Coronavirus Drives Wave of Return Among Longtime Israeli Expats

Jewish Agency projects that number of immigrants is set to rise in 2021, but immigrants to Israel still face challenges in aliyah process because of COVID-19

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Some of the 51 new immigrants who landed on the flight from New York at Ben Gurion Airport, June 9, 2020.
Some of the 51 new immigrants who landed on the flight from New York at Ben Gurion Airport, June 9, 2020.Credit: Yonit Schiller
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A significant share of the Israeli expats returning to the country in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic had been away for many years, figures presented to a Knesset committee on Tuesday show.

Among 641 Israeli expats who returned since March, the figures show, nearly 40 percent had been living abroad more than a decade, and close to 15 percent had been away from for more than 20 years.

The figures refer only to returning expats for whom information is available on the number of years spent abroad. The total number of Israelis who returned during this period was 754, with nearly three-quarters of them coming back in March, immediately after the health crisis erupted.

The largest community of Israeli expats is in the United States, where an estimated 800,000 to one million live – their two main centers New York and Los Angeles. Nearly half of the Israelis returning since March, according to the figures, had been living in the United States.

These figures were part of a special report prepared by the Knesset Research and Information Center on how the global pandemic is affecting the desirability of life in Israel. It was presented at a meeting of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.

David Bitan, chairman of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, is seen during a committee meeting, June 3, 2020.Credit: Adina Wallman, spokeswoman

Representatives of government offices present at the meeting noted that the lack of availability of flights and the mandated 14-day quarantine period required of anyone entering the country since mid-March have significantly reduced the number Israeli expats returning since then.

Since Israel went into lockdown in mid-March, only Israeli nationals and approved immigrants have been allowed into the country. Several speakers noted that this has created a special challenge for Israelis who had children born overseas but never obtained Israeli passports for them: With many consular offices closed, they cannot obtain passports for their children and, therefore, cannot return to Israel unless they are willing to be separated from them.

Although the total number of aliyah applications submitted since the outbreak of the pandemic was down, the figures presented showed large variations between regions: Whereas applications from former Soviet bloc countries had dropped significantly, mainly because Israeli immigration offices in that part of the world are closed, applications from North America and Western Europe were up dramatically.

Jewish new immigrants from Ukraine, who are making aliyah, walk down the stairs as their airplane lands at Ben Gurion International airport on December 22, 2014.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN / ADL / AFP

According to the figures, between March and mid-June, a total of 4,203 aliyah application were submitted from North America – nearly three times as many as the same period last year.

Ariel Kandel, the chairman of Kalita, an organization that helps French immigrants in Israel, estimated at the Knesset session that 50,000 French Jews would move to Israel “over the next three to four years.”

Based on current levels of interest, Shai Felber, director of the department of aliyah at the Jewish Agency, told the committee he expected 45,000 immigrants to arrive in the country in 2021. That compares with 35,600 immigrants in 2019.

No projections were provided for 2020, but based on current trends, the number of immigrants this year is expected to be down significantly.

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