The end of aliya?

The vast majority of the Jewish Diaspora is now prosperous, safe and English-speaking; such people won’t immigrate because Israeli bureaucrats tell them to

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A new Israeli immigrant receiving an identification card,  Jerusalem, May 3, 2010. (photo credit: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90)
A new Israeli immigrant receiving an identification card, Jerusalem, May 3, 2010. (photo credit: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90)

Israel’s immigration officials are frustrated. Aliya, the immigration of Jews to Israel, is declining, and nobody quite knows what to do about it.

In 1990, at the height of the wave of immigration of post-Soviet Jews after the fall of the Iron Curtain, 199,516 immigrants came to Israel, equal to 43 new citizens for every 1,000 Israelis in just one year. By 2013, that figure had declined steadily to just 16,884 immigrants, or 2.1 new immigrants for every 1,000 Israelis.

It’s a steep drop, from the equivalent of four percent of Israel’s population arriving in a single year to just two-tenths of a percent a generation later. In 2011, a mere 16,893 immigrants arrived in Israel, while 16,200 Israelis left the country for a year or more, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. It may be fair to ask if the phenomenon of aliya as a normative Jewish experience, or as a phenomenon that could yet again make a noticeable mark on Israeli society, has come to an end.

The recent example of a few thousand French and Ukrainian Jews fleeing anti-Semitic violence or political instability in their troubled countries only highlights the paucity of aliya generally. Most Diaspora Jews today speak English, have never personally encountered open anti-Semitism, and deeply and firmly identify with the country and culture in which they live. Most Diaspora Jews, it must be said, are Americans.

Yet Israel’s immigration officials refuse to address or even acknowledge these realities.

Sofa Landver (photo credit: Flash90)
Sofa Landver (photo credit: Flash90)

In June, Israel’s cabinet approved an initiative first developed in the Ministry for Immigration and Absorption that would make it the government’s business to try to convince Diaspora Jews to move to Israel. The new public corporation slated to be established by the decision, with an NIS 60 million annual budget, will be charged with “encouraging aliya to Israel from all the countries of the world.” The corporation’s structure gives the Immigration Ministry the deciding vote on the corporation’s ten-member board, while giving spots to the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization and Keren Hayesod.

In arguing for the new arrangement, an early draft version of the cabinet decision, written inside the ministry, made some audacious claims about Israeli officials’ ability to encourage aliya. “Past experience shows that investing resources in encouraging aliya has been proven to increase the number of olim [Jewish immigrants] and to return expats to Israel,” the draft read. It was a 2013 Immigration Ministry initiative, the draft added, that led to the stark spike in French aliya over the past year. In May 2013, the ministry developed a plan to encourage French aliya, which subsequently rose from 594 immigrants in the first five months of that year to 1,669 in the same period in 2014.

The failure of the bureaucracy

The ministry’s new effort was not entirely unexpected. Senior immigration officials, including Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, believe they are stepping into a vacuum left behind when the Jewish Agency shut down its Aliya Department roughly four years ago. (The new initiative was explicitly defined as an attempt to take over responsibility for aliya efforts from the Jewish Agency, though after some political wrangling, the agency obtained a stipulation in the cabinet decision that makes it the exclusive fundraiser for the new corporation. The ministry controls the board, but the Jewish Agency the purse.)

The Agency took a lot of criticism for the closure of the Aliya Department, which was part of a larger reorganization of the octogenarian Zionist institution. Right-wingers in the Yisrael Beytenu party and left-wingers such as Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea seemed to agree: The shuttering of the bureaucracy meant that the Agency (and with it the State of Israel, some fretted) was abandoning the goal and ideal of aliya.

(Full disclosure: This reporter was the Agency’s chief spokesman during this tempestuous period.)

This equation of bureaucracy with mission remains deeply rooted in the Israeli discussion of aliya. It is a premise that lies at the heart of the entire ecosystem of organizations that try to encourage aliya — Nefesh B’Nefesh, the World Zionist Organization, the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and, until recently, the Jewish Agency. Aliya will come, they all argue in one way or another, if Israeli bureaucracy does a better job serving the basic needs of immigrants.

No one has done more in this regard than Nefesh B’Nefesh, which focuses on aliya from the US, Canada and the UK. An immigrant who comes to Israel from the United States, and therefore through the services of Nefesh B’Nefesh, barely interacts with the labyrinthine Israeli bureaucracies that once tormented new immigrants. Flush with financial grants and pamphlets explaining the logistics of Israeli life, bombarded with invitations to social events and job fairs both before and after their aliya, these immigrants experienced an entirely different absorption into Israeli society than that of nearly any other immigrant in the country’s history. Arguably, no one has done it better. Perhaps it can’t be done much better.

Goofing off at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliya Mega event in Times Square on Sunday, March 9, 2014. (Shahar Azran)
Goofing off at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliya Mega event in New York City’s Times Square on Sunday, March 9, 2014. (photo credit: Shahar Azran)

Yet Nefesh B’Nefesh’s strategy, no matter how competently executed, was limited by the bureaucratic theory at the root of all Israeli aliya efforts: its belief that Jews are not leaving America in growing numbers because it is logistically difficult to do so, that these difficulties lead olim to complain to their social circles back home about their experiences, harming the “brand” of aliya and dampening interest among others who might otherwise consider the move.

This theory has informed NBN’s strategy, which can be summarized thus: sweep away the logistical and social hurdles to a comfortable Israeli absorption, transforming the negative feedback from olim into positive feedback, and the aliya “brand” will improve, inevitably leading to a rise in American immigration.

As with every other aliya promotion program in the history of Zionism, it didn’t work.

Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded in 2002, when just 1,536 American Jews moved to Israel from the United States. The organization took credit, as Absorption Minister Landver is doing now with French Jewry, for the steady year-on-year growth in American aliya after its founding: 1,690 immigrants in 2003, then 1,891, 2,045, and by 2006, 2,158 — a 40% jump in just five years, the organization boasted at the time.

Jews from North America arrive in Israel on a special flight on behalf of the Jewish Agency and the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization, at Ben Gurion airport in central Israel, on July 23, 2013. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash90)
Jews from North America arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, on a special flight on behalf of the Jewish Agency and the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization, on July 23, 2013. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

But this growth had nothing to do with the organization’s laudable work, which eased the aliya process for immigrants’ but did nothing to increase their numbers. The evidence is not hard to find; it lies in the aliya numbers themselves. The year before NBN was founded, in 2001, there were just 1,250 immigrants from the United States. And the year before that, 1,237. The growth began before NBN entered the picture.

And looking even farther back, we find the context for that growth. We find, in fact, that it wasn’t growth at all, but simply a recovery from an unprecedented dip in 2000 driven by the violence of the waning years of the Oslo peace process and the eruption of the Second Intifada, and that even this is part of a general decades-long oscillation of American aliya driven almost entirely by economic and security factors.

In the optimistic early years of Oslo — 1993, 1994 and 1995 — American aliya figures were 2,057, 2,118 and 2,253 respectively. Then, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the tumultuous election season of 1996 and the wave of terror bombings that accompanied it, aliya began its nosedive toward the 2000 low of 1,237: in 1996, 1,990 immigrants, then 1,858, 1,605, and 1,515 in 1999.

NBN’s success, in short, was an illusion caused by the timing of its founding — and the years since 2006 have borne this out even more. After the 2006 high of 2,158 American immigrants — that is, after the return to mid-90s levels as the security situation stabilized — aliya seemed to plateau, or even slip a bit, possibly in response to the Second Lebanon War. In 2007, it saw 2,094, followed by 2,023 in 2008. This flat-lining can’t be explained by anything NBN had changed. Simply, it marked an American aliya that had recovered from the terrorism-driven dip of the previous decade.

Twenty years of American aliya, according to figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. (Haviv Rettig Gur)
Twenty years of American aliya, according to figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. (Haviv Rettig Gur)

In 2009, of course, American aliya saw a new spike, and NBN (along with the Jewish Agency and Israeli government officials) tried to take the credit: 2,475 in 2009; 2,530 in 2010. But this 25% jump in two years was not a sign of any Israeli organization’s or bureaucrat’s newfound aliya-promotion powers, as some journalists and groups suggested. Surely it was no coincidence that the increase coincided exactly with the worst economic crisis in eight decades in the United States.

By 2012, the number was back down to 2,290, and by 2013 to 2,186 — and that decline, too, had nothing to do with NBN, or with the bureaucratic restructuring of the Jewish Agency, or with the fact that Absorption Minister Sofa Landver had yet to focus her bureaucracy on the problem. It coincided, once again, with economic trends.

There are two reasons to focus on Nefesh B’Nefesh, even though no other organization has ever shown a better result. First, its target populations, the Jewish communities of Canada, Britain and the United States, constitute roughly four-fifths of the entire Jewish Diaspora. If there is to be aliya in any meaningful numbers, it will come from NBN-served countries.

Second, NBN has arguably constituted the most tech- and PR-savvy, the most innovative and well-funded of all aliya encouragement efforts to date. It is NBN’s remarkable successes in dramatically improving absorption for so many olim that makes the failure to actually increase the numbers of those olim all the more instructive.

Needless to say, the Jewish Agency’s record at increasing aliya has not been any better historically. The Agency has brought millions of Jews to Israel, but there is no evidence its actions were ever the impetus for them doing so. And in the four years since the Aliya Department’s shutdown was announced, there have been no discernible changes in aliya figures (which are publicly available in Hebrew on the website of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics) that do not follow precisely the rise or fall of the economic and political conditions in the immigrants’ countries of origin.

In the last year before it was shuttered, the department was spending $105 million annually. Less than half of that spending continues in other frameworks — the Agency still funds plane tickets for olim, a global call center for immigrants, and many other elements of Israel’s aliya infrastructure — but it is nevertheless remarkable that the disappearance of such a massive, consolidated bureaucracy focused on promoting and facilitating aliya had no discernible effect, good or bad, on the numbers of olim.

None of this should surprise Israel’s immigration officials, but it does. When it comes to aliya, many Israeli officials are overwhelmed by ideological angst, by the suspicion that acknowledging the simple truth could spell the end of something precious. Yet the result of their willful detachment from the realities of aliya does not lead to the preservation of the ideal. The denial of the unforgiving facts merely prevents Israel from tackling the problem effectively.

Few olim were ever pulled to Israel merely by the attractiveness of the ideal of a Jewish homeland. Most were driven to the Jewish state by genocide, pogrom, or economic or political collapse in their countries of origin. For most Jewish immigrants over the course of the 20th century, Israel was first of all a safehaven, and only afterward became an object of patriotic or religious commitment.

This reality is only facing Israel’s immigration officials now for a simple reason: for the first time since the advent of Zionism, scant few Jews now live in the beleaguered communities that fled to Israel. The desperate Jews of postwar Europe, the Muslim world, the Soviet world and the Third World have emptied into Israel, bringing untold benefits to Israel’s cultural life, labor force, cuisine, military prowess and more. Those Jews who did not come to Israel moved to the English-speaking world, where they now live in prosperous, tolerant societies where they never experienced the “push factors” that sparked Jewish mass-migration in the previous century.

There is nothing on the most distant horizon that suggests they ever will.

American Jews at a party in Brooklyn, New York, on June 17, 2013. (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)
American Jews at a party in Brooklyn, New York, on June 17, 2013 (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)

The result: for the first time in the history of modern political Zionism, future aliya depends almost entirely on Jews from one distinct culture convincing Jews belonging to a radically different culture, and prospering in a far wealthier economy, to move from the latter to the former. It is a challenge no Israeli official has ever seriously faced, or even seriously contemplated.

Like everybody else

There is a quip attributed to the poet Heinrich Heine: “The Jews are like everybody else, only more so.” Israel’s aliya troubles are precisely that — a universal experience given added poignancy by the Jewish ideological context.

Aliya is one of the oldest and most persistent ideals in 3,000 years of Jewish writing and feeling, from the Biblical psalmist (“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion”) to the 12th-century Andalusian sage and poet Judah Halevy (“My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west”) to the founding ideology of the modern Jewish state, where it remains a key component of modern Israeli identity. A Jew can scarcely utter the evening prayers, marry, celebrate Passover or Hanukkah or even say the Jewish Grace after Meals without encountering the ancient longing for the Land of Israel at the heart of the experience.

Yet this history must be set against the broader realities of human migration generally. Jews, after all, are people too.

As studies of global migration show, and a remarkable plot of the world’s top 50 sending and receiving countries developed at the Vienna-based Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital (below) demonstrates, it is exceedingly rare to find people moving from a higher GDP-per-capita economy to a lower one.

The circular plot shows the estimates of directional flows between the 50 countries that sent and/or received at least 0.5% of the world’s migrants in 2005-2010. A gap between the outer circle and the migration flow line indicates the direction of the migration -- the side with the gap is the destination country. (credit:
(Click the graphic to view the full-size PDF.) The circular plot shows the estimates of directional flows between the 50 countries that sent and/or received at least 0.5% of the world’s migrants in 2005-2010. A gap between the outer circle and the migration flow line indicates the direction of the migration — the side with the gap is the destination country. (credit:

The plot offers some obvious but nevertheless important insights: People leave Latin America for North America, not the other way around. And the only people leaving North America are headed to Western Europe. Indians are leaving in their millions for the oil-driven construction boom of the Persian Gulf, or to the developed, English-speaking economies of the US, Canada and the UK. The only people moving to India in noticeable numbers are doing so from Bangladesh.

And so it is with Jews.

“Over the past hundred years, the geographic [distribution] of the Jews has changed radically. The huge majority of Jews outside Israel now live in countries more developed than Israel,” demographer Prof. Sergio DellaPergola recently noted after Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested Israel could convince vast numbers of Diaspora Jews to make aliya, if only it was willing to try.

Based on the history of aliya up to today, “to assume dramatic migrations [from the Diaspora to Israel], we have to assume that Israel will have transformed into the most developed country in the world, or that something will happen to the [Jews’ current] countries [of residence], a total disruption of the sort we saw when the Soviet Union fell,” noted DellaPergola. Such a “total disruption” might send Jews Israel’s way, he noted, if it took place where Jews live — in the US, Britain and Canada, not post-Soviet Russia or 1950s Iraq.

Coming home

How, then, to bridge the gap between the deep-seated Jewish ideological call to aliya and the stark social and economic realities of a Jewish world comfortably ensconced in free, tolerant and prosperous open societies?

One answer may lie in studying what actually makes Diaspora Jews move.

A 2011 paper written for the Federal Reserve, the American central bank, has noted that the United States has a relatively high rate of internal migration. Roughly one-third of Americans live in a different state from where they were born. Each year, 1.5% of the US population moves from one of four regions (northeast, midwest, west or south) of that continent-spanning country to another, while another 1.3% moves to a different state within each region. Another 3% move across county lines; that is, between towns or cities within a state. In all, more than one-twentieth of the US population moves each year over a large-enough distance to constitute a different local economy and labor market, the Fed report suggests.

In fact, Americans have always done so; from the westward drive in the 18th and 19th centuries to the vast internal migrations of blacks and others in the 20th, Americans are restless. American Jews, it bears remembering, are Americans — not just in their citizenship, but in the most profound characteristics of their lives and identities. Religiously and politically, their behavior and assumptions are deeply informed and shaped by their surrounding civilization. And when they relocate, they do that, too, like Americans.

Yet while American Jews, like all Americans, move a great deal within America, few are able or willing to cross the vast cultural divide represented in leaving their own culture, Jewish identity and historical experience to adopt the radically different culture, identity and experience of Israelis.

Yet there are reasons to believe American Jews are receptive to bridging that cross-cultural gulf. Last year’s Pew study of American Jews, for instance, found that 43 percent of them have actually visited Israel. The organized programs that brought millions of Jews to visit Israel over the years received significant parts of their funding from American Jewish organizations and philanthropists. American Jews also donate vast and growing sums to Israel’s nonprofit sector (over $2 billion annually). And huge numbers of them consistently tell pollsters that they love Israel (Pew found 69% say they’re emotionally attached to Israel).

Young emissaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel dance their way up Fifth Avenue during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade in Manhattan. (photo credit: David Karp)
Young emissaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel dance their way up Fifth Avenue during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade in Manhattan. (photo credit: David Karp)

Is it too much to suggest that Israel might be better served by an aliya policy that strives to bridge the cultural divide that keeps this love and engagement from deepening into membership?

Americans are unlikely to move to places outside the frame of their cultural experience. Could Israel be brought within that frame?

Of course, such a policy would require new and more serious thinking about “aliya policy.” Bridging a cultural divide is the sort of thing one accomplishes through immense and creative new investments in education, rather than the construction of a new state-run bureaucracy focused on, well, bureaucracy.

Let’s be frank: it is not at all clear that significant aliya from English-speaking countries is even remotely possible. There simply isn’t any historical precedent to draw from. But it is at least clear that any hope of expanding the phenomenon of Western aliya in the 21st century will require the laying of a new cultural infrastructure, the building of a shared cross-cultural experience and vocabulary that can serve as a bridge connecting Israel with, in the American case alone, a Jewish community that spans a continent and boasts a membership in the millions.

Israel has historically taught Hebrew to immigrants after they had arrived; why send teachers overseas when the immigrants in question were guaranteed to arrive on Israel’s shores in any case? But now, if Israel wants immigration from English-speaking Western communities, it will have to think seriously about mass-teaching Hebrew to vast numbers of Jews long before they even consider aliya — simply because few are likely to entertain the idea if they cannot speak the language.

Just as the underlying motivations of past aliya are revealed through a careful look at the numbers, so, too, are possible avenues for increasing future aliya.

There are two ways in which Israelis count immigrants. The Central Bureau of Statistics (whose figures are used in this article) counts only those who go through the aliya process overseas and formally become citizens at the Absorption Ministry offices at Ben-Gurion International Airport. But a few hundred mostly young Jews actually take on Israeli citizenship each year while living in the country as tourists, students or participants on “Israel experience” programs like Masa. They obtain citizenship through the Interior Ministry, and so are not counted in CBS “immigrant” figures, but in other categories.

Yet NBN and the Jewish Agency (and, it should be noted, Israeli law and the Absorption Ministry, which finances their absorption benefits) count these new Israelis as “immigrants” in their own aliya figures. They are, after all, Diaspora Jews who made the decision to become Israelis.

But these immigrants are precisely that tiny handful of Diaspora Jews who are already steeped in Israeli culture and daily life, already speak some level of Hebrew and had already decided to devote meaningful periods of their young lives to experiencing and in some cases, such as volunteer soldiers and Masa volunteers, serving the Israeli half of the Jewish people. And when they decide to make aliya, they do not do it through or because of existing aliya institutions.

Their example, the experiences, knowledge and commitments that drove them to make the decision to link their lives to the Jewish state, including the decision to spend time in Israel before they decided to actually become Israelis, showcases precisely the sort of journey that a wiser Israeli policy might seek to inspire in others by expanding access to such experiences and to meaningful education about Israel for much larger numbers of Diaspora Jews.

There are officials in government and in some Zionist institutions who understand this need. Building new ties between Jews in Israel and elsewhere is defined by these officials as a “diaspora policy.” But a clear understanding of the new cultural landscape of the Jewish world leads to the conclusion that it is also the essential missing element of any serious Israeli aliya policy.

Such a policy would be expensive, to be sure, though some of the costs would be shouldered by Jewish communities and donors. But for all the difficulty, it would, at least, address the real-world obstacles to modern-day aliya, a refreshing change from the current Israeli preference for tenaciously ignoring them.

For now, at any rate, government officials plan on spending many millions of taxpayer shekels doubling down on the blinkered bureaucratic strategy that has failed so dependably in the past. When all you have is a hammer, a wise proverb teaches, everything looks like a nail.

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