December 28, 2006
The Associated Press
JERUSALEM: The number of immigrants to Israel in 2006 slipped to its lowest level in 18 years, reflecting a vastly shrunken pool of Jews living in the former Soviet Union and continued reluctance on the part of Westerners to move to the Jewish state, figures released Thursday by a quasi-governmental agency showed.
Some 21,000 immigrants moved to Israel in 2006, reported the Jewish Agency, which oversees immigration. That is down from 22,657 a year earlier and the smallest number since 1988, when 13,034 people moved to Israel.
Immigration from the former Soviet Union fell 23 percent to 9,378, continuing the downward trend of recent years. More than 1 million people have moved to Israel from the former eastern bloc since the Soviet Union began collapsing in 1989. Israel's total population is about 7 million.
Immigration from North America bucked the overall trend, rising 7 percent to 3,200. It was the second consecutive year of growth and reflected increased efforts to attract immigrants from the West. Under its "Law of Return," Israel grants automatic citizenship to any Jew.
About three years ago, the Jewish Agency concluded that the reservoir of immigrants from the former Soviet Union had dried up, and the potential for immigration lay in the West, said Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman.
"Today, Jews are coming to Israel out of free choice. They're not coming because they're running away from anything," he said. "People are looking for a place where they can live their lives fully as Jews, in a majority culture."
Nearly 3 million immigrants have moved to Israel since its establishment in 1948, including about 118,000 from North America, according to Jewish Agency statistics.
Yet the overall level of immigration from the U.S. and other wealthy countries remains low. The U.S. has by far the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel, numbering about 6 million.
Earlier this week, Nefesh B'Nefesh, a grass roots group that helps North Americans move to Israel, reported its 10,000th immigrant since it launched its U.S.-based operations in 2001.