The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to questions about the number of Ukrainian refugees Israel should accept. Herb Keinon (March 17, Jerusalem Post) points out that most Ukrainian refugees do not necessarily want to come to Israel. Most of the three and a half million refugees who have fled Ukraine have ended up in neighboring countries where they can stay close to their native land. Keinon quotes Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk as saying that Israel is an expensive country and “not the easiest place to come [to] or the most comfortable to be.”
But, what about the Jews of Ukraine, as well as those Jews in Russia who may feel that they should get out while they still can? Keinon estimates that 200,000 Ukrainians and 650,000 Russians are eligible to make Aliyah under the Law of Return. But while Israeli officials are planning for 100,000 new immigrants from the two countries this year, Keinon predicts that the number will be closer to 25,000. After all, unless you have relatives in Israel, or feel that Jewish identity is important, why would you want to come to Israel when countries such as Germany or Poland are willing to take you in?
While Keinon’s prediction may turn out to be accurate, I think he and Ambassador Korniychuk are selling Israel short. In fact, the very next Jerusalem Post (March 18) noted that Israel’s ranking in the 2022 World Happiness Report, a measure that takes into account gross domestic product (GDP), social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption, has moved up to number 9, from 12 last year. Now in its 10th year, the Report ranks 149 countries, with the northern European countries dominating the list. Germany ranked 14, Poland 43, Russia 80 and Ukraine 98. (Canada and the US were ranked 15 and 16, respectively.)
There are other indices. Since 2006, The Economist has published a comprehensive Democracy Index for 167 countries based on 60 numeric scores that measure, such values as pluralism and civil liberties. The Nordic countries dominate again. Israel was ranked 23 for the year 2021 (up from 27 the year before). The ratings for Poland, Ukraine and Russia are significantly lower.
A related index, the UN-based Human Development Index, takes into account life expectancy and years of schooling, as well as income per capita. For 2020 Israel ranked 19 out of 193, tied with Japan. Canada and the US ranked 16 and 17, respectively.
Israel’s per capita GDP was recently ranked 19th in the world, well above that for countries such as Poland and Ukraine. Moreover, the technology-driven Israeli economy has rebounded from the effects of COVID-19 with a growth rate of 8.1 % for 2021, the second highest in the OECD.
Yes, Israel has become an expensive country, but the countries of northern Europe are expensive, as well. And that doesn’t make them less attractive as refugees.
It is true that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” (a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, but actually stated in 1963 by the sociologist William Bruce Cameron). Nevertheless, even when taken with a grain of salt these measures indicate that Israel could be an attractive destination for many refugees.
But, none of this really gets at the underlying reason for Israel’s high score on the Happiness Report. After all, Israel is an expensive and crowded place, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is not any closer to resolution, and Israel faces existential threats today, just as it always has. I don’t have an answer, but I think a 2018 Wall Street Journal article by the American pediatrician Robert C. Hamilton comes close. Hamilton writes about the unusually high birth rate in Israel, the only developed country in which birth rate has increased instead of decreased.
This is true for religious Jews, as well as secular ones. Israelis treasure children. Hamilton writes that the high fertility reflects an understanding among secular and religious Israelis about the meaning of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The writer, a retired professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Waterloo, writes articles and opinion pieces that have appeared in The Jerusalem Report, the Times of Israel and Algemeiner Journal, among others.