American immigrants moved to West Bank settlements at a rate three times higher than the average for all new arrivals in 2021, according to new figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics this week.
Roughly one in ten people who moved to Israel from the United States — 333 out of 3,480 — made their first home in the West Bank. This compared to the 2.6 percent who did the same from France, 1.7% from Russia and 1.6% from Ukraine.
On average, 3.2% of all new immigrants, including Americans, move to settlements upon arriving in the country.
The 333 American immigrants who moved to settlements represent a major increase in real numbers over previous years; in 2020, fewer than 200 American immigrants moved to settlements. But that is due to an overall rise in immigration to Israel from the US in 2021, not a change in the overall trend.
Last year was a banner year for immigration to Israel from the US, with some 4,000 people making the move, the highest number since 1973, according to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry. This was, in part, due to a backlog created the year before because of the coronavirus pandemic. The ministry counted more arrivals as immigrants than the CBS because it uses slightly different criteria to determine who qualifies as a new immigrant.
Yet the share of new American immigrants moving to settlements has remained relatively consistent over the past decade or so, with roughly 10-15% ultimately opting to move to the West Bank, according to Sarah Hirschorn, associate professor of Israel studies at Northwestern University, who has extensively researched the role of American Jews in the settlement enterprise.
“The percentage moving to settlements — we don’t know the exact number — that’s been very consistent over the past decade,” Hirschorn said.
The precise number is not clear as the Central Bureau of Statistics is able to track the first place where new immigrants chose to settle, not where they ultimately end up. So if a family immediately arrives in Jerusalem but then moves to the Neve Daniel settlement after a few months, this would not appear in the CBS figures.
In her book, “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement,” Hirschorn estimates that American citizens represent 15% of the overall settlement population, a significantly disproportionate figure, based on a variety of data sources. Less than 200,000 US citizens are estimated to live in Israel, or roughly 2.2% of the total Israeli population.
Hirschorn attributes this inflated presence of American Jews in the West Bank to a combination of ideology and the natural draw of the settlements to English-speaking religious immigrants.
Immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from the US is overwhelmingly a matter of personal preference. Unlike Russian Jews escaping an increasingly totalitarian regime or French Jews fleeing antisemitism, American Jews are running to Israel, not away from the US.
“American aliyah — despite the current rise in antisemitism — is still an aliyah of choice. The French and Russians are trying to get the hell out of dodge because they perceive a threat,” Hirschorn said.
The majority of the American Jews making that choice are Orthodox, a group that is more likely to support the settlement enterprise, she said.
“Living in settlements has become normalized within the Orthodox community in the United States. The political nature of that act has become erased or at least toned down,” Hirschorn said.
Alongside these ideological drives, there are also practical motivations drawing American immigrants to settlements.
“It’s familiar to many Americans. Just like Jerusalem is full of anglos” — the commonly used term for English-speaking Israelis — “so is Efrat and Neve Daniel,” she said, referring to two settlements popular with American immigrants in the Etzion bloc outside Jerusalem.
Indeed, while roughly 10% of American immigrants move to settlements, a full half move to Jerusalem, compared to 21.7% of French immigrants and 3.4% of Russians in 2021.
Settlements in the Etzion bloc offer American immigrants a chance to live just outside of Jerusalem — a 25-minute drive to the center of the city without traffic — in a suburban setting.
“Most of these Americans are going to nice neighborhoods with family homes or large apartments that are on the level of what they might have had in the US,” Hirschorn said.
The existing outsized number of American citizens living in settlements perpetuates itself as immigrants tend to seek out fellow countrymen to ease their transition into a new country. It also explains why immigrants from other countries, even people who may politically support settlements, are more likely to settle elsewhere.
“Immigrants tend to surround themselves with other kinfolk until they integrate into society,” Hirschorn said. “For French and Russian Jews, that’s not the settlements.”
French, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants tend to move to cities with already large expat populations.
For French immigrants, this means the coastal city of Netanya, where roughly a third of them wound up in 2021, and Tel Aviv, where a quarter did. Russian and Ukrainian immigrants spread out more evenly between Tel Aviv, Haifa and the central, southern and northern districts, according to the CBS figures.