Travellers in Israel's Ben Gurion Airport
Travellers in Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, acquiesced wearily to a recent question posed by Time magazine, one that was stated as fact: “One million Israelis live abroad. It’s not as if Jews are flocking there.” Peres admitted warily: “We’re swimming upstream….” But this picture is not new. In fact, for most of Peres’s 60 years of political leadership — appointed to 12 governing Cabinets, heading three as prime minister, privy to and controlling Israel’s vaunted data and intelligence apparatus — the portrayal of dangerously large numbers of Israelis abroad has been the accepted wisdom.Israel boasts of the world’s most comprehensive population registries and censuses analyzed by its respected Central Bureau of Statistics, which has never lent support to the “million Israelis abroad” thesis. When, 15 years ago, I asked why such fantastic numbers come out of ministries just down the street from this scientific bureau, one Israeli government statistician shrugged his shoulders and said,“They don’t come and ask us.”

Rather than being a one-directional drain on Israel, migration of Israeli-born Jews tends to be circulatory, following the seasons of Israeli migrants’ lives. Israelis often don’t stay in the United States for good, usually returning to Israel, where close family has likely remained. U.S. Social Security payments abroad to individuals in Israel are only dwarfed by Mexico, Canada and the Philippines. And this migratory phenomenon has been a great political and economic benefit to Israel as opposed to a drain.

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