Israeli sci-tech minister Ofir Akunis tries out a virtual reality system at Facebook Nov. 2017. (Photo/Courtesy Facebook)
Israeli sci-tech minister Ofir Akunis tries out a virtual reality system at Facebook Nov. 2017. (Photo/Courtesy Facebook)

In Silicon Valley, Israeli sci-tech minister tries to lure expats home

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Ofir Akunis gave himself a huge challenge when he was appointed the Israeli government’s minister of science and technology in 2015. He said then one of his goals was to “prevent brain drain abroad.”

Akunis, 44, worked on that effort during a visit to Silicon Valley last week, chatting with Israeli expats while also meeting with officials at Google, Facebook, Amazon, NASA and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

He did all he could to lure them back to Israel.

“When I met with Israelis, some said they want to come back and some of them said they prefer to work here,” Akunis said in an interview as he was driven between meetings. “So let’s see if we will have success to bring some of them home. I know I can’t bring all of them home.”

MK Ofir Akunis (center) at a meeting at Facebook, Nov. 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Facebook)
MK Ofir Akunis (center) at a meeting at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Nov. 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Lab)

Part of that effort to bring talented engineers and other high-tech workers back to the country that proudly proclaims itself the “Start-Up Nation” is the government’s creation of scholarships named for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

“I cannot prevent them from staying here. We are a democracy, and in a democracy anybody can do what they want,” Akunis said. “But I can encourage them to come back to Israel to do their Ph.D.s with these scholarships.”

Akunis’ trip to California also included speeches at the Limmud FSU conference in Oakland (where he declared to the largely Russian-speaking audience, “Israel must lead the future of humanity”) and at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Los Angeles. In addition, he went to the Hillel house at UCLA to take part in a program marking the one-year anniversary of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s death.

During his visit with officials of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Akunis discussed the possibility of a future memorandum of understanding with Israel. He said he received a “very warm welcome” in his stops at the high-tech companies, including discussions about joint research.

The goal of collaboration with Silicon Valley firms remains high on Israel’s list, he said, even though some of those companies have projects that compete with work being done in Israel.

“There are some kinds of competition, but if we can do things together then why not?” Akunis asked. “I think the idea is to cooperate and collaborate.”

Akunis is a Knesset member from the Likud party and a former deputy media adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet he said very few questions about politics came up during his tour of Silicon Valley.

“I know about the fact that California in general, and San Francisco specifically, is very much to the left,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think we should deal with political issues. We talked about cooperation.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.