Jewish immigration is an ideological factor of the highest order in Israel, expressing the principal goal of the Jewish national movement, Zionism.
Its significance is reflected in canon writings from Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat through the Declaration of Independence, to the Law of Return, as well as in the public discourse surrounding terms such as the ingathering and merging of the exiles.
For many years, aliyah has been perceived as an answer to the distress of Jews in the Diaspora, on the one hand, and to the need to fortify Israel’s demographic, military and economic strength, on the other.
Indeed, more than three and a quarter of a million people have “made aliyah” since 1948. Aliyah comes in waves, massive in some years, followed by downturns, and back again.
In the midst of these ups and downs, the first three and a half years of statehood stand out, as Holocaust survivors, displaced persons, and Jews from Asia and Northern Africa doubled the country’s Jewish population. The early 1960s saw another important wave, leaving almost no Jews behind in Muslim countries.
Following Israel’s glorious victory in the 1967 Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, a relatively large number of Jews from North America and Western Europe, with a strong Zionist identity, moved to Israel. Soon afterward, for a limited time, in the second half of the 1970s, the Soviet Union relaxed its ban on emigration and allowed several thousand Jews to leave, many of whom settled in Israel.
The most dramatic aliyah from this area, however, took place in the last decade of the 20th century under the new geopolitical order of perestroika, as more than one million Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel along with non-Jewish family members who were entitled to do so under the Law of Return.
While immigrants from Europe and the Islamic lands have accompanied the State of Israel and, in fact, the Zionist project in Palestine/Israel since its inception in the late 19th century, an almost entirely new group of immigrants has arrived: Ethiopian Jews.
Operation Moses and Operation Solomon
They came in two main operations – Operation Moses in 1983 and Operation Solomon in 1991. They were later joined by other Ethiopian immigrants, bringing the number of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel to 100,000.
ALTOGETHER, OLIM (Jewish immigrants to Israel) have come from some 75 countries in all settled continents – Europe, the Americas, Oceania, Asia and Africa. Most aliyah (about 90%), however, has originated in less politically and economically stable countries, and less developed areas where Jews’ personal security was often fragile. Their counterparts, living in democratic welfare states, generally prefer to stay where they are.
In the interplay between negative push factors in the origin countries, and Zionist and religious pull factors in Israel, the former has held the upper hand. Notably, forced or hardship aliyah is characterized by short-lived but large-scale streams that incur massive expenditures in order to ensure the immigrants’ integration.
More recently, annual aliyah has been small, at about 20,000 to 30,000. Approximately half of the olim arrive from the former Soviet Union; other major countries where olim originate from are the US and France.
COVID-19 apparently created administrative difficulties for prospective cross-border migrants. Thus, in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, aliyah decreased by 40% compared to the previous year.
In 2021, the impact of the pandemic waned slightly but remained evident, leaving the number of olim only 23% smaller than in 2019.
The current war in Europe has had the opposite effect. It triggered an abrupt spurt in aliyah, especially from the combat zones. Thus, 36,000 immigrants arrived in Israel between February and August of this year: 23,000 from Russia and 13,000 from Ukraine – three times more than in the same period in 2021.
Still, this is only a small proportion of the 200,000 Jews in Ukraine and more than half a million in Russia (Jews and non-Jewish kin who are entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return). Some increase in immigration from Russia is expected in view of Vladimir Putin’s recent mobilization of military reservists for war duty.
This weak tendency to immigrate to Israel is especially pronounced in Ukraine, where the fighting has been concentrated. The majority there prefer either to stay put or to emigrate elsewhere in Europe or to North America.
These observations, coupled with the geographical distribution of Diaspora Jews today – most dwelling in developed societies – suggest that aliyah is likely to be low overall in the foreseeable future unless unexpected geopolitical or economic events occur. Israel is less and less an immigration country than it was in its first five decades.
Its nativity composition has been shifting from the prominence of the foreign-born to a majority of second, and third-generation Israelis who experience processes of socialization together. This, in turn, carries the potential of a stronger movement toward ethnic blending.
The writer is head of the Division of Jewish Demography at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he also holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations. This is the second in a series of eight op-ed articles that will appear once a month during Israel’s 75th anniversary year. The next article discusses ethnicity.