Israeli expatriates are coming home. That was the good news the Central Bureau
of Statistics provided this week. Though more Israelis emigrate (derogatorily
referred to as yerida “going down,” in Hebrew) than repatriate, in 2008 the
difference between the two – 8,500 – was the lowest since 1987.
In 2009 a
record 12,000 Israeli expats returned home after living at least two years
abroad, according to the Absorption Ministry. In previous years the average was
less than half that. The rise was attributed to the world financial crisis,
which left Israel relatively unscathed, combined with an attractive package of
benefits offered to repatriating Israelis.
A closer look at the CBS data
released Monday reveals additional interesting nuances. Of the 19,100 Israelis
citizens who left Israel for at least a year, 73 percent were Jewish. The rest
were either non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or
In contrast, of the 10,600 who returned after at least a year, 79%
were Jewish. In short, relatively fewer Jews left than
Immigration sociologists talk about “push” and “pull” factors
that influence peoples’ decisions to leave one country for another. In theory,
Israel’s wars and terror attacks are the main “push” factors. The Diaspora’s
promise of socioeconomic advancement is regarded as the main “pull”
However, studies by Dr. Lilach Lev-Ari, head of the Sociology
Department at Oranim College and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, have shown
that the two Lebanon wars, the two intifadas and suicide bombings had negligible
impact on emigration. In contrast, economic “pull” factors have dominated since
the 1970s, when Israelis began to go abroad en masse.
Lev-Ari also found
that Israelis who venture abroad to launch private businesses, as opposed to
those who leave for an attractive position at a university or a hitech company,
are less likely to return. As a result, a disproportionate number of Israeli
expats are businessman.
In general, Israeli expats tend to be better off
financially than the average Israeli. But they are also more likely to return
home than emigrants from other countries, even western democracies like
Discrepancies over precisely how many Israeli expats there are
in the world are a function of how you define a yored. The Central Bureau of
Statistics considers anyone abroad for more than a year to be one. Therefore,
the CBS’s three estimates of 518,000; 543,000 and 572,000 are higher than
scholars’ estimates of 350,000, which count only “hard-core yordim” of longer
than a year.
According to the lower estimate, 100,000 Jewish yordim live
in the US. None of the estimates includes children born in the
Most Israelis expats tend to feel that their real “home” is
Israel, even if they never return. But their children, especially those born
abroad to secular families, overwhelmingly assimilate. While the Jewish religion
can be readily passed on from generation to generation through existing
frameworks of observance such as the synagogue, the secular, ethnonational
identity of “Israeliness” detached from its living source does not provide an
ample basis for Jewish continuity in the Diaspora.
One way to strengthen
Jewish continuity of Israeli expatriates is to integrate them into the
Diaspora’s many Jewish communities. But due to cultural differences, this often
is no easy task, and ex-Israelis tend to socialize with their fellow
Another option is social frameworks tailored especially for
Israeli expats such as Garin Tzabar, through which children of Israelis maintain
social ties in the Diaspora and volunteer for IDF service together.
THE prime goal should be to bring back Israeli families living abroad. An
Absorption Ministry initiative, to be announced in coming weeks, should be
praised for aspiring to do just that.
Similar to the successful 2009 campaign, expats who prove they are coming home for good will be offered tax and Customs breaks received by new immigrants. Those who were abroad for longer than 10 years will be exempt from paying taxes on their overseas income and they will be reimbursed for the costs of renewing their medical coverage here.
With signs of recovery in the world economy, it is unclear whether the new package will succeed as well as the 2009 campaign. But for the sake of Jewish continuity, it’s worth a try.