Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Job interviews in Israel

HUJI parking lot
My trip was a two week marathon of meeting physicists - half an hour to an hour each - all extraordinarily intelligent - some famous, some less famous, and a few of Romanian origin. I enjoyed the conversations very much. We discussed topics ranging from atomic clocks to population extinction. I gave four seminars in the Xmas period (22nd-28th of December).  I visited universities and institutes in Rehovot, TelAviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.

I wore suits at each meeting like the one in the picture on the left. I had bought them in Romania from the  Leonard  collection. They wrere manufactured in a clothes factory on Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi 20 in Timisoara. I really like their style and the knowledge that they are made in the city I grew up in gave me confidence.

First Impressions: Israel has a large number of intelligent and educated individuals. Their universities are outstanding, and their physics departments are highly supportive of their researchers. Their departments (and the associated funding) are increasing in size, whereas in the rest of the world departments & universities appear to be shrinking.

The universities in Israel are very homogeneous environments where virtually all professors are men with a PhD from a university or institute in Israel. They seemed to have around one woman per physics department who has a permanent position (e.g., the Weizmann Institute was funded in 1934 and hired their first & only woman assistant professor in physics in 2007; she had just received tenure) and the same number of foreigners (~ one or none per department). They also have many visitors. Many of these visitors are Jewish, but not-originally from Israel (i.e., are not yet fluent in Hebrew and Arabic), but still proud of their ancestry. It is practical to have many visitors in the X-mas period since it is a time when many can come because they are on vacation.

This lack of diversity is common throughout the academic world, only in Israel it seems more severe than in any other country I visited to date. The obvious factors that exacerbates a problem that exists worldwide is the instability of the region.  Not maximizing creativity, which is the result of choosing people with similar backgrounds, is likely to have worse consequences for a country like Israel with so many serious political problems that need ingenious solutions than for a safe country like Switzerland, where there has not been a war in the past hundred years. When I mentioned this, the argument made was that physicists do not impact politics, and so my arguments are naive, which is certainly true.  I am not a politician and will likely never have political influence on the world. But if one looks at the political world, Angela Merkel, the most influential woman in politics and arguably the most influential politician in Europe, has a physics PhD. The new president of Romania is also a physicist, and there are others.

There are more men who (1) have Israeli PhDs, (2) want to go back to Israel after successful postdoctoral fellowships abroad and (3) are above the defined hiring threshold than professor positions in Israel. So, there is no need to make the extra effort to attract and hire outsiders that may also be above this threshold, but where that is harder to tell. After all their departments function, and function well. If outsiders apply, they are looked at in detail and on an individual basis, and they think this should be enough for such top institutions as theirs. I was told Israel has the 4th highest number of start-ups per capita world-wide. They also obtain a large number of grants and fellowships from the European Union - more than most other countries. So, all our existent measures of creativity and success are very high in their existent homogenous environment, and it is hard to give concrete advice on what to do. Since Israel is a recent country, it is also a special case where they still have more built-in diversity than in other countries.

A more silent version of this argument is made in most other academic & non-academic institutions throughout the world. There are enough talented men for the society to not need to make the extra effort to train women or other field-minorities, and there are not enough women & minorities already trained in the hard sciences to choose from. The percentage of women who drop out is comparable to that of men, and so there the leak in the pipeline is not more severe. Further, given that our definitions for success are met by good institutions world-wide with their current homogenous staff, there is no need for change.

On the other hand, it is known that a society with a more diverse leadership is more creative, and hopefully kinder and less destructive. However, in order to have a serious push in such a direction, it has to be arguably profitable both in terms of time invested and money.

Overall, Israel itself is clearly a successful country, but the world has made such a mess of the Middle East (and of Russia and Ukraine and other countries, too) that it is hard to claim we weigh the parameters for success in the right way. It is also true that physics institutes and departments are not the place to lay the blame for political troubles. So, likely I am combing problems that perhaps should not be combined.

East vs West Jerusalem: did we feel the war?
Mihai parked the car once in the East part of Jerusalem, which is Palestinian dominated. It was beautiful, too, but in the few hundred meters crossed he saw over a dozen army kids with machine guns to keep the road and people safe. We did not investigate East Jerusalem further. There is no actual border in Jerusalem (so East Jerusalem is still part of Israel), but the GPS draws a line there that looks like a border due to the history of the region. Extra security in any of the other cities we traveled to was not noticeable. Teens hitchhike and feel safe. There are no holes in buildings from shelling or bullets, and there was no feeling of war beyond the fact that citizens participate in the army for 3-4 years and part-time later on if they become officers & are proud of this; 3-4 years is a ridiculously long time for being in the army instead of in college, but it must be cool to be 17-18 and to drive planes and tanks, and fire machine guns even if only for training purposes. Some of the physicists we spoke with did say that they participated in several wars, and it was interesting to me that they could still do highly theoretical research and be good at it/interested in it after such experiences.

Immigrant in a country of immigrants?
 Even though Israel is a country of immigrants, the second generation did not appear to speak their original language (or somehow identified as Israeli and were ashamed of speaking their original language). The Jews I knew, loved and admired as a child had all been polyglots who were open to languages and easily learned new ones. In Israel Hebrew and Arabic are enforced. They teach English as a second language in schools, but there are no schools in English or German or any foreign language for that matter. Incoming foreigners who want a smoother transition for their children and would like to maintain languages that their children already speak have no option other than the regular school in Hebrew. There was little diversity in books in the stores I stepped in. All books appeared to be in Hebrew at the Mall. Of course, Hebrew is similar to Arabic, and both languages are spoken by populations that grow and so it would be useful to know them for the future... unless the internet can convince the whole world to switch to English.

The universities and research institutes do take care of their own people, and so professors who have families and return to Israel have a much easier time than if they stay abroad. However, at first sight, it did not appear easy to be an immigrant in Israel.

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