Israelis are moving to the country's central region in such large numbers that experts predict 80% of Israel's population will be living in the greater Tel Aviv area by 2025.
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The past decade saw continuous movement from the country's periphery to the center, according to statistics from the Bank of Israel and Central Bureau of Statistics. The result is that the southern and northern districts have suffered negative migration over the years, while the central district has enjoyed positive migration at their expense.
"The Israeli nation is congregating on the central plain, in the greater metropolitan Tel Aviv area," says Arnon Soffer, professor emeritus of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Haifa. "There are many figures attesting to Jews leaving the Galilee. All the development towns in the periphery are emptying."
"Currently 30% of Israelis live in the periphery, and it is estimated that by 2025 80% of all Israelis will be living in greater Tel Aviv, in the region bounded by Hadera, Modi'in, and Gedera," Soffer continues. "The watershed lines of the periphery are now moving further afield to Kiryat Gat and Zichron Yaakov because of the highways."
About half a million Israelis move every year, and half of those move out of town, according to statistics from the Bank of Israel and the Central Bureau of Statistics. Most are between the ages of 20 and 34, and most relocate to areas relatively close by.
The tendency to move, greater among people with more income and education, declines with age and then rises again upon retirement, figures show. Few Israelis live out their entire lives in the same locale.
Most of the people who move apparently do so for better jobs and housing. For others it boils down to better schools or a more suitable social scene.
Whatever the reason, such population shifts can greatly affect cities' demographics: Cities such as Beit Shemesh, Rosh Ha'ayin, Jerusalem and Yavneh, towns such as Mitzpeh Ramon, and many kibbutzim are among those that have undergone considerable change in recent years due to an influx of newcomers.
One prime example is Kibbutz Hulda, which reflects the growth seen on many kibbutzim following years of declining and aging populations – though, as Soffer notes, the growth of the kibbutzim is too small to offset that of the Tel Aviv area.
"The expansion of the kibbutz movement is a tremendous achievement but it represents an increase of 5,000 people, while 15,000 residents of the same sector moved to Tel Aviv," Soffer says.
Hulda, situated about midway between Rehovot and Beit Shemesh, also reflects a broader trend: escape from the big cities.
'The Israeli dream has changed'
As more and more of the metropolises' wealthy residents leave for rural communities, the big cities' populations are going down. According to the statistics bureau, every city with a population of more than 200,000 – with the exception of Petah Tikva – is suffering from negative migration.
"The Israeli dream has changed," says Carmella Jacoby-Volk, chairwoman of the interior-design studies department at the College of Management. "Whereas young people once wanted to live in the city, now they dream of a house and garden in western Rishon Letzion or Rosh Ha'ayin. It's not a dream everyone can fulfill given Israel's existing resources.
"It's funny how the clichés about settling the Negev and Judaicizing the Galilee are still around even though the national master plans talk about the densification and filling-out of existing localities, not about building new cities. This is to avoid taking over open green areas, which have become our inalienable assets."
'Israelis don't want to mix'
The Petah Tikva sub-district attracts more internal migration than the central region's other sub-districts due to massive construction of starter homes in its Em Hamoshavot neighborhood.
Dana, a Haifa native who relocated in her 20s to Moshav Hatzeva far to the south, provides a possible explanation: "Hardly any friends I grew up with stayed in Haifa. With the country so small and possibilities so limited, people simply buy where they can. Now, for instance, many are moving to expanded communities in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip despite the missiles. These can reach Ashkelon and Tel Aviv anyhow, but more importantly this is their last option for buying a house."
"Neighborhoods like Em Hamoshavot, the new section of Rehovot, and Ramat Poleg in Netanya stand out for the homogeneous and one-dimensional character of the inhabitants," says Jacoby-Volk. "These neighborhoods were built for the same type of people: the same age group, the same social class, and with the same means.
"They are islands built without any neighborhood continuum; suburban construction based on the idea that when you step out the door you go down the elevator and straight to your car without walking around on the street. There's no reason to create gated communities, but the problem is that Israelis don't want to mix. Every sector here wants to live separately."
This separateness has nothing to do with the immigration waves of the past, it seems. There was a time when neighborhoods – even cities – were largely populated by immigrants who hailed from the same country. Nahariya was a bastion of immigrants from Germany while Rosh Ha'ayin was defined as a city of immigrants from Yemen; Yavneh was populated by Moroccan immigrants and Bulgarians were the dominant group in Jaffa.
Now, however, internal migration is reshuffling the deck.
Yavneh, for example, already underwent radical change in the 1980s when middle-class military careerists, police officers and white-collar workers flocked to its new neighborhoods of custom-designed houses. Now, as it undergoes rapid expansion, the city's population is poised to double in size.
Beit Shemesh changed its stripes due to another sort of internal migration. People who grew up in Beit Shemesh in the 1970s may recall the city as primarily secular. But that changed following a massive wave of ultra-Orthodox newcomers. Certain neighborhoods are now even off-limits to those wanting to maintain a secular lifestyle.
Mobility among Israel's Arabs
While 95% of Israel's internal migration is attributed to its Jewish population, experts point out that in recent years the trend is starting to encompass the Arab populace – noted in the past for remaining in the towns and villages of their birth.
In the Galilee this is simply due to a lack of housing options. Traditional residential structures built to house extended families have already grown to four or five stories and can't be expanded any further, so the younger generation is forced to look elsewhere.
"In recent years many young people from my village moved to neighboring cities – Acre, Carmiel and Ma'alot Tarshiha," says Raghad, a Galilean villager in his 30s. "There's nowhere to live, and what the Israel Lands Administration permits for building isn't enough.
"My brother, for instance, studied pharmacy in Italy for three years and then went to live in Ramle and Jerusalem where he worked, so he doesn't have any mental block preventing him from leaving the village. Today he works in Nahariya and his wife is a teacher in Acre where they're raising their family. They make more than they'd earn in the village so he has no reason to come back."
Jerusalem has also seen significant migration among Arabs to neighborhoods established along the seam line after 1967.
"There is also a trend in the Arab population of moving from villages near Nazareth, and from Nazareth to Jerusalem," says Dr. Gadi Ben-Ezer of the College of Management's school of behavioral sciences, and an expert on migrants and refugees.
"These are people moving in search of schooling and modernization, so they choose locales with excellent schools – Christian or Jewish. Here we have a population that, in migrating, needs to solve its identity crisis and decide how to raise its children."
Some population shifts – such as those stemming from religious, national or even ethnic reasons – have the potential to create tension among neighbors, says Ben-Ezer.
"As human beings we all want to live near people like ourselves at both the citywide and neighborhood level," he says. "Differences are tolerated, but only as long as they don't threaten the identity of the main local groups.
"The moment one of the groups' identities is threatened or one population wants to change the character of its surroundings, we see reactions like those in Ramat Aviv against the ultra-Orthodox or by the ultra-Orthodox against the secular inhabitants of their neighborhoods in Jerusalem."