv area to Boston. If you live in Israel and know Israelis with international passports, you probably know a similar story. Rachel, full of Zionist ideology and vision, had made aliya to Jerusalem, worked in organizations that furthered Israel’s industry, and finally opened her own business here in Israel catering to international tourists. She recognized that for Israel to succeed as a tourist destination it needed to offer quality service and a unique experience. Jacob, too, dreamed of growing roots in Israel, but as a freelancer in a competitive industry he couldn’t see himself raising a family where clients would pay 45 days after a project was over, if at all.
So they left. Not to the United States, but to Boston, Massachusetts, which happens to be in the United States of America. Boston, where it is easier to earn a respectable living, to pay the rent without going into debt; where one can be a Reform Jew without having to apologize and jump through the Rabbinate’s hoops. Twenty years ago this couple may have been labeled “yordim,” and the Zionist movement in Israel would have said it was their personal failure to integrate. But today’s Israeli society justifies them, comparing life in Israel to life in major cities around the world — and finding Israel wanting.
It is important for those of us who care about the future of Israel to recognize that Jacob and Rachel’s decision to move from Tel Aviv to Boston is a failure of the state of Israel, and the Zionist movement, to create a Jewish state that individuals will chose to live in for the rest of their lives.
During the building stages of the state, individuals were willing to sacrifice opportunity and saftey to help make the Zionist dream a reality. But that phase has passed. Israel today cannot rest upon ideology alone to keep its best and brightest sons and daughters as citizen residents. What is harder for some to understand is that Israel today is not competing with the other countries of the world for these highly mobile, creative professionals. It is competing with the world’s best cities.
Israel vs. the best cities in the world
Those individuals the state of Israel relies upon to develop new industry and maintain Israel’s competitive advantage in technology and entrepreneurship are not deciding between Israel and England, or Israel and the United States. They are deciding between Israel and San Francisco, or Israel and London, and so on. Israel with its access to family and the familiar; San Francisco with its quality of public service, its ease of living, its range of opportunities. Israel with its place in Jewish history; the Upper West Side of Manhattan with its rich and pluralistic Jewish community. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have increased the chances that a Tzabar Israeli can find the comforts of home even when abroad, and the millions of Jews leading rich communal lives in the Diaspora have proven that one does not need to live in Israel in order to have a fulfilling life.
Those of us who still believe in the Zionist dream, who believe the Jewish state is the only way the Jewish people can truly fulfill their creative collective potential in the world, need to act fast. It’s not enough to compare Israel to Western countries in terms of our quality of life, education, or services. Now we need to compete with the best cities on earth (many of which have population numbers equivalent to our country’s own) if we are to retain the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. The boost in quality human capital that Israel received with the Russian aliya has run its course, and we are entering a phase of social unrest where many Israelis will choose to live an easier life abroad, and many olim from Western countries will decide that despite the economic hard times in their countries of origin, at least an apartment in Chicago can be purchased at a reasonable price.
We can win this competition, but we’re going to need to invest in the right tools and infrastructure to make Israel competitive. If Israel is going to attract top-rate human capital and maintain its edge as a technological superpower, the government needs to make citizen retention a top priority — and not just in Tel Aviv. The government needs to make Israel, as a mega-metropolis, the obvious choice of home for the Jewish global player. This can be achieved in a number of ways, but the most important would be to get serious about improving the quality of public service, and particularly integrating advanced thinking in user interface and user experience design into every aspect of the public sphere: transportation, banking, taxation and more.
As Chemi Peres noted in the “What’s Next for the Start-Up Nation” talk hosted by Tel Aviv’s Soafer iMBA, Israel, if it is to survive, cannot afford to be behind the curve of human capital quality (full disclosure: my wife organized the talk). What got us here will not get us there: Israel cannot thrive based on ideology alone. If we want Israel to be a state worth living for, and not just one worth dying to protect, we need to answer the question of “why live here?” with an affirmative “because it’s the best place to educate my kids,” or “because it has the highest quality of life,” or “because it is the most supportive of my creative expression.” It’s time the government made citizen interface and services a top priority, so that the next few decades will see a fulfillment of the Zionist dream, and not its unraveling.