Over more than six decades of statehood, successive Israeli governments have repeatedly stressed the centrality of Jewish immigration and the Law of Return of all Jews to Israel for the well-being, security, and survival of the nation. Yet while much is published on Jewish immigration to Israel, considerably less information is available about Jewish emigration from Israel.
Government estimates of the numbers of Israelis residing abroad vary greatly due mainly to the lack of an adequate recording system. Consequently, scholars and others have questioned the accuracy of government figures. Besides the statistical and methodological shortcomings, the number of Israeli expatriates is open to considerable debate and controversy because of its enormous demographic, social, and political significance both within and outside Israel.
At the lower end is the official estimate of 750,000 Israeli emigrants — 10 percent of the population — issued by the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which is about the same as that for Mexico, Morocco, and Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government places the current number of Israeli citizens living abroad in the range of 800,000 to 1 million, representing up to 13 percent of the population, which is relatively high among OECD countries. Consistent with this latter figure is the estimated 1 million Israelis in the Diaspora reported at the first-ever global conference of Israelis living abroad, held in this January.
Current estimates of Israelis living abroad are substantially higher than those for the past. During Israel’s first decade, some 100,000 Jews are believed to have emigrated from Israel. By 1980, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics estimated some 270,000 Israelis living abroad for more than a year, or 7 percent of the population. Several decades later, the number of Israeli emigrants had swelled to about 550,000 — or almost double the proportion at the end of the 1950s.
Of the Israelis currently residing abroad, roughly 60 percent are believed to have settled in North America, a quarter in Europe, and 15 percent distributed across the rest of the world. It is estimated that about 45 percent of the adult Israeli expatriates have completed at least a university degree, in contrast to 22 percent of the Israeli population. The Israeli emigrants are deemed to be disproportionately secular, liberal, and cosmopolitan. Furthermore, the emigrants are generally younger than the immigrants to Israel, especially those from the former Soviet Union, hastening the aging of Israel’s population.
The often-cited reasons for Israeli emigration center on seeking better living and financial conditions, employment and professional opportunities, and higher education, as well as pessimism regarding prospects for peace. Consistent with these motives, one of the most frequently given explanations for leaving Israel is: "The question is not why we left, but why it took us so long to do so." And recent opinion polls find that almost half of Israeli youth would prefer to live somewhere else if they had the chance. Again, the most often-cited reason to emigrate is because the situation in Israel is viewed as "not good."
Another important factor contributing to the outflow of Jewish Israelis is previous emigration experience. As 40 percent of Jewish Israelis are foreign-born, emigration is nothing new for many in the country. Moreover, as Israeli emigrants cannot yet vote from abroad, they are likely to feel marginalized from mainstream Israeli society, further contributing to their decision to remain abroad as well as attracting others to do the same. Whether the Netanyahu government’s effort in the Knesset to approve a bill granting voting rights to Israelis living abroad will slow the trend is uncertain.
Adding to emigration pressures, many Israelis have already taken preliminary steps to eventually leaving. One survey found close to 60 percent of Israelis had approached or were intending to approach a foreign embassy to ask for citizenship and a passport. An estimated 100,000 Israelis have German passports, while more are applying for passports based on their German ancestry. And a large number of Israelis have dual nationality, including an estimated 500,000 Israelis holding U.S. passports (with close to a quarter-million pending applications).
Population projections show that Jewish Israelis will remain the large majority in Israel for the foreseeable future. However, it will be a challenge for Jewish Israelis to maintain their current dominant majority of approximately 75 percent, primarily due to higher fertility among non-Jewish Israelis — nearly one child per woman greater — the depletion of the large pool of likely potential Jewish immigrants, and large-scale Jewish Israeli emigration. Consequently, demographic projections expect the Jewish proportion of the country — which peaked at 89 percent in 1957 — to continue declining over the coming decades, approaching a figure closer to two-thirds of the population by mid-century.
The emigration of a large proportion of a country’s population, especially the well-educated and highly skilled, poses serious challenges for any nation. However, large-scale emigration is particularly problematic for Israel given its relatively small population, unique ethnic composition, and regional political context.
Moreover, not only is Israeli emigration increasing the influence of the orthodox Jewish communities, it is also boosting the need for temporary, non-Jewish foreign workers, especially in agriculture, construction, and care-giving. The presence of more than 200,000 foreign workers — nearly half of whom are unauthorized and mainly from Asia (in particular Thailand and the Philippines, but also increasingly from Africa) — is also contributing to the changing ethnic composition of the country.
The departure of Jewish Israelis also contributes to the undermining of the Zionist ideology. If large numbers of Jewish Israelis are opting to emigrate, why would Jews who are well integrated and accepted in other countries immigrate to Israel? Furthermore, up to a quarter of young Israelis in Europe marry outside their faith. The majority do not belong to a Jewish community and do not participate in any Jewish activities. As with other expatriate groups in Western nations, Israelis living abroad often profess their intention to return. However, Israeli emigrants are likely to remain in their adopted countries insofar as they and their families have become successfully settled and integrated.
Israeli governments have already consistently perceived immigration levels as too low and emigration levels as too high. In addition to policies encouraging immigration for permanent settlement, Israel has programs and media campaigns actively promoting the return of Israelis residing overseas. The government also maintains connections with the country’s expatriates through mandatory registration in its consulates overseas and outreach programs and activities — and provides counseling, guidance, financial assistance, and tax benefits to returning citizens.
Despite these efforts, it is doubtful based on past and current trends that these various incentives and appeals will be sufficient to entice the return of the million missing Israelis. Large-scale emigration has not only resulted in critical demographic and socioeconomic imbalances in the country, but more importantly poses grave political challenges and jeopardizes the basic Jewish character and integrity of Israel.
Joseph Chamie is research director at the Center for Migration Studies, and Barry Mirkin is an independent consultant.