December 29, 2006
By Julie Stahl
CNSNews Jerusalem Bureau Chief
JERUSALEM -- Despite the threats of war and Palestinian terrorism and a general drop in immigration to Israel, more and more North American and other Western Jews are choosing to leave the comfort of their Western homes and immigrate to Israel, the official body that handles immigration to Israel said.
Some 21,000 Jews from around the world immigrated to Israel in 2006, 3,200 of them from North America -- a seven percent increase over last year, according to end-of-the-year statistics from the Jewish Agency a quasi-governmental organization responsible for aliyah (immigration).
That is the lowest immigration to Israel since 1988, before Jews were allowed to leave the Former Soviet Union, but it is the largest number of North American immigrants since 1983.
The Palestinian uprising and terrorism of the last six years didn't have an effect on immigration to Israel from what Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz called "countries of choice" -- those nations from which Jews have no physical or economic pressures to leave.
Jews who immigrate out of choice are "highly aware" of their Jewishness, and they see their immigration here as a way to show solidarity with the people of Israel, Jankelowitz told Cybercast News Service.
Israel as a country has relied on immigration of Jews from around the world to augment its population since it was established in 1948. Since then, some 3 million Jews have moved to the country.
According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the population of Israel at the end of 2006 is 7.1 million, 76 percent -- about 5.4 million -- of which is Jewish.
Under Israeli law, every Jew in the world is allowed to immigrate to the country, provided he or she does not pose a security or health threat to the nation.
The issue of demographics has played a big part in Israeli politics during the last years. Because the Jewish birth rate is generally lower than that of Palestinians, many Israelis on the political left believe that Israel must remove Jewish communities from the West Bank -- part of the land many Jews believe was promised to them as an eternal inheritance in the Bible -- to remain a Jewish state and allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Others say the demographic argument is a propaganda tool.
The 1990s saw a tremendous influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Since 1990, more than 900,000 people have immigrated to Israel.
But those numbers have dropped off drastically during the last few years. Some 7,300 immigrants from the FSU immigrated to Israel this year, down from 9,378 last year and more than 185,000 in the peak year of 1990.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, some 2 million Jews left Russia. Only about 400,000 are left there now, said Jankelowitz.
So three years ago, the Jewish Agency revamped its strategic plan to place an emphasis on bringing Jews from the West to Israel, Jankelowitz said.
"The reservoir of Jews [in the former Soviet Union] dwindled," said Jankelowitz. "In the West, there is a large reservoir of potential."
There are about six million Jews in North America -- more than in Israel. France, with around 500,000 Jews, has the third-largest Jewish population in the world.
The idea was to work on their Jewish identity, said Jankelowitz. The Jewish Agency partnered with a local organization -- Nefesh b' Nefesh (All Souls United) -- and although the numbers are not that high, he admitted, as a result of the partnership, immigration from North America has almost doubled since 2000.
Nefesh b'Nefesh caters mainly to people in the Orthodox Jewish community, who because of their strong Jewish identity and religious convictions, like the idea of coming home to the Holy Land, said Jankelowitz.
Most of them have big families, and when they consider the cost of educating their children in private Jewish schools in America at about $15,000 per year per child, they see that it is cost-effective to come to Israel, where Jewish education is free, he said.
They think it's a good idea to go to a country where they can easily buy kosher food, where Saturday is regarded as the Sabbath and where they don't have to ask permission to take off on Jewish holidays, he said.
Nefesh b'Nefesh also offers generous financial incentives and other services to newcomers from North America. This past summer, they also brought a planeload of new Jewish immigrants from Great Britain.
According to Jankelowitz, many members of the Jewish community in France already had a strong Jewish identity, are familiar with Israel and speak Hebrew. Since there has been a rise of anti-Semitic incidents in France, instead of leaving for Miami or Montreal, they choose to come to Israel, he said.
Jankelowitz emphasized that American immigrants to Israel are not coming here because they are critical of America. They are proud Americans, and they bring a little bit of America with them, he said.
When the Jews came from the former Soviet Union, they made an "indelible impression" on Israel. Imagine if one million Jews came from America, he said. They would make their mark on Israel, too.