Number of Americans in Israel, Israelis in America much less than thought

A deeper dive into those figures shows that some of the urban myths about the numbers of Israelis living abroad, and the makeup of the immigrants in this country, are just that: myths.

El-Al Jumbo jet (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
El-Al Jumbo jet
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Ask someone in Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh or Tel Aviv how many American Jews have immigrated to the country since 1948, and chances are that you will hear answers in the hundreds of thousands. And, by contrast, ask Jews in New York, Los Angeles or London how many Israelis they believe live in their midst, and they – too – will probably say the same thing.
The truth is that in both cases, the numbers are much lower than most people think.
The Central Bureau of Statistics released a whole slew of numbers on immigration to Israel, and emigration from it, in advance of International Migrant Day, which will be marked on Wednesday.
A deeper dive into those figures shows that some of the urban myths about the numbers of Israelis living abroad, and the makeup of the immigrants in this country, are just that: myths.
According to the CBS figures, as of the end of 2018, 3.3 million immigrants have moved to Israel since 1948. Of that number, according to Jewish Agency figures, only 148,083 have come from the United States, a Jewish community that – depending on whom you count as a Jew – numbers between 5.5 to six million people.
A.B. Yehoshua, the Israeli author well-known for his disdain for the Diaspora, gave a controversial speech in 2006 to the American Jewish Committee in Washington where he essentially said that Jews in the Diaspora were play acting at being Jews, and that the only place where a genuinely full and natural Jewish life was possible was in Israel.
Those words – understandably – antagonized many and stirred controversy both in Israel and the US, and a few months later Yehoshua wrote a piece explaining himself.
“After Palestine was taken over by the British, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised a national home for the Jews, and if during the 1920s, when the country’s gates were open wide, just a half million Jews had come (less than 5 percent of the Jewish people at that time) instead of the tiny number that actually did come, it certainly would have been possible to establish a Jewish state before the Holocaust on part of the Land of Israel,” he wrote.
“This state not only would have ended the Israeli-Arab conflict at an earlier stage and with less bloodshed – it also could have provided refuge in the 1930s to hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who sensed the gathering storm, and thus would have significantly reduced the number of victims in the Holocaust.”
Looking at the relatively small number of Jews who immigrated to Israel from the United States since the founding of Israel, one can ask a similar question. What would this country look like today, what would conflict with the Palestinians look like, if in the decade after 1967 Six Day War, one-tenth of American Jews, or 600,000 people, would have made aliyah?
But it wasn’t to be. Actually, immigration from the US peaked in the aftermath of the Six Day War, numbering 7,158 in 1971, before leveling off at some 3,000 a year in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The number of US olim from 1968 to 2002, when aliyah promotion NGO Nefesh B’Nefesh started to operate, was some 2,774 a year. Since Nefesh B’Nefesh has been active, that number has grown to an average of 3,125 a year, meaning that Nefesh B’Nefesh has made immigration easier, but has not turned the drizzle of immigration from the US into a flood.
What about those moving in the other direction? Despite the fact that this country’s population has grown by 3.7 million people in the last 25 years alone and now stands at 9.1 million, the media periodically warns that all Israelis are looking to leave, gobbling up passports to Portugal as a safety net, heading tor Berlin or London, or across the Atlantic to New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
But these dire warning are not borne out by the CBS figures.
According to the data, in 2017 between 561,000 to 599,000 Israelis are living abroad for more than a year – not including their children born overseas – or about 6.4% of Israel’s population.
The World Bank even puts this figure lower, with its 2016 Migration and Remittances Factbook stating that only 4.6% of Israel’s population lives abroad.
By comparison, according to the World Bank data, fully 18% of Lebanon’s population lives abroad; 10.7% of Mexico’s; 9.1% of Greece’s; 8% of the United Kingdom’s; 5.1 of Germany’s; 4.9% of Italy; 2.1% of Australia’s; and 1% of America’s.
Along with the constant stories about emigrating Israelis, another feature in the news is the “brain drain,” and the concern that this country’s best and brightest – its doctors, computer scientists and engineers – are all looking for greener pastures abroad.
While according to the World Bank figures, nearly 43% of the Israelis working in OECD countries have more than a secondary education, that is not the highest figure in the world. Forty-five percent of Canadians and Australians living abroad have advanced education, while the percentage of expat Brits with higher education is 38%, the percentage of Russians is 36%, and Americans is 31%.