Israel Prepares for 'Coronavirus Aliyah' as Ministry Says Applications Rise

Immigration and Absorption Ministry wants extra $122 million annually over the next five years

Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
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Jewish new immigrants from North America, who are making Aliyah and who plan to join the Israeli army, walking down the stairs as their airplane lands at Ben Gurion airport, August 12, 2014.
Jewish new immigrants from North America, who are making Aliyah and who plan to join the Israeli army, walking down the stairs as their airplane lands at Ben Gurion airport, August 12, 2014.Credit: AFP
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

No less than 3,236 immigration applications from North Americans were opened last month, a seven-fold increase over a year earlier, according to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry. In France, 731 applications were submitted, a 269% rise from a year ago. In Latin America, the number doubled in June to 583.

Officials say that about 95% of all new applicants eventually immigrate to Israel, thus in 2021 they expect about 48,000 new immigrants to arrive. That compares with between 30,000 and 32,000 annually in recent years. Officials say the higher rate will continue after 2021 and average 45,000 to 50,000 a year.

In response, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and senior officials have begun working on a program to prepare for it. Her bureau declines to discuss the details, but sources said they will be seeking 420 million shekels ($122 million) annually over the next five years.

Tamano-Shata will bring her proposal to the cabinet in the next few weeks.

“Immigration and absorption is at the core of the current government. Immigrants become an economic growth engine and advance the economy,” she said. “Immigration is the foundation of the state and remains its basis, so it’s important to ensure that the ministry’s budget isn’t eroded as it has been in recent years.”

Pnina Tamano-Shata addressing the Knesset after being sworn in as immigrant absorption minister, May 17, 2020.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Knesset Spokesman's Office

They are forecasting a “coronavirus aliyah,” the result of the economic distress the pandemic has created. Diaspora Jewry has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, officials say.

At the end of March, 13% of those infected in New York were Haredim. At the end of April, Jews accounted for 10% of all coronavirus deaths in Morocco, even though they account for just 0.01% of the population. As of mid-May, Jews made up 5% of coronavirus deaths in Britain and their mortality rate was four times their share of the population.

Figures like these, officials said, have hurt Diaspora Jews’ sense of personal security, have contributed to growing antisemitism and have weakened Diaspora Jewish communities.

The “coronavirus aliyah” has yet to materialize because many Israeli consulates have been shut due to lockdowns and air travel restrictions. The moment these bottlenecks are cleared, a wave of immigration will follow, officials say.

What they don’t say is that the jump in applications is at least partly due to Israel’s perceived success in reining in the first coronavirus wave. Its failing performance in the second wave now underway may give many of those applicants second thoughts.

The money Tamano-Shata is requesting would be a significant increase over the ministry’s base budget, which has been declining in recent years, falling to 1.9 billion shekels in 2018, 1.7 billion in 2019 and 1.5 billion this year. Last year’s budget was, in effect, far less, about 1.1 billion shekels.

The extra funding would be used for, among other things, a program to help new immigrants integrate directly into communities, rather than immigrant-absorption centers, with the help of the local authorities.

Another aim is to address the problem of new immigrants who don’t qualify for an Israeli pension. The money would help young immigrants by funding the administration of online psychometric exams in their native language before they leave for Israel, so they can begin their higher education immediately upon arrival.

Tamano-Shata herself immigrated at age three from Ethiopia, carried on the shoulders of her older brother. Today, she keeps a daily record of the number of immigrants reaching Israel.

With the help of David Bitan (Likud), who chairs the Knesset immigration and absorption committee, she was recently able to get an 80-million-shekel allocation out of the coronavirus economic program to use for jobs programs for new immigrants and expanding the basket of aid they are entitled to. The unemployment rate for new immigrants is about 28%, compared with 21% for all Israelis, she said.

In addition, Tamano-Shata last month took steps to ensure that the coronavirus grant of 500 shekels per child that had been paid out in April was awarded retroactively to thousands of immigrant families who arrived in Israel in the past year and were not registered with the National Insurance Institute.

She said she and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz see eye to eye on the issue. Nevertheless, Tamano-Shata faces an uphill battle over the budget increases she is seeking. As Israelis contend with the coronavirus at home and its economic fallout, their solidarity with Diaspora Jews is being tested. Every shekel that goes to new immigrants who have just reached the country will come at the expense of veteran Israelis.

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