Earlier this month, Nefesh B’Nefesh – the organization that handles aliyah from North America – held a special webinar for potential immigrants, devoted to the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion.
It is no secret that many immigrants from North America, especially those who are Orthodox Jews, find the West Bank settlements an attractive destination. Indeed, they tend to account not only for a disproportionately large share of the immigrants moving to the settlements each year, but also a large share of the Israelis moving there.
This was the first time, however, that Nefesh B’Nefesh chose to devote one of its informational seminars to communities located over the Green Line – Israel’s internationally recognized border. Coincidentally or not, it took place as the world braces itself for a major announcement by the Israeli government on whether it will move forward with plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
In years past, advertising the fact that immigrants are being actively directed to the settlements would have gotten the Israeli government in trouble with the U.S. administration. Nefesh B’Nefesh, which operates as a subcontractor to the Israeli government, would therefore have refrained from such activities.
But now that President Donald Trump is in charge of U.S. foreign policy, they have much less to fear. Indeed, the Trump administration – which receives wide support from evangelical Christians, who are key backers of the settlement movement – has effectively given Israel a green light to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank.
It would make sense, then, that the number of immigrants moving to the settlements is rising. Yet an examination of figures by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reveals that not only has the number of immigrants moving over the Green Line not increased since Trump’s election, it has actually dropped slightly.
In fact, since 2015, when 880 new immigrants moved to the settlements, the number has been dropping every year. In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, the number was 700.
Moreover, contrary to previous years, Americans were not the largest contingent moving to the West Bank in 2018: more French Jews moved to the settlements that year. Indeed, Americans accounted for barely 10 percent of the total in 2018, compared with somewhere between a quarter and a third in each of the three previous years.
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CBS figures show that the most popular destinations over the Green Line for immigrants in 2018 were Betar Ilit (an ultra-Orthodox community in Gush Etzion), Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim.
Immigrants who choose to live in the West Bank account for only a small percentage of the total number of olim, which has hovered around 30,000 annually in recent years.
Shaul Arieli, a leading Israeli advocate for the two-state solution, cautioned not to read too much into the recent downturn. “The numbers are very small to begin with, and I don’t think they’re connected to [former President Barack] Obama or Trump,” he said.
He noted, however, that immigrants account for a relatively large share of the total number of Israelis moving across the Green Line each year. “In years past, say 15 to 20 years ago, you’d get 11,000, 12,000, 13,000 Israelis moving to the settlements each year,” he said. “In recent years, it’s barely 2,000 a year. Israelis are voting with their feet: they simply don’t want to live there. So if you add about 700 immigrants a year to the 2,000 Israelis, it turns out that immigrants are a big factor.”
According to Arieli, in recent years natural growth has accounted for about 80 percent of the population increase in the settlements.
One of the settlements highlighted in the recent Nefesh B’Nefesh webinar was Bat Ayin, which has a reputation for being particularly extremist. A representative of the community told participants he had chosen to live there because he was looking for a “warm community” and it was a place where “people smile in the streets.”
None of the settlement representatives mentioned during their presentations that Gush Etzion was located over the Green Line. The issue only came up at the end of the question-and-answer session, when a participant asked specifically whether the area was inside or outside the Green Line. “So we are outside the Green Line,” responded one of the settlement representatives. “But maybe that will change in a couple of months. We’ll see. Maybe.”
When asked why Nefesh B’Nefesh had decided to promote Gush Etzion, and whether the event was connected to speculation about impending annexation, spokeswoman Yael Katsman responded: “We have recently been devoting some of our informational webinars to showcase a diverse range of communities around Israel, including Jerusalem, Haifa, Beit Shemesh, Shoham and Yeruham. Last week, as part of this broad programming, we hosted the Olim Department of the Regional Council of Gush Etzion, which gave over an independent presentation on community options within their regional council.”
She added that Nefesh B’Nefesh did “not actively encourage olim to move to specific areas except for communities within the framework of our Go Beyond Initiative (which includes Israel’s north and south, and Jerusalem).”
When asked why a radical settlement like Bat Ayin had been featured in the event, she said: “As mentioned above, this was given by the Olim Department of the Regional Council of Gush Etzion.”