It’s natural for new ministers and committee chairs to begin their terms with ambitious aspirations, but in the case of incoming Immigrant Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and David Bitan, the new chair of the Knesset’s Aliyah, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, their opening statements exhibit total detachment from reality.
On Tuesday, Bitan boasted that by the end of 2020, 50,000 new olim, or Jewish immigrants, would arrive in Israel. The next day, Tamano-Shata, in her first appearance before the committee, said that by the end of 2021 there will 90,000 new immigrants. Their numbers were apparently based on estimates of the Jewish Agency and other organizations encouraging aliyah.
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According to these organizations, the estimates are based on a tripling in the opening of new aliyah files in recent months. This, they say, is linked to the coronavirus pandemic. But any expectation that the actual number of new immigrants arriving over the next 18 months will correspond with the number of files opened – assuming those figures are even true – has no basis in reality.
It’s possible that Jews living in the Diaspora, stuck at home during the long coronavirus lockdown over the past few months, have gone online and checked on the possibility of emigrating to Israel. Boredom and despair can make you do all kinds of things. But the assumption that Israel’s relatively low number of deaths from the virus and its free health care will automatically lead to a tripling of Jewish emigration flies in the face of all we have learned about emigration to Israel since the beginning of Zionism.
The major waves of emigration have never been from Western countries with higher standards of living than Israel. American, British and French Jews have always been small minorities among the Holocaust survivors, refugees and victims of famine coming from Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.
Emigration by choice from a Western country means lower incomes, meager employment prospects and smaller homes – in other words, smaller numbers of ideologically and religiously driven olim.
The expectation that Israel’s relatively better handling of the pandemic (so far) than the countries where major Jewish communities reside in the West will motivate multitudes to emigrate, based simply on more people going online, fails to take into account all the many other reasons that stopped them from doing so before COVID-19.
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And let’s just assume for a moment that the virus has made them change their minds. It has also made their financial future much less certain. If an American or British or French Jew currently has a job while many around them – and of course many in Israel – are being furloughed or fired, what are the chances of them jeopardizing their livelihoods?
And even if they were willing to risk their families’ financial security out of fear of the coronavirus (all this assumes the pandemic will be with us for years and Israel will remain a better place for dealing with it, neither of which is assured), mass aliyah in the next year or so is logistically impossible. We don’t know when flights are to be resumed and Western immigrants don’t come to Israel sight unseen. They want to make at least a couple of trips in advance to scout out job opportunities and a new home. And that’s assuming they can even get out and about in their current home countries to take care of the many complicated tasks that relocating to a new country involves.
Another virus-related factor that will drive the numbers of olim down over the next year or so is the simple fact that in some countries, you can’t arrange an aliyah visa online. Two-thirds of new immigrants in recent years have arrived from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Prospective immigrants from these countries need to be interviewed in person in offices of the Nativ agency. These offices have all been closed for months due to the coronavirus, and no one has any idea when they will reopen.
Emigration in a time of pandemic, unless you are fleeing for your lives, simply doesn’t make sense. You shelter in place, you don’t move to a different continent. And the numbers already prove that. Only 7,000 new immigrants arrived in Israel in the first half of 2020, mostly in the earlier months of the year. Just by comparison, in 2019, which was a record year in over two decades, 35,000 made aliyah. There’s no way we’re going to see these numbers this year or the next. It’s logistically unfeasible.
All this takes us back five years, when in the wake of the Islamist terror attacks in France and Belgium, the government and the Jewish Agency spoke of the arrival of 100,000 French Jews.
The year 2015 was indeed a record one for emigration from France, with over 7,000 arrivals, but nearly all of them had planned to come before the terror attacks. Aliyah from a Western country is rarely something that is decided upon and carried out overnight. In the following years, the numbers began to fall. Not only was the 100,000 a myth, but in recent years immigration from France has sharply declined, with only 2,300 arriving in 2019.
The reason that aliyah rose until 2015 was a change in the tax laws. From 2008 onward, new immigrants were granted a 10-year exemption on income tax on all earnings and assets they had abroad. This encouraged many French Jews to move their families to Israel while retaining their jobs and businesses and commuting across the Mediterranean. But by 2016, the number of French Jews who wanted to take advantage of this arrangement began to shrink. Aliyah from France has been steadily going down for the past five years, and that doesn’t even take into account those for whom commuting was too difficult and returned to France.
Don’t the experts in the Jewish Agency and other aliyah organizations know this? Of course they do, but they are fighting for relevancy, funding and even survival in this uncertain climate. That’s why Nefesh B’Nefesh – the private organization that has tried and largely failed to boost the numbers of immigrants from North America – is grasping at every potential oleh they can find. They even put an elderly woman with the coronavirus on a flight from New York last week.
The politicians and apparatchiks profess a love of the Diaspora and of aliyah. But the way they bandy around these crazy numbers displays a deep disrespect to the difficult choice and life-changing process of emigration. Jews who do choose to move to Israel from the West have made a decision to sacrifice stability and security, and have not done so lightly. They’re not just numbers.