After 50-year high in 2021, immigration from North America returns to normal

In first session, Knesset’s ‘aliyah’ committee also hears from experts and activists on massive influx following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Knesset's Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs holds its first hearing on January 9, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)
The Knesset's Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs holds its first hearing on January 9, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

The Knesset’s immigration committee convened on Monday for the first time in two years, hearing from experts on a wide variety of issues, notably the massive rise in immigration from the former Soviet Union following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine alongside a reduction from North America and Western Europe.

The past year saw the largest amount of Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah, in over two decades, with nearly 75,000 people making the move in 2022. Over three-quarters of these came from Russia and nearly 20% came from Ukraine, representing a roughly fivefold increase from the previous year, according to Central Bureau of Statistics figures that were presented to the committee by Ayala Eliyahu from the Knesset’s Research and Information Center.

This large-scale influx has put major stress on Israel’s immigrant absorption infrastructure, with many immigrants struggling to learn Hebrew, find work and integrate into Israeli society. With many of the immigrants arriving without their belongings and without preparation, the government offered a special “accommodation stipend” to help them get on their feet in a new country, but this has since been suspended.

“The State of Israel faced an unusual challenge. I will speak with the ministers of finance and absorption to maintain and extend the accommodation stipend for this year,” said Yisrael Beytenu Knesset member Oded Forer, who was appointed head of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs last week. The committee, which is traditionally chaired by a member of the opposition, was not created in the last Knesset due to the then-opposition’s refusal to cooperate with the coalition on committees.

Forer noted that the committee planned to hold another hearing next week on the shortage of Hebrew teachers in Israel, which has caused tremendous delays for new immigrants who must learn the language in order to integrate into Israeli society.

Ze’ev Elkin, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1990, said the suspension of the stipend was a particular problem for immigrants from Russia, many of whom have not been able to move their funds from Russia to Israel because of international sanctions on Russian banks over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yosef Taieb, of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called for the government to advance a multi-year program to help immigrants with employment, education and housing.

Yet alongside this major wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, last year also saw a significant, though somewhat expected, decrease in aliyah from North America and Western Europe.

Olim on prior Nefesh B’Nefesh flights land in Israel to great celebration. (Courtesy Nefesh B’Nefesh)

In 2022, 3,500 people immigrated to Israel from North America, down from 4,400 the year before. The number of immigrants from France also dropped from 3,500 in 2021 to just over 2,000 in 2022.

Dganit Sankar-Langa, director general of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, blamed these drops on financial considerations.

“We believe it is connected to the cost of living and the housing crisis in Israel. This is based on what the immigrants themselves, and those who are interested in immigrating, are saying,” Sankar-Langa said.

However, these numbers more likely signify a return to normal immigration levels from those countries after an unusually high 2021. Last year saw the largest amount of immigration from the US and Canada in 50 years, which has largely been credited to the coronavirus pandemic, which gave rise to more opportunities for remote work, among other factors.

The 3,500 new immigrants who arrived from North America in 2022 — just over 3,000 from the US and the rest from Canada — still represent a significant increase compared to the previous decade, which saw an average of 2,500 people making aliyah each year.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, right, speaks at the first hearing of the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs on January 9, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

During the committee hearing, Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former MK and current head of an organization that helps new immigrants, Yad L’Olim, asked the parliamentarians who attended the session to push the government to focus on improving immigrant absorption.

“The government should not spend money on inspiring more aliyah. The government must spend money on absorption in Israel,” he said.

Lipman was referring to a stipulation of the coalition agreement that would see a massive increase in funding for encouraging aliyah from North America and France to the tune of NIS 350 million ($100 million) per year for the next four years, despite limited evidence that such investment would result in significantly higher immigration numbers.

“We are working extremely hard with the authorities to shift from that perspective,” Lipman said.

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