Russian immigration streams in as Israel predicts uptick in Western newcomers

Amid rising antisemitism, North American and Western European arrivals this year expected to total 15,500, more than 2.5 times the number that arrived last year, Jewish Agency says

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Ariel Kandel stands and listens to a prospective immigrant speaking with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, wearing a tie, at an aliyah fair in Paris, France on May 19, 2024. (Qualita)
Ariel Kandel stands and listens to a prospective immigrant speaking with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, wearing a tie, at an aliyah fair in Paris, France on May 19, 2024. (Qualita)

As Israeli officials and activists prepare for an influx of immigration from Western countries, some 8,000 Russians have made the move since January, accounting for most of the newcomers during this year’s first trimester.

Of 11,361 new immigrants who came to Israel under its Law of Return for Jews and their relatives between January 1 and May 15, more than 70 percent, or 7,999, were from Russia, according to an interim report by the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration presented Monday at the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.

By comparison, only about 700 newcomers moved to Israel during that period from Western Europe, roughly half from France and 165 from the United Kingdom. The United States, where about 7 million Jews live, provided Israel with even fewer immigrants: 564 of them in the first 135 days of 2024, the period surveyed in the interim report.

Ukraine, which is fighting a defensive war against Russia, provided about 300 immigrants, or olim, during that period.

The data for immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from Russia is in line with trends observed in 2023. That year, Russians accounted for nearly 70% of the 46,590 annual tally of olim. In Russia, international sanctions over its ongoing war against Ukraine are crippling the local economy amid a war-related crackdown by authorities on free speech and civil liberties.

Thus many Russian olim are leaving out of fear of a new Iron Curtain.

MK Oded Forer, the chair of the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, oversees its first hearing on January 9, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Only 2,170 of the olim during that year were from Ukraine. That country has provided Israel with fewer than 20,000 olim since Russia invaded it in 2022. Russia, meanwhile, has seen nearly 84,000 of its citizens immigrate to Israel since the war broke out. Russia in 2020 had some 590,000 people eligible to make aliyah compared to about 190,000 in Ukraine, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Aliyah from both countries rose dramatically after 2022.

At first glance, the data may appear to fall short of the expectations of many for a wave of Western olim following the increases in the numbers of antisemitic incidents documented in Western Europe and North America after October 7.

But the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles aliyah for the government, expects 15,500 Western olim to move this year, the report said. That’s nearly 2.5 times the 6,220 immigrants who came from developed countries in 2023.

Western aliyah will peak in summer, with about 8,000 olim from developed countries expected to arrive by September, ministry officials wrote in a reply to a query by the committee’s chairman, Oded Forer.

Olim from North America pose with officials and people involved with the
Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah group at Ben Gurion airport on August 16, 2023. (Nefesh b’Nefesh)

“We are seeing unprecedented waves of antisemitism all over the world, including [cases of] physical endangerment for Diaspora Jews, Israelis living abroad, and we’ve all seen what’s happening on university campuses,” Forer said.

Following Hamas’s onslaught on October 7, when terrorists killed some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted another 252, Israel launched its still-ongoing military maneuver in the Gaza Strip aimed at dismantling Hamas and retrieving dozens of hostages believed to be held hostage there.

Western cities and campuses have seen many anti-Israeli protests over the war. Some of those events featured antisemitic violence and rhetoric. The number of antisemitic incidents recorded in Western countries, including France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium has skyrocketed since October 7.

Anti-Israel activists wield wooden planks before using them to hit students at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 6, 2024. (Courtesy)

“This is jolting Jewish communities and making many realize that with all the hardships, this is the only place where we can, must and will make sure we can live safely as Jews, and Israelis,” Forer said of Israel at the committee meeting. “If we act correctly, this crisis can become an opportunity.”

Shay Felber, director of the Aliyah and Absorption Unit at the Jewish Agency, said at the meeting that the 15,500 forecast for Western Olim in 2024 “is based on the number of people who opened immigration files and have already submitted a future arrival date.” The actual numbers of olim will be higher, he said, and in total, at least 30,000 olim from all over the world are expected to move to Israel in 2024.

France alone will provide Israel with more than 3,200 olim by 2024, Felber said. That’s more than three times the number of French olim in 2023. Three aliyah fairs in France this week drew thousands of participants, Felber added.

Far from deterring olim in France, Israel’s war with Hamas and its fighting with Hezbollah on the northern border is galvanizing the already strong Zionistic sentiment of many French Jews, said Ariel Kandel, the head of the Qualita organization promoting aliyah from France, which co-organized the aliyah fairs with the Jewish Agency and the Jerusalem municipality.

The interior of a synagogue in Rouen, France, that a man is suspected of having set on fire, May 17, 2024. The man was shot dead by French police. (AP Photo)

“The war in Israel, along with the atmosphere of antisemitism and the thousands of incidents targeting French Jews, is prompting an unprecedented desire among French Jews to make aliyah and help the war effort,” Kandel said in a statement Monday. “This is an opportunity and we must lose no time: The State of Israel needs to initiate plans to bring olim and help them integrate.”

Eric Michaelson of the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration said during the meeting that “since the start of the war, significant reforms have been implemented that are designed to renew and adapt the responses given to immigrants in the coming years.” A special directorate has been set up to advance the immigration of physicians to Israel, he said.

In February, the government said it would allocate a package of NIS 170 million ($46 million) toward facilitating the absorption of olim living in far-flung communities.

New immigrants from Russian-speaking countries raise toast during a community-building activity in Israel.
(Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

Under the package, olim living in the Negev, the north and the West Bank can access the approximately NIS 50,000 ($13,400) they are entitled to in rent aid over two years instead of five years.

Dan Illouz, a lawmaker for Likud, said more can be done to realize the aliyah potential.

“We as a society have not properly understood the waves that the war created within Diaspora Jewry,” he said at the meeting. “There is potential for a huge wave of aliyah from the Diaspora to Israel, and it doesn’t find expression in the numbers of immigrants coming to Israel. There is no governmental statement here that understands the magnitude of the hour.”

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