The number of American Jews expressing serious interest in immigrating to Israel spiked in the period following the presidential election, according to figures obtained by Haaretz, but it has since leveled off.
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According to these figures, in November, 508 American Jews opened files with the Jewish Agency declaring their intention to immigrate to Israel. That compares with 342 files that were opened in the same month the previous year. On average, the number of files opened in November in recent years has fluctuated around 350.
The presidential election was held on November 8, but the Jewish Agency figures provide no breakdown of how many files were opened before and after that date.
Opening a file with the Jewish Agency is the first requirement for those considering immigration to Israel. Before citizenship can be approved, Jewish Agency official must determine whether applicants are eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return, which provides generous benefits, including free flights to Israel. Not all individuals who open files with the Jewish Agency end up immigrating to Israel.
The figures show that in December, the month following the election, 310 American Jews opened files with the Jewish Agency – on par with figures for that month in previous years.
An overwhelming majority of 70 percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the November election, it is estimated. Shocked and even horrified by the election result, many spoke of leaving the country in the immediate aftermath. But how many have actually acted on their impulse?
Even the Jewish Agency is careful not to read too much into the November uptick. “It’s too early to attribute this to the ‘Trump effect,’ especially since December seems to be back in line,” said Yigal Palmor, the director of public affairs and communication, when asked to comment on the figures. “What we can say is that this definitely requires further observation.”
Professor Steven Cohen, an expert on Jewish-American demography, does not anticipate any major exodus of Jews from the United States. “There’s no question that Jews talk about leaving, but not to the point of actually intending to do so,” he says. “At least not yet. I’ve heard many people talk about possibly needing to leave or about their friends raising the same possibility. But I’ve heard of no one undertaking any action toward leaving, such as flying abroad to investigate jobs or housing.”
The draw of Canada
Gil Troy, a professor of American history at McGill University in Montreal, says he has heard this kind of talk before and agrees with Cohen. “I don’t take these people seriously,” says Troy, who recently moved to Israel where he also holds a visiting professorship at the University of Haifa.
“Back in 2004, after George W. Bush won the election, I got a bunch of emails from colleagues in America, who were devastated by the results and wanted to know about job opportunities in Canada,” he recounts. At the time, Troy replied that before making any drastic moves, they should consider some of the disadvantages of life in Canada, including lower salaries. These words of advice, he says, seemed to put an end to any talk of leaving.
Troy says he is “dismayed,” though, that most of those American Jews who are talking about relocation today are thinking about Canada as their destination rather than Israel.
“At least that’s the vibe I’ve been getting and to me, as a proud Zionist, it is sad that Canada has become the Promised Land, and the real Promised Land is no longer the Promised Land,” he says.
It does not surprise him, though. “Once upon a time, Israel was considered an alternative for progressive Jews in America, but today, unfortunately, many progressive Jews take the narrow view that it is Bibi’s Israel, and when you think about it that way, Israel is not an attractive alternative to Trump’s America.”
Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, Israel’s most prominent demographer, concurs. “Those who would be thinking of leaving America today are liberals Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton, and Israel is not perceived by them as having something much different to offer,” he says.
G.S., who asked not to have his full name published, would seem to be a rare exception then. A Jewish communal professional in his 40s, he says he is in the “active looking stage” for a new homeland but hasn’t yet begun packing his bags.
“It’s easy to blithely say that I’m moving to another country,” he says. “It’s another thing to look for a job, a place to live, a school for the kids and other practicalities, then determine that that option is better than things here, and then actually go.”
His reasons for considering relocation, as he describes them, range from “personal concerns to broader societal worries.”
“On an individual level, it’s hard to see how current policies and directions make the United States a better and safer place for me and my family,” says G.S. “These anxiety about finances, healthcare, security and education are set against a broader backdrop of increasing racism, anti-Jewish sentiment, misogyny and homophobia, along with a sense of injustice stemming from governmental choices.”
Canada and Israel are both options for him at this point, though as he notes, each has its downside. “There are great things about Canada, but its geographic proximity and connections to the U.S. limits its ability to serve as a sanctuary,” he says. “Israel certainly provides me, as an Ashkenazi Jew, with advantages, but many of the problems in the U.S. are present there as well.”
According to DellaPergola, looking at the number of Jews moving to Israel out of the total number in a country, the U.S. has long held the dubious title of last place in the world. The annual number has been steady at about 2,200-2,500 for many years now, he notes.
It is not surprising, though, considering that life has been good to American Jews, as he points out. “Whenever there is a wave of immigration to Israel from a particular country,” notes DellaPergola, “it is never explained by what is happening in Israel, but rather by what is happening in the country of origin. Despite the elections, the U.S. is still a country with much to offer to American Jews.”
Only an extremely dramatic worsening of their situation, he believes, could spur a significant exodus. “Let’s remember that the massive immigration wave to Israel from the Soviet Union happened when the Soviet Union ceased to exist,” he notes.
Jay Ruderman, who runs a family foundation that focuses on strengthening ties between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, thinks that scenario is still very far away. “This is not 1930s Germany,” he says. “People are upset and surprised, but they’re fighting. They would have to feel that their personal security was deeply threatened to pick up in large numbers and leave. I don’t think we’re there yet, and I don’t know if we’re going to get there.”