COVID Takes a Toll: Immigration to Israel Drops 40 Percent in 2020

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Ethiopian immigrants to Israel are met by family members at Ben-Gurion Airport, February 25, 2020.
Ethiopian immigrants to Israel are met by family members at Ben-Gurion Airport, February 25, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Summer predictions of a surge in immigration to Israel because of the coronavirus pandemic have proved to be overly optimistic, as new data showed a drop of 40 percent in new arrivals.

The predictions were made when it initially appeared that Israel was managing the rates of infection more effectively than other Western countries. Since then, Israel has experienced repeated surges of infection and the country has been locked down twice and suffered significant economic damage, including surging unemployment.

According to the Jewish Agency, only 20,000 individuals will have made aliyah to Israel by the year’s end, a decrease of 14,000 from the previous year. In 2019, 34,000 immigrants moved to the Jewish state, the largest annual number of immigrants to Israel over the past decade.

The 2020 number reflects a rate of immigration far lower than what was foreseen by Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata in June, when she told a Knesset committee that she expected 90,000 immigrants to come to Israel in the next year and a half. On the basis of these predictions, she requested a significant boost in funding to underwrite a “coronavirus aliyah.”

In July, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog predicted a surge of 250,000 immigrants over the next three to five years because of the coronavirus pandemic, most of them young and educated. Herzog told the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs that the pandemic was “a historic challenge that we must exploit, and the government needs to understand the opportunity and prepare a national program for absorbing this immigration wave.”

Herzog said at the time that he believed Israel was looking increasingly desirable to Jews abroad because of its widely perceived success in combating the pandemic.

In announcing this year’s lower numbers, Herzog remained upbeat despite the drop in arrivals. “A wonderful thing happened to us – 20,000 Jews immigrated to the State of Israel during this pandemic year, 20,000 people who were ready to leave everything behind, in a challenging period of global turmoil, to come build a new life in Israel.”

The agency continues to predict that “Israel can expect an influx of about 250,000 olim to Israel over the next three to five years.”

The Jewish Agency is the organization responsible for opening aliyah files and determining eligibility for aliyah under the Law of Return. Any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent, who converted to Judaism or whose spouse is Jewish is legally eligible to immigrate to Israel.

Immigration to Israel was never officially halted during the pandemic, although requirements to quarantine upon arrival and the closure of offices in potential immigrants’ home countries from which they were required to obtain documents made the process more challenging.

The 2020 data released by the Jewish Agency reflected immigration from over 70 countries. The figures showed 10,200 immigrants came from the countries of the former Soviet Union, 3,120 from Western Europe – 2,220 from France – and around 2,850 from North America, 2,550 of those from the United States. The remaining number came from Latin America 1,500 and under 90 from Australia and New Zealand.

By the end of 2020, the total number of olim from Ethiopia for the year was expected to be 1,200, nearly all of them coming in December – 650 have already arrived and another 300 are expected to land on the last day of the year.

The Jewish Agency also noted that it had opened approximately 41,000 new aliyah application files, including 28,000 files for people from Western countries – twice the number opened in 2019.

However, potential immigrants often open aliyah files but do not follow through by moving to Israel. Additionally, many of the inquiries and opening of files can be attributable to Jews abroad, especially in France, who applied in order to obtain Israeli passports, which would allow them to travel to Israel freely after COVID-19 restrictions limited entry to only Israeli citizens.

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