See-saw demography: Israelis in the UK vs. British aliyah
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See-saw demography: Israelis in the UK vs. British aliyah

New report finds the number of Israelis migrating to Britain outnumbers the number of British Jews migrating to Israel by a 3:2 ratio. But who are the people behind the statistics?

London transport: An old classic double-decker bus in London on April 23, 2015. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
London transport: An old classic double-decker bus in London on April 23, 2015. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

LONDON — The author of a new report examining the numbers of Israelis in Britain has told The Times of Israel that “even if the numbers are manageable, it is not a set of statistics that any developed country would be proud of.”

Dr. David Graham, senior research fellow at Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), made his comments after the publication of the JPR Report, “Britain’s Israeli Diaspora,” which shows that during the first decade of the 21st century, the number of Israelis migrating to Britain outnumbered the number of British Jews migrating to Israel by a ratio of three to two.

The report, the first of its kind, draws on data from the most recent UK Census, completed in 2011, and shows that the Israeli population in Britain has ballooned by 350 percent from data taken in the 1971 Census. In 2011, the JPR believes, there were approximately 25,000 Israelis living in Britain – a much lower number than is usually claimed. But it is the highest ever recorded level and the report takes a number of factors into account to define “Israeliness.”

Dr. Jonathan Boyd, director of Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) (courtesy)
Dr. Jonathan Boyd, director of Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) (courtesy)

Dr. Jonathan Boyd, the JPR executive director, says that though the assessment was not perfect, he believed the report “almost certainly constitutes the most reliable [evidence] that exists… [using] a combination of country of birth, passports held, ethnicity, national identity and language spoken.”

The report further notes that this population is not exclusively Jewish. Just under 10% declares a religion other than Jewish (mostly Christian), and a further 16% are described as “religious nones” – that is, people who may be Jewish by ancestry, ethnicity or even behavior, but neither identify as Jewish in the census nor declare a non-Jewish religion. However, at the other end of the religious spectrum, an estimated 16% are strictly Orthodox, and live among the haredi communities in Britain.

The figures show that Israelis now constitute about 6% of the present British Jewish community. But the overwhelming majority are secular and relatively few choose to belong to synagogues, says the JPR.

‘Israelis could well represent an incredibly valuable pool of talent for the Jewish community if they become active in British Jewish life’

“They are, however, just as likely as British Jews to send their children to Jewish schools, so it is clear that this is the main point of contact with the community. Given that this is a quite young population – the majority is aged between 25 and 45 and is highly educated – Israelis could well represent an incredibly valuable pool of talent for the Jewish community if they become active in British Jewish life,” says Boyd.

Report author Graham, who is a senior research fellow at JPR and honorary associate at the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, University of Sydney, says that while it is tempting to suggest that the growth of the Israeli population is due to political or economic reasons, the evidence shows that the primary reason is likely to be more prosaic – partnering or marrying someone from Britain.

“We know from the census that Israelis in Britain are likely to be partnered, and survey data suggest that only 9% of Israel-born Jews living in the UK have a partner who is also Israel-born, which suggests that most are partnered to Brits. In other words, a significant amount of international ‘mixing and matching’ may well be the key migratory driver, followed by an intricate mix of economic, security and life-style considerations, which, together, are currently combining to tip the migration balance away from Israel and towards Britain,” says Graham.

Dr. David Graham, senior research fellow at Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (courtesy)
Dr. David Graham, senior research fellow at Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (courtesy)

The JPR has frequently done research on census data but according to Boyd, the 2011 Census was the first real opportunity to allow work on Israelis, now “the largest foreign-born Jewish group in the Jewish population in the UK. We wanted to know how many, what was their involvement in the community, etc. A great deal depends on how one means who is an Israeli. In the Census there are very specific questions which one is obliged to answer, such as what is the country of your birth, what passports are held. The question on religion is, however, optional.”

The other problem in assessing numbers, Boyd says, is “if you have an Israeli couple living in the UK and they have kids born in the UK, the kids wouldn’t be included in these statistics. It’s not perfect – but it is the clearest picture we have to date.” He adds that the report “flags up a slightly mean question for Israel – why are people leaving, what is their motivation, and how do you understand this phenomenon?”

Graham, responding to The Times of Israel from Sydney, Australia, adds, “We do not know what ultimately motivates Israeli migration to Britain so we cannot say who, if anyone, comes here to find a partner. But the data do suggest that migrants living in Britain with sole Israel citizenship are evenly split between male and female for ages 20 to 49 years.”

‘What is really interesting in the survey data is a clear predisposition by Israeli migrants to send their children to Jewish schools’

It is generally well established that apart from the strictly Orthodox, Israelis in the UK notoriously do not mix with the native British Jewish community. But Graham says, “What is really interesting in the survey data is a clear predisposition by Israeli migrants to send their children to Jewish schools. This should not be dismissed lightly.

“We think the majority are religiously secular and, being migrants, they are not necessarily that well integrated into Jewish society. So why choose religiously selective Jewish schooling? Is it a religious, ethnic or national choice? What do they hope to gain by doing this? Perhaps it alleviates some sort of guilt complex that they have about denying their children an education in Israel?” asks Graham.

He says that this trend could only be beneficial to the native Jewish community. “New blood, new perspectives, new ideas, relatively young people, and, at least as far as schooling is concerned, people keen to be part of the community.” But, he says, there were clear implications for Israel that a cadre of young, well-educated members of its population chose to leave in the vital years when they had most to offer society.

‘Israel’s economy can probably absorb ‘brain drain’ losses on this scale without really noticing it’

“These are also people who have benefited from years of state funding for their educations.The implications are not good but we should be careful not to overstate the economic impact of the problem, such that it is even measurable. Israel’s economy can probably absorb ‘brain drain’ losses on this scale without really noticing it. But even if the numbers are manageable, it is not a set of statistics that any developed country would be proud of,” says Graham.

In separate data to the report, JPR colleagues published statistics to show that about 80 Britons a year return from Israel, compared with around 580 a year making aliyah – so about one in seven are returnees.

“Since we calculated 865 coming each year from Israel to Britain, this suggests just under one in ten could be a British returnee,” says Graham.

He says that the population movements were “reflections of the relative attractiveness of either country. Think of each migrant as a bi-polar magnet. When things are politically and economically optimistic in a country they are pulled towards it and when things are looking gloomy they are repelled away from it. If Israel is gloomy and Britain is bright we would expect to see a significant flow towards Britain. If Israel is looking bright and Britain gloomy the flow is likely to reverse.”

Metropolitan Police face off against pro-Palestinian demonstrators during protests outside Downing Street in London as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with British counterpart David Cameron on September 9, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)
Metropolitan Police face off against pro-Palestinian demonstrators during protests outside Downing Street in London as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with British counterpart David Cameron on September 9, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)

In Israel’s gloomier times, Graham says, “we surmise that rich countries are net gainers. Data suggest Australia, Germany, Holland and probably the United States are all net gainers from Israeli migration but we are planning further work on this to clarify the figures.”

There is a minor mystery in the figures – those who say they hold Israeli nationality but who are not Jews.

“We know very little about who these people are (though there is potential to find out more from other unpublished census data). They comprise almost one out of ten (8.5 percent) of all Israel-born [respondents]. Only a tiny fraction claims Jewish ethnic ancestry, so they are probably not Jewish converts to Christianity. My guess, is that they are Christian Israeli Arabs who have come to Britain as economic migrants,” says Graham.

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