(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With the end of 2006, aliya across the globe has shifted almost entirely to "aliya by choice," and Jews are no longer coming to escape the conditions in their home countries, Jewish Agency officials told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
This reality is reflected in the recent aliya figures. A total of 21,000 olim came to Israel during 2006, representing a drop from 22,657 in 2005 and an 18-year low.
However, according to Jewish Agency officials, the drop is due to the end of the massive influx of over a million Soviet Jews into Israel following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"Today's numbers are still double what were coming during the 1980s," said Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz. This is confirmed by the previous low of 13,034 in 1988, just prior to the Soviet Jewish aliya.
At the same time, the figures show a large increase from English-speaking North America. Just in 2006, aliya rose seven percent to some 3,200.
In addition, while figures from France seem to indicate a decline, this is due to the method by which many French Jews come to Israel.
Often, said the Jewish Agency's director-general of the Aliya and Absorption Department Oded Salomon, French Jews tended to purchase or rent apartments in Israel and alternate between France and Israel. Many maintained tourist statuses and did not officially make aliya. Those that did take Israeli citizenship, he said, were not counted by the end-of-the-year aliya statistics.
By the end of January 2007, Salomon told the Post, these olim would be counted. In his opinion, the number would be the same as in 2005.
Yet, he emphasized, "it is important to remember that 2004 to 2005 saw a large increase [in French olim]."
"The primary concern for French olim is work. If you offer them work opportunities, they will come much more easily," he added.
This was due to the language barrier, he explained. "A French-speaking oleh needs more guarantees than an English-speaker, who will be understood more easily [by Israelis]."
Salomon also expects an increase in French aliya if French Socialist candidate S gol ne Royal wins the 2007 French presidential elections in May.
"People are sitting on the fence," he said. According to Foreign Ministry and Jewish Agency officials, "if the left-wing candidate wins [and carries out] her softened policy toward the Muslims, the assessment is that French Jews will come to Israel."
In general, however, Salomon noted that French Jews were financially comfortable, and would not come in massive numbers regardless of the election results.
A similar situation is taking place in the former Soviet Union. The estimated 600,000 Jews who remain in the region are mostly living comfortably in urban centers.
"In the past, people charged the JAFI offices because they knew a life in Israel would be better economically," Salomon noted. "Today, the situation in these countries, including Russia and Ukraine, is better."
Intermarriage is also keeping many Jews from leaving. Estimated at 50% across the FSU, this factor significantly "lowers the desire to emigrate," he added.
And finally, "there are important Jewish bodies, such as Chabad and others, who brought these communities back to life." With a Jewish life an increasingly viable option at home, many Jews who identify Jewishly find less of a reason to make aliya.
"I was in the Ukraine during Hanukka," Salomon related. "The streets were packed and full of expensive cars. The community life is developed there. Many Jews are leaders in the country."
While "there are still incentives to aliya in the peripheries," most Jews lived in the large cities, he said.
Asked if encouraging aliya from communities experiencing a rebirth of Jewish life was not weakening the communities, Salomon gave a carefully qualified response.
"The vision is to increase aliya as much as possible," he said. The premise of Jewish Agency activities in the FSU is that "the ones we don't get to, in five to eight years 50% won't even be there due to intermarriage."
Regarding US Jewry, Salomon said that while he didn't believe the Jewish Agency was capable of bringing the entire community to Israel - "even if 500,000 make aliya in the next five years, the majority will still be in the US and will be a strong community" - he also contended that it was important for American Jewry to remain.
"You won't get to six million olim in 200 years, and I think it's good that they stay," he said emphatically, since, as a community, "they contribute greatly to Judaism generally and to Israel."
His only concern: "If assimilation continues to rise, then it becomes a question of whether failing to get to them will mean they will disappear."