Uriel Heilman - The State of Aliyah
The State of Aliyah

The State of Aliyah

It’s a question that nearly every Western immigrant to Israel faces, usually often enough so that it becomes an irritant: Why did you move here?

For the Israeli questioner, it’s generally not meant as an insult or rebuke but as an expression of genuine curiosity.

In one of his books, David Horovitz, who moved to Israel from England at age 20 and later became editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post, recalls being unable to come up with a satisfactory answer for a Russian immigrant soldier in the Israel Defense Forces named Alexander.

“Because I'm Jewish, I said, and because Israel is the home of the Jews,” Horovitz writes in his book, “A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel.”

“Was it difficult being Jewish in England, Alexander wondered, like in the old Soviet Union? Was I denied a place at university, as he had been? Kept out of certain jobs? Forbidden to travel overseas? No, none of that, I had to admit,” Horovitz writes. “So, he persisted, why uproot yourself from such a haven of Western culture and civilization for a conflict-bedeviled strip of desert in the Middle East?”

Horovitz trots out Zionist explanation after explanation but they all elicit the same blank look. Finally, Horovitz says, it’s because the weather is so much better in Israel than in soggy England. Alexander’s eyes light up. He gets it.

In a nation that is just 64 years old, almost every Israeli comes from a family of immigrants. For the vast majority, the reasons for immigrating were clear: flight from anti-Jewish persecution, usually by Arabs, Communists or Nazis.

In the decades preceding Israel’s birth and for two generations afterward, insecurity at home – physical, religious, political or economic – was the driving force behind much of immigration to Israel, known as aliyah.

But in recent years, this type of immigration – known as “push aliyah” -- has all but dried up as the number of potential immigrants from countries where Jews face potential peril has fallen to an all-time low. Some 80 percent of Diaspora Jews live in North America, and most of the remainder reside in other countries where Jews enjoy relative security. The flood to Israel of 1 million Russian-speaking immigrants that followed the fall of Soviet Union in the 1990s has slowed to a trickle, and the streams of aliyah from other countries around the world are even weaker.

“Aliyah is not totally dried up, but it is at a low level historically,” said Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola. “It reflects the fact that most Jews live in countries that are more Western, relatively democratic and fairly stable.”

In 1990, Israel absorbed approximately 200,000 immigrants, and throughout the ‘90s an average of 75,000 immigrants came each year. But by 2008, the annual number had dropped to 15,452, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration to Israel. Over the last five years, a total of about 90,000 people have immigrated to the Jewish state; most came from the former Soviet republics.

The only other period in Israel’s history that has seen as consistently low immigration numbers was in the 1980s. But back then there were more than 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union just waiting for the gates of emigration to be opened.

Today, we live in what is the most open aliyah era in history: Practically any Jew from anywhere around the world who wants to move to Israel has the freedom to do so. There are no British troops patrolling the Mediterranean turning away ships loaded with Holocaust refugees. There are no Communist dictators blocking Jews from emigrating. Even in places like Iran and Yemen, the Jews who want to leave can get out.

Yet in this age of “aliyah by choice,” the number of Jews choosing to move to Israel is near its lowest point ever. What’s more, growing numbers of Israelis are emigrating, relocating to places from Boston to Berlin.

Is this the end of aliyah?

* * *

Immigration long has been the lifeblood of the Jewish state, starting with the Zionist pioneers who came in the first aliyah wave that began in the 1880s. Spurred by pogroms in Russia and a budding Zionist political movement, these immigrants helped lay the groundwork for the establishment of the state in a place that, until 1882, had just 24,000 Jews and more than 20 times as many Arabs.

It was immigration – and war – that changed the demographic balance in favor of Jews. Israel’s population swelled as refugees poured in from Europe and as one Arab regime after another exiled or expelled their Jewish populations.

Today, the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in the holy land remains a critical concern of the Israeli government, and aliyah has been seen as a crucial component of the effort to ensure that Jews remain a majority in the Jewish state -- not just overall, but even within Israel’s individual regions.

“Olim are the foundation of Israel’s future,” then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a planeload of new immigrants at a welcome ceremony in July 2004.

It’s not just demography that makes aliyah important. The relocation of Jews from the four corners of the Diaspora to the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people is part of the raison d’etre of Zionism, and those who move to Israel help vindicate the Zionist enterprise. The Hebrew term for immigration – aliyah, which literally means “going up” – connotes the view that moving to Israel represents some kind of elevation. By contrast, Israeli emigrants long have been denigrated as yordim – Hebrew for “those who go down.”

In practical terms, immigrants are good for Israel’s economy, helping bring expertise, wealth, spending and tax income to the country. The massive influx in the 1990s of Russian-speaking immigrants is widely credited with helping fuel Israel’s high-tech boom in the 2000s, shoring up Israeli universities and research institutions, and averting a physician shortage in Israeli hospitals.

“Aliyah has been one of the engines of the great leap forward of Israel,” DellaPergola said. “After the Shoah, the ingathering of those people provided a critical mass. Aliyah has provided a lot of knowledge and high-level professionals. Aliyah from the Soviet Union has brought thousands of well-trained academics to Israel. All this has been extremely beneficial to the Israeli economy.”

While many other developed countries have immigration quotas and often speak of immigration as a problem, Israel spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year encouraging and facilitating Jewish immigration (though Israel, too, wants to keep out African migrants, who sneak into Israel from Egypt).

Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish grandparent has the right to immigrate. The country sends emissaries to communities from Buenos Aires to Siberia to promote interest in Israel. The government trains rural Ethiopian peasants with Jewish links for aliyah, and then once they arrive gives them places to live, Hebrew classes and Jewish instruction. In the United States, the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, which works in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, provides thousands of dollars per family in cash grants for those moving to Israel.

When they come, the new immigrants get a free flight to Israel, a host of tax breaks, Hebrew instruction and special government assistance ranging from tuition waivers for Israeli universities to cash handouts. For those who wish, there’s even free housing at absorption centers, aliyah youth centers and a handful kibbutzim.

Perhaps more importantly for new immigrants, Israel is no longer a fledgling country with an agriculture-based economy lacking in creature comforts, but a fully developed country with a booming technology industry and access to all the comforts of Western life.

“This is the easiest time in the history of Eretz Yisrael to live there,” said Michael, a physician from Los Angeles planning to make aliyah. He asked that his last name be withheld so as not to jeopardize his current employment.

Yet except for a few outliers, the vast majority of the Diaspora’s Jews are staying away. The reason, simply, is that they prefer where they live now.

For most, that means the United States, a place of abundant opportunity and little discrimination against Jews. Though it is the largest potential source of Jewish immigration to Israel, the proportion of Jews who make aliyah from the United States is among the lowest in the world. In 2010, for example, British Jews immigrated to Israel at a per capita rate five times that of American Jews.

“The reason American Jews are not moving to Israel is standard of living, and there’s not that threat of anti-Semitism that there is in places like France and England,” said Jonathan Frenkel, the executive director of Dor Chadash, a New York-based organization of American Jews and Israelis living in the United States. “People are happy to live here, even in tough times.”

Perhaps more disheartening to Israeli officials, the number of Israelis leaving Israel for the United States exceeds the number of American olim.

From 2000 to 2010, the Israeli population in the United States grew by more than 30,000, according to the U.S. Census. By comparison, 25,712 Americans moved to Israel in that period, according to Jewish Agency figures. The 2010 U.S. Census counted more than 140,000 Israelis living in the United States; the Israeli Consulate in New York says the real figure exceeds 500,000.

* * *

All this has prompted a major re-think in Israel about the best way to encourage aliyah.

The most dramatic sign of change came last year, when the Jewish Agency shifted its historical focus away from bringing and settling new immigrants to Israel and toward global Jewish identity-building.

“The main danger facing the Jewish world today is a weakening of the connection of young Jews to their people and to the State of Israel,” the agency’s chairman, former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, said when the new strategic plan was adopted. “Our new plan deals directly with this issue.”

The change, which reflects a wider shift taking place in Israeli officialdom, doesn’t so much constitute an abandonment of aliyah as much as it formalized a new way of thinking about Israel’s goals when it comes to the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. No longer would Israel’s efforts be focused solely on aliyah, a binary goal, but on bolstering a continuum of Jewish ties to Israel whose ultimate -- but not sole – expression would be aliyah.

“It’s all become one circle – a spiral of Israel experience,” said Barry Mark Spielman, a Jewish Agency spokesman. The continuum, he said, starts with Birthright Israel, a 10-day Israel program for Diaspora Jews ages 18 to 26, moves on to summer programs and yearlong programs in Israel, and then culminates, for those who take the ultimate step, in aliyah.

In short, the agency recognized that there is more than one way to be a good Zionist and more than one benchmark for success.

The adjustment reflects the reality of the difficulty in getting Jews to make aliyah and the changing nature of what aliyah means in an age when people commute between Israel and the Diaspora, sometimes with homes in two places.

The same principle applies to Israeli emigrants, who are harder to count because it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when someone living abroad becomes an emigrant. What if an Israeli moves overseas for a few years to do a master’s program, a medical fellowship, or a doctorate, as many Israelis are encouraged to do by their own universities, hospitals and government? What if they decide to stay abroad for a few years longer to make some money? What, exactly, is a yored?

“We have to rethink many definitions – even as an Israeli bureaucrat I’m saying this,” said Israel’s minister for public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs, Yuli Edelstein, who is a former minister of immigrant absorption. “I don’t think I’m diminishing Zionism. It’s a different world.”

* * *

Despite all the challenges, there still are thousands of people every year who choose to uproot themselves and move to Israel – 19,261 in 2010 alone.

Who are they, and why did they make aliyah?

Of these immigrants, 38% came from the former Soviet Union, 22% from Europe, 21% from the United States and Canada, 9% from Ethiopia, 7% from Latin America and the remainder from a smattering of countries including Australia, South Africa, Turkey and India.

Most of them were relatively young: 37% were ages 18-34, and 22% were under 18. Twenty-nine percent were ages 35-64, and the remaining 12% were seniors.

The number of singles moving to Israel is rising, which aliyah officials attribute to the lure of Israel’s vibrant social scene and the difficulty young people are having finding jobs in their native countries (Israel has weathered the global recession quite well by comparison).

The type of immigrant varies greatly by country. Russian-speaking immigrants typically come in search of better quality of life and freedoms, or because they have family already in Israel. Many are singles in their 20s who are absorbed within special frameworks like kibbutz ulpans, in which they live with 50-60 other immigrants on a kibbutz and learn Hebrew together before going their separate ways to university, jobs or the army.

“It’s the ultimate way to make aliyah,” said Yehuda Sharf, director of the Jewish Agency’s department of aliyah, absorption and special operations. “It gives him a good social network. He prepares himself for the big city. He’s in a bubble for six months that supports and helps him. He has an adopted family on the kibbutz.”

Ethiopian immigrants may spend years in Israeli absorption centers before moving into their own home with mortgage assistance from the government, and their pre-aliyah orientation covers the basics not just of living in Israel, but in the Western world. Among other topics, the orientation covers the use of toilets and refrigerators.

Many immigrants from underdeveloped countries come to Israel for economic opportunity; immigrants from small Jewish communities often come looking for a more hospitable environment for Jewish life.

The breakdown of immigrants by country suggests that the more vibrant Jewish life is in one’s home country, the less likely one is to make aliyah – which is partly why America has one of the lowest aliyah rates in the world.

For those who do come from America, the primary motivation is usually Zionist ideology, often of the religious variety.

“This is where Hashem wants us to be, this is what we’ve been yearning for for thousands of years,” said Michael, the L.A. physician, who is Modern Orthodox. “To turn away and not at least try to live there is crazy.”

Asked if he was at all deterred by the religious tensions in Israel, not just between secular and religious but between haredi ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, Michael said those tensions concern him more than the Iranian threat, terrorism, or the Arab Spring.

“It’s definitely made me take a step back and think, but it’s not an issue that would keep me from making aliyahh,” he said. “It’s no more than a drop in the bucket.”

By the same token, few immigrants or prospective immigrants seem deterred much by Israeli government policies on settlements or Palestinians, which have remained relatively consistent across recent Israeli governments. About 4% of immigrants settle in the West Bank, and most Russian-speaking immigrants espouse hawkish views when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Some young immigrants come because they’re drawn to the idea of serving in the IDF.

“I wanted to do the army, have that experience and then to live in Tel Aviv for a few years,” said Frenkel, who grew up in New Jersey but whose parents were from Israel. More than 70% of single immigrants move to Tel Aviv.

For non-Orthodox immigrants, the motivations may stem from the desire to raise their kids in the Jewish state, because they’re looking for a less materialistic society or because they have family already in Israel.

“Typically, there are multiple factors,” said Danny Oberman, the executive vice president of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the nonprofit responsible for marketing aliyah in North America. “There’s always ideology involved. Israel can be a challenging place to live.”

For many, the move involves great sacrifice.

“Although our move has been terrible for my wife and me culturally and financially, for our careers and standard of living, etc., it has been fantastic for our four children, who were pre-teens when we came and are now in their mid-20s,” said S. David De Zwirek, who immigrated in 1993 from Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

“Zionism was reason No. 1. However, it takes a lot more than Zionism to bring the multitudes on aliyah,” De Zwirek said. The other reasons he listed for his family were: “because we are misfits; for Jewish continuity; for the adventure; and, If not now, when?”

Not everybody stays. While Nefesh says the recidivism rate among immigrants from North America is 3% within the first three years, anecdotal evidence suggests that the actual long-term number is much larger. Many of the Russian-speaking Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s later moved on to America. Hundreds of thousands skipped Israel altogether, immigrating straight to New York. About 100,000 moved to Germany.

Frenkel is among those who moved to Israel and then moved back, in his case to America.

“Visiting and living there are two different things,” he said. “The bottom line is money; I left Israel because I wanted to make more money.”

Katherine and Leo Brownstein, who moved their family to Israel from London in late 2010 only to return a year later after he couldn’t find a job, said their aliyah, too, failed for economic reasons.

“We moved to Israel for a combination of to be with family and just to have a better Jewish life for our kids,” said Brownstein, a lawyer. “But when Leo didn’t find a job for a while year and I found a job where I didn’t earn much money, knowing how much more we could earn in England made us come back.”

Oberman says Nefesh isn’t in the business of selling aliyah – a virtually impossible task – but enabling it.

For those Americans who end visits to Israel with “tears in their eyes,” he says, Nefesh seeks to overcome what it has identified as the five main barriers to aliyah: employment, Israeli bureaucracy, social integration, finances, and aliyah’s negative image. The organization offers career networking services, helps cover moving costs, navigates Israeli bureaucratic procedures for new olim and tries to get positive press coverage for olim.

The organization’s efforts are widely credited with helping boost North American aliyah from about 3,000 in 2005 to 3,982 in 2010 – the highest annual number since 1973. Two years ago, Nefesh, which was launched in 2002, took over most aliyah operations in America from the Jewish Agency.

Ultimately, however, Israeli officials recognize that, barring some unforeseeable catastrophe, aliyah from North America will never become a mass movement. So they’re focusing on less ambitious goals – primarily, building attachments to Israel through Israel experience programs. Last year, the Israeli government announced a new three-year, $100 million commitment to Birthright.

Studies show that such programs lay the groundwork for attachment not just to the Jewish state, but to Judaism. A landmark 2010 study that surveyed 13,000 Israel program participants found that Israel experiences were linked to increased Jewish engagement, leadership and in-marriage (Jews marrying Jews). The study, commissioned by the Jewish Agency and led by Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, concluded that the more time participants spent in Israel, the greater their level of Jewish identification.

“If 10 days in Israel is very good for Jewish engagement – and it is – then 10 months in Israel is even better,” Cohen said.

When Benjamin Netanyahu served his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, he, like many prime ministers before him, rarely missed an opportunity to tell Diaspora audiences that the most important contribution they could make to Israel was to move there.

At a 1998 speech to the General Assembly of the North American network of Jewish federations, Netanyahu said the solution to the problems of assimilation in the Diaspora was “massive aliyah from every country in the Diaspora, including the United States and Canada.”

Nowadays, Netanyahu sounds a different tone. At a January event in Jerusalem with 3,000 Birthright participants, Netanyahu urged the audience to go home and become goodwill ambassadors for Israel.

“I want you to enjoy yourselves, go back to your homeland and tell the truth about Israel,” he said. “Whether you come here or whether you stay where you are, be proud of your birthright.”


When Israel launched an ad campaign last fall to lure home expatriates in the United States, it touched a nerve with American Jews.

One ad suggested that a child of Israelis living in America would mistake Chanukah for Christmas. Another suggested that Americans can’t appreciate the solemnity of Israel’s Memorial Day.

American Jewish critics called the ads insulting and offensive, and Israel soon pulled them.

But the brouhaha obscured a larger challenge for Israel: How to lure its citizens living overseas back home.

For decades, Israel had viewed its emigrants with some distaste, calling them yordim (“those who go down”) and refusing to provide solid numbers on how many there were.

But with immigration to Israel near historic lows and a growing number of Israelis moving overseas for better professional opportunities, more money, lower costs of living and greater distance from conflict, Israel is getting serious about luring its expats home.

The effort includes everything from ad campaigns overseas to special tax breaks for returning residents. Perhaps most significantly, Israel is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into new initiatives designed to create opportunities to stem Israel’s brain drain and lure some of its best and brightest back home.

In the latest of these programs, Israel announced in December that it was investing $100 million as part of a $360 million collaboration to open 20 new scientific research centers in the country. The first four centers -- focused on renewable energy, molecular medicine, cognitive science and computer science -- opened in January.

“We know there are people who would like to return or make aliyahh,” said Haim Shani, the director general of Israel’s Finance Ministry, which is spearheading an effort to turn Israel into a technology research center for the financial services industry. “It’s part of a larger strategy of bringing minds back to Israel.”

Once, to live in the Diaspora meant to be virtually cut off from Israeli life. But today Israeli expats can Skype with their family in Israel, read Israeli newspapers online, watch Israeli TV – and they have more fellow Israeli expats around them than ever before.

In Israel, local newspapers carry ads offering paths to E.U. citizenship for Israelis of European descent.

Some Israeli officials estimate that up to 1 million Israelis live overseas; the precise number is unknown. America is by far the most popular destination. Their reasons for coming overseas vary, but experts say it’s mostly for economic and professional opportunities. Not only do doctors, lawyers, academics and other professionals make more money in America, but some fields, like hedge funds, hardly exist in Israel.

“The solution of returning to the Diaspora and living overseas always captivated us,” Israeli engineer Liad Magen wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the Israeli news site Ynet after the ad controversy erupted in the fall. “Especially in my field, as a computer engineer, relocation is not a dirty word. Many of my friends are overseas, in Europe, Australia and the United States. Even friends who served in the army with me and completed a full combat service left for the U.S. and opened successful companies there. All of them are doing well.”

Many Israelis are fed up – frustrated with the soaring cost of living in Israel, the political leadership, the growing power and influence of the country’s haredi Orthodox community, and the tensions the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stokes not just between Jews and Arabs but between Israelis of different political orientations.

To be sure, the vast majority of Israelis are happy in their country. In its annual happiness survey in 2010, the Gallup Institute found that Israel ranked seventh in the world in happiness, with 63 percent reporting they were satisfied with their lives (the United States, by comparison, came in 12th).

But in this era of globalization, widespread Israeli English competency and the relative ease of going back and forth between Israel and the Diaspora, the lure of the rest of the world is greater than ever.

© Uriel Heilman 2012. All rights reserved.