Passover is a celebration of the Jewish people’s Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Tonight, as in Seder nights past, Jews around the world will sit down to commemorate what was essentially the formation of the Jewish people. Indeed, of all the holiday rituals, the Seder is the most observed by Jews from all walks of life.
But while many Jews reconstruct a virtual exodus by reading the Haggada and otherwise reenacting the story of how the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, others have in recent months performed an actual exodus – leaving behind all that they know in the Diaspora to come to Israel and tie their destiny to the Jewish people living in the Holy Land.
In the first quarter of 2014 there was a 14 percent jump in aliya. If this pace continues throughout the year, there will be a total of 19,000 immigrants compared to 16,882 in 2013. This would be the largest annual increase in aliya since 2006.
Admittedly, the numbers are modest compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. We are nowhere near Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s goal of bringing 3.5 million immigrants to Israel over the next decade, a goal articulated in February in Jerusalem before a gathering of American Jewish leaders.
Jewish demographics and statistics experts such as Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University expect a “future stabilization of Jewish international migration, including aliya, at low levels of mobility unlike most of the past experience.”
Still, foretelling the future is a notoriously sticky business. Major disruptions and crises in Diaspora communities have historically resulted in higher rates of aliya. And similar phenomena can lead to aliya in the future.
Growing anti-Semitism and economic woes in France played a large part in the 312% increase in aliya in the first two months of 2014 to 854 new immigrants. In March the Immigration and Absorption Ministry presented data to the Knesset that showed two-thirds of French Jews were considering emigration, at least half of whom are considering coming to Israel. And the situation is similar elsewhere in Western Europe. A recent survey conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency indicated that a third of Jews from several Western countries were considering emigration due to anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, in eastern Europe political unrest, particularly in Ukraine, has also sparked aliya. In the first three months of the year a total of 557 new immigrants registered at the Immigration and Absorption Ministry to come to Israel, a 43% rise compared to the same period last year. And preliminary data indicate that the pace continued through April with 250 new immigrants registered.
“Push” factors that encourage Diaspora Jews to leave their communities for Israel are only part of the picture. There are also significant “pull” factors.
Over the years Israel has increasingly become in many ways an attractive place to live. While other economies have suffered and continue to suffer from the economic crisis of 2008, Israel’s has remained remarkably resilient with relatively low levels of unemployment.
Israel is also a great place to bring up children. Education is relatively cheap, society is geared to support families with children and the sheer number of young people (Israel’s fertility rate is the highest in the Western world) makes being a child here much easier.
And for those who want to live in an outwardly Jewish manner – observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays, receive a Jewish education and live openly and freely as a Jew – no other place in the world can compete with Israel.
So while we may not see a huge exodus of Jews from the Diaspora any time soon, we should be reminded of the tremendous accomplishment of the Zionist movement. Perhaps more than ever before, the State of Israel is a viable alternative to Diaspora existence for Jews around the world.