Their First Independence Day: Some 30,000 Jews Immigrated to Israel in the Past Year

Among the countries from which they came were Indonesia, New Caledonia and Mauritius.

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Since last Independence Day, 29,715 immigrants from more than 90 countries have arrived in Israel, according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

While much attention has focused on the thousands of French Jews seeking refuge in Israel from rising anti-Semitism and a depressed economy, a far greater number of this year’s newly minted citizens hail from the former Soviet Union – primarily Russia and Ukraine.

Immigrant Absorption Ministry figures show that in Israel’s 68th year, a record number of 7,054 French Jews moved to the country. Yet more than double that number – 14,507 – arrived from the former Soviet Union, among them 6,880 from Russia and 6,306 from Ukraine. Taken together, these three countries accounted for more than two-third of all immigration to Israel.

So who are these new Israelis-by-choice who will be celebrating their first Independence Day this week? Where do they live, what do they do, and how Jewish are they? Based on existing government and other data, the following profile emerges:

A large share, it is safe to assume, do not qualify as Jewish according to the criteria of the Israeli rabbinical authorities. The Law of Return grants automatic Israeli citizenship to any immigrant who has at least one Jewish parent or grandparent, is the spouse of a Jew, or has been converted by a rabbi in a recognized Jewish community, regardless of its affiliation. But for the Chief Rabbinate, which controls marriage and burial laws in the country, that is not always good enough.

To be married or buried in a state-sanctioned Jewish ceremony, Israeli citizens must be Jewish according to halakha. That is to say, they must be able to prove that they were either born to a Jewish mother or that they were converted by a rabbi recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Of the 1.1 million Jews who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s, about 350,000 are not halakhically Jewish, and face many ongoing challenges as a result.

Exactly what share of this year’s 14,507 new arrivals are halakhically Jewish is not clear. But figures available in the 2015 World Jewish Population report provide a clear hint – and it probably does not bode well for these new immigrants. According to the publication, the number of individuals living in the former Soviet Union who would qualify for immigration under The Law of Return is close to 900,000 today. However, the number of “core Jews” (a group that overlaps considerably with halakhic Jews) in the former Soviet Union is only 285,900 – less than one–third of the total.

If a similar, or even remotely similar, breakdown exists among the new immigrants, it would mean that the vast majority are not considered Jewish by the powers-that-be in Israel. Since the new arrivals from the former Soviet Union currently account for close to half of the total immigration to Israel, that, in turn, could mean that a significant share of the total do not qualify as Jewish either in halakhic terms.

About 2.5 percent of the new immigrants have opted to become West Bank settlers. According to Immigrant Absorption Ministry figures, 768 immigrants who arrived in the country over the past year moved to Jewish settlements located beyond Israel’s internationally recognized borders. The most popular settlements were Maaleh Adumim (115 immigrants), Efrat (92), Ariel (87), Modi’in Ilit (79) and Beitar Ilit (69).

Among the more hardcore right-wing settlements that succeeded in wooing new immigrants this year were Eli (18), Itamar (8), Bat Ayin (4) and Hebron (2). These settler immigrants were a clear minority, though. Of the top five most popular destinations for new immigrants this year, four were cities on the Mediterranean coast. Topping the list was secular Tel Aviv (3,433), followed by Netanya (3,402), Jerusalem (3,122). Haifa (2,216) and Ashdod (1,657).

Among the new immigrants from the West, a plurality identify as Orthodox. Figures from the Jewish Agency show that among those arriving in Israel this past year, 37 percent were Orthodox, 41 percent traditional, 8 percent Conservative and 4 percent Reform. The remainder were either unaffiliated or identified with another movement.

Immigrants from all the English-speaking countries together were far fewer than those from France alone. According to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, a total of 4,627 Jews moved to Israel this past year from English-speaking countries. Topping the list was the United States (3,072), followed by Britain (692), Canada (466), South Africa (236), Australia (153) and Ireland (8).

There were also immigrants from places that are hardly known to have Jews. Two of this year’s immigrants cited Indonesia – a country with which Israel does not have diplomatic ties – as their place of origin. Three other individuals came from Cambodia, New Caledonia and Mauritius.

From a demographic perspective, singles outnumbered married immigrants this year and women outnumbered men, especially among those divorced and widowed. Most were also young. Close to 70 percent of immigrants were younger than 45 – the single largest age group being 20-44.

Finally, white collar professionals outnumbered blue collar. Among working age immigrants with a profession, a relatively large share were trained in high-tech, computers, medicine, education, law and accounting.

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