Opinion

Mass American Jewish Immigration to Israel? Let's Hope Not

It would be a boon for the economy, but it's only likely to happen if the political environment in the U.S. becomes really awful - and if it does, Israel would be in trouble, too.

People evacuated because of a bomb threat return to the David Posnack Jewish Community Center and David Posnack Jewish Day School, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in Davie, Fla. Jewish centers and schools across the nation are coping with another wave of bomb threats as officials in Philadelphia begin raising money to repair and restore hundreds of vandalized headstones at a Jewish cemetery.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

Israel should be preparing an emergency plan to absorb a wave of American Jews fleeing resurgent anti-Semitism, says opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

As things stand now, the Zionist Union Party chief's call is alarmist. But in Herzog's defense, straight-line analysis of the increasingly hostile environment for Jews and other minorities in the United States makes it hard to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

Unarguably, there is a rising tide of nationalism in the U.S. and Europe. If Israelis and American Jews who love Trump, who has to take partial responsibility for this, think that the antipathetic rhetoric can be confined to Muslims and Mexicans, they should think again. The president is quite clearly not an anti-Semite himself, but his America First ideology has let loose hatreds that had remained repressed until a few weeks ago.

Boom in bomb threats

For American Jews, the last few weeks have been traumatic. At last count, 69 Jewish community institutions suffered bomb threats this year, and in the last two weeks, two cemeteries have been seriously vandalized.

190 anti-Semitic incidents across the U.S. in 6 weeks Haaretz.com

That is still a far cry from the organized anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany or tsarist Russia. Jews in America don’t face day-to-day discrimination in jobs, education or housing. Also, in the cornucopia of races, religious and ethnic groups that make America, Jews hardly stand out as being particularly “other.” A straight-line analysis of social trends is almost certainly going to be wrong – a few attacks or even 69 don’t necessarily presage widespread anti-Semitism.

But what if Jews were to heed Herzog's siren song, and really pick up and leave America?

Not welcome in Europe

There was a time that they would be more likely to opt for other prosperous, English-speaking countries where they could express their love of Israel by giving to the local federation and save themselves the vicissitudes of living in an unfamiliar environment featuring war and terrorism.

However, the equation is rapidly changing. Europe is no longer as hospitable to Jews as it was just a few years ago. South Africa is going down the tubes economically and politically and wouldn’t welcome masses of Jews anyhow.

That leaves Australia and Canada. But a lot of American Jews, especially the Orthodox among them, might well pick Israel.

Since the state was founded in 1948, only about 105,000 Americans have moved to Israel, accounting for only 3% of all immigrants. An estimated 6.8 million Jews live in America, according to a 2013 study by Brandeis University, although less than two thirds of them self-identify as Jews.

The rest acknowledge some Jewish family background, which makes them far less likely to be swept of in any wave of anti-Semitism or land up in Israel if they are.

Let’s say 10% of American Jews opt for aliya over the next several years -- an unlikely scenario, but not beyond the realm of possible if things grow much worse.

As Zionists, we will welcome them, but will Israel benefit economically?

American Aliya and the garage

A wave of Americans looking for two-car garages, big front lawns and family rooms would put further pressure on a housing market already straining to meet existing demand. But that would be a small price to pay compared to the bonus of welcoming tens of thousands of highly educated and talented workers.

An American Aliya would bring all the benefits that the wave of German Jews escaping Hitler brought to Israel in the 1930s, and the wave of Russians brought in the 1990s.

U.S. Jews would give the Israeli economy an injection of skills it badly needs. Startup Nation lacks engineers; and the rest of the economy suffers from low levels of basic skills like math, literacy and problem solving. A sizable American Aliya would give us time to fix the schools and raise a generation of sabras who can read and write a level required by an advanced economy.

And, better than those two earlier immigration waves, Americans are unlikely to come in such large numbers as to burden the economy with sharply rising unemployment, crowded classrooms or consumer demand that can’t be met quickly. And finally, unlike the Germans in the 1930s and and Russians in the 1980s, American Jews are likely to bring a lot of capital.

Still, there’s a big downside to this scenario.If American reaches the point that Jews have to pack their bags, it will happen hand in hand with a political environment hostile to Israel’s core interests.

Israel still relies on the political power of American Jewry to cultivate a friendly Washington. That will certainly diminish if Jews are leaving, or staying to contend with a society hostile to Jews.

The Israeli economy has thrived in an environment of global free trade and open borders. But if American Jews are leaving America, it would be within the context of a darker, closed and more xenophobic world, that can only leave Israel worse off.

In that respect, a mass American aliya would be like the German aliya – out of the frying pan and into the fire. Alas, even as good Zionists, we should hope it doesn’t happen.