Aliyah Numbers Surge, Fueled by Wave of Russian Immigration to Israel

Meanwhile, number of Jews moving to Israel from U.S. and France continues to slide, Jewish Agency figures show

Immigrants from France arrive in Israel, June 21, 2018.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

Immigration to Israel rose by more than a quarter in the first half of 2019, fueled almost entirely by a continued surge in aliyah from Russia, according to internal Jewish Agency figures. In all of 2018, immigration showed a modest gain of 5 percent.

A 73 percent increase in the number of individuals moving to Israel from Russia between January and June more than compensated for drops in aliyah from many other countries — most prominently France and the United States. Indeed, Russian immigrants accounted for more than half (51 percent) of the total. In 2018, the increase in emigration from Russia was just under 50 percent.

The figures show that in the first six months of 2019, 16,019 individuals from around the world immigrated to Israel — an increase of 28 percent from the same period in 2018. This includes 616 members of the Falashmura community, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, whose aliyah had been suspended for a period of several years. Excluding the Falashmura, the half-year aliyah figures were up 23 percent.

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According to Israel's Law of Return, an individual must have at least one Jewish grandparent, be married to a Jew or have converted in an established Jewish community to be eligible for aliyah. An individual is defined as Jewish by halakha (Jewish law) if he or she was born to a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbi recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. It follows that an individual does not have to be halakhically Jewish to move to Israel.

The vast majority of immigrants arriving from Russia in recent years, according to demographic experts, are not halakhically Jewish. As a result, they are not allowed to marry in Israel unless they undergo Orthodox conversions, which most refuse to do. Roughly 350,000-400,000 Russian-speaking Israelis fall into this category, accounting for a disproportionately large share of those emigrating from Israel in recent years.

Ukraine has been another key source of immigration to Israel in recent years. According to Agency figures, a total of 3,005 individuals from Ukraine moved to the country between January and June — a modest increase of 6 percent from the corresponding period last year. Like their Russian counterparts, these Ukrainian immigrants are for the most part not halakhically Jewish.

Between 2013 and 2015, Israel experienced a large wave of immigration from France. The exodus was sparked both by a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and a depressed local economy. Since 2015, however, when close to 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel, the numbers have dropped steadily. Many French Jews who moved to Israel during the peak years have since returned to France. Difficulties with the Hebrew language and with finding work commensurate with their skills have been cited as the key obstacles to their successful integration into Israeli society.

Last year, the Israeli government, at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, launched a special campaign aimed at luring French Jews back to Israel. Agency figures show that such efforts have yet to bear fruit: In the first six months of 2019, aliyah from France dropped 23 percent, the number of immigrants totaling 799. This follows a drop of similar proportions in 2018.

Many British Jews have been mulling their future in the United Kingdom because of rising anti-Semitism. If so, Israel does not appear to be their destination of choice. Agency figures show that between January and June, 237 British Jews moved to Israel — just five more than the same period last year.

During that same period, 164 Jews left South Africa for Israel — an increase of 12 percent over the first half of 2018. A special Haaretz project recently found that what is driving Jews out, or at least causing them to think about leaving South Africa, are deep concerns about their future — and especially the future of their children — given the state of the local economy. In particular, they worry about shrinking opportunities in higher education and the workforce for the minority white population. 

Agency figures show that a total of 839 American Jews moved to Israel in the first half of 2019 — a drop of 11 percent from the same time last year. This comes on the heels of a similar drop in all of 2018.