Why Israelis emigrate

Those remaining in Israel are increasingly ethno-nationalists such as religious Zionists, Russians, traditional-minded Sephardim and Ethiopians.

311_airplane (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For some time now, a number of pundits have been advancing the following argument: Faced with the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stuck with consecutive governments unwilling to reach an equitable agreement with the Palestinian leadership, highly educated and moderate-minded Israelis have been leaving Israel in droves. This trend has been boosted in recent years, it is claimed, by the added factor of Iran’s menacing push to achieve nuclear capability. Those remaining in Israel are increasingly ethno-nationalists such as religious Zionists, Russians, traditional-minded Sephardim and Ethiopians.
Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, argued in April of last year on Foreign Policy’s website, for instance, that [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu “ought to be... concerned by signs that the Zionist ideal is losing its hold within Israel itself.”
For proof of this claim, Walt noted that “there are reportedly between 700,000 and one million Israeli citizens now living abroad, and emigration has outpaced immigration since 2007.” According to Walt, the conflict with the Palestinians in eminently solvable, but “because Netanyahu has long opposed the creation of a viable Palestinian state and instead wants to extend Israel’s control of the West Bank, he has to lay out a set of demands that will endlessly delay the process and make it hard for Obama to put meaningful pressure on him.”
A similar argument has been put forward by Ian Lustick, the Bess W. Heyman professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. In a 2008 article in Middle East Policy, Lustick pointed to the construction of the security barrier, the movement of Israeli populations from the periphery to the greater Tel Aviv area and the low numbers of Israelis who speak Arabic as examples of “escapist” tendencies rampant in Israeli society.
“The logically extreme expression of escape is, of course, emigration,” Lustick noted. The collapse of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the Aksa Intifada had sparked a sharp rise in emigration, Lustick asserted. “The danger for the Jewish state is that, given the choice between convincing Middle Easterners that Israel can be a good neighbor and leaving the neighborhood, more and more Israelis are attracted to the latter,” he concluded.
Like Walt, Lustick’s unambiguous message was that if Israel’s leadership decided to be “good neighbors,” moderate Israelis would not feel the need to leave the neighborhood.
AGAINST this intellectual backdrop, the US Census Bureau has just released new figures on the number of Israelis living in the US at the end of 2009. According to the data, the number of individuals born in Israel now living in the US grew by about 30 percent since 2000. Some 140,323 people living in the States at the end of 2009 were born in Israel, up from 109,720 in 2000. Of the Israelis living there, 90,179 had US citizenship; 50,144 did not.
Some observers will doubtless be tempted to interpret this rise as a direct result of disenchantment with Israel’s failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But, strikingly, Walt, Lustick and others claiming that “moderate” Israelis are abandoning the Zionist project, ostensibly fed up with Israeli policies, have never actually troubled to ask the Israeli expatriates why they left.
Now, several immigration sociologists have done that. One of them is Lilach Lev-Ari, who heads the Oranim Academic College of Education’s sociology department. From in-depth interviews with hundreds of Israeli expats in North America, Lev-Ari has reached the conclusion that “push” factors such as 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.
In short, Israelis leave Israel to make money or achieve some other form of social mobility. And many Israelis who leave their homeland to pursue academic advancement or perform a specific job end up coming back. Those who make a lot of money abroad through personal business ventures tend not to.
Israelis who have lived large portions of their lives here apparently harbor few illusions regarding the tremendous complexities of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and do not widely hold a life-choice-motivating grudge against their political leaders for failing to do so.
The ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, endangering Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and the Iranian nuclear threat represent real, critical challenges for Israel. For the Israeli electorate, the Palestinian issue in particular has been a key factor in their choice of democratically elected leadership.
Israelis agonize over the most minute aspects of this conflict; evidently, according to Lev-Ari’s research, and despite certain critics’ assertions to the contrary, they do not abandon the country over the failure to solve it.