Editorial: Coming home

A record 12,000 Israeli expats came home in '09.

Jewish Agency Aliya expo 311 (photo credit: David Karp)
Jewish Agency Aliya expo 311
(photo credit: David Karp)
Israeli expatriates are coming home. That was the good news the Central Bureau of Statistics provided this week. Though more Israelis emigrate (derogatorily referred to as yerida “going down,” in Hebrew) than repatriate, in 2008 the difference between the two – 8,500 – was the lowest since 1987.
In 2009 a record 12,000 Israeli expats returned home after living at least two years abroad, according to the Absorption Ministry. In previous years the average was less than half that. The rise was attributed to the world financial crisis, which left Israel relatively unscathed, combined with an attractive package of benefits offered to repatriating Israelis.
A closer look at the CBS data released Monday reveals additional interesting nuances. Of the 19,100 Israelis citizens who left Israel for at least a year, 73 percent were Jewish. The rest were either non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or Arabs.
In contrast, of the 10,600 who returned after at least a year, 79% were Jewish. In short, relatively fewer Jews left than returned.
Immigration sociologists talk about “push” and “pull” factors that influence peoples’ decisions to leave one country for another. In theory, Israel’s wars and terror attacks are the main “push” factors. The Diaspora’s promise of socioeconomic advancement is regarded as the main “pull” factor.
However, studies by Dr. Lilach Lev-Ari, head of the Sociology Department at Oranim College and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, have shown that the two Lebanon wars, the two intifadas and suicide bombings had negligible impact on emigration. In contrast, economic “pull” factors have dominated since the 1970s, when Israelis began to go abroad en masse.
Lev-Ari also found that Israelis who venture abroad to launch private businesses, as opposed to those who leave for an attractive position at a university or a hitech company, are less likely to return. As a result, a disproportionate number of Israeli expats are businessman.
In general, Israeli expats tend to be better off financially than the average Israeli. But they are also more likely to return home than emigrants from other countries, even western democracies like Britain.
Discrepancies over precisely how many Israeli expats there are in the world are a function of how you define a yored. The Central Bureau of Statistics considers anyone abroad for more than a year to be one. Therefore, the CBS’s three estimates of 518,000; 543,000 and 572,000 are higher than scholars’ estimates of 350,000, which count only “hard-core yordim” of longer than a year.
According to the lower estimate, 100,000 Jewish yordim live in the US. None of the estimates includes children born in the Diaspora.
Most Israelis expats tend to feel that their real “home” is Israel, even if they never return. But their children, especially those born abroad to secular families, overwhelmingly assimilate. While the Jewish religion can be readily passed on from generation to generation through existing frameworks of observance such as the synagogue, the secular, ethnonational identity of “Israeliness” detached from its living source does not provide an ample basis for Jewish continuity in the Diaspora.
One way to strengthen Jewish continuity of Israeli expatriates is to integrate them into the Diaspora’s many Jewish communities. But due to cultural differences, this often is no easy task, and ex-Israelis tend to socialize with their fellow expats.
Another option is social frameworks tailored especially for Israeli expats such as Garin Tzabar, through which children of Israelis maintain social ties in the Diaspora and volunteer for IDF service together.
BUT THE prime goal should be to bring back Israeli families living abroad. An Absorption Ministry initiative, to be announced in coming weeks, should be praised for aspiring to do just that.
Similar to the successful 2009 campaign, expats who prove they are coming home for good will be offered tax and Customs breaks received by new immigrants. Those who were abroad for longer than 10 years will be exempt from paying taxes on their overseas income and they will be reimbursed for the costs of renewing their medical coverage here.
With signs of recovery in the world economy, it is unclear whether the new package will succeed as well as the 2009 campaign. But for the sake of Jewish continuity, it’s worth a try.