As the Knesset prepares to vote on an official “Aliyah Day”, new figures from the Jewish Agency place aliyah in 2015 at a 12-year high. In the last year, Israel welcomed an estimated 30,883 new immigrants under its Law of Return, representing a modest 0.4 percent gross increase in the country’s total population; the Jewish Agency predicts that immigration will continue rising in 2016. But the data provided to me by the Jewish Agency also provides some sobering news for those hoping the Jewish state will continue to be nourished in the long run by new arrivals.
Firstly, continued aliyah is precariously dependent on just three countries: France (an estimated 7,900 new immigrants in 2015), Ukraine (7,300, who represent a staggering 11 percent of Ukrainian Jewry) and Russia (6,800). According to data for 2013 from demographer Dr Sergio DellaPergola, the Jewish Diaspora numbers 7.84 million individuals. The Jewish population of the three main feeder countries numbers just 730,000. This means that 70 percent of contemporary aliyah comes from countries with less than 10 percent of Diaspora Jewry combined.
As such, the future of aliyah is tied to the changing political and economic winds in just three countries, and could rise and fall dramatically with their fortunes. Moreover, although these countries obviously constitute a finite source for aliyah, it is hard to predict the precise location of the ceiling at which most Jews who would contemplate aliyah will have already voted with their feet. Sooner or later, supply from these feeder states will have to dwindle. Naturally, the question becomes: Where else could new olim come from?
The second point of sobering news is that the Anglosphere continues to provide a disappointing number of people making aliyah. The vast majority of Diaspora Jews are American, but only 0.06 percent of them—that’s 3,100 out of 5.43 million—made aliyah in 2015 (fewer than 2014). There is little reason to expect an imminent wave from this settled, prosperous, and rapidly assimilating community.
The rest of the Anglosphere contains some 850,000 Jews. Of these, only 0.11 percent of Canadian Jewry made aliyah last year, joined by 0.12 percent of Australian and New Zealander Jewry, and 0.3 percent of South African Jewry. Net migration from the Anglosphere may even be negative: the Institute for Jewish Policy Research estimates that for every two British citizens making aliyah (0.25 percent of British Jewry), three Israelis make the reverse journey to Britain. In the absence of a shocking turn of events, there is no reason to expect even gross migration of more than 5,000 annually from the entire Anglosphere, which at 6.28 million constitutes 80 percent of the Diaspora.
The third point of sobering news, then, is that only 830,000 Jews reside outside the Anglosphere and the three main feeder countries. (Even if the whole of Venezuelan Jewry leaves, that equals one year of French aliyah. Although over 1 percent of Italy’s Jews made aliyah this year, they were outnumbered by new-born babies in Israel named Menachem.)
The major effect will be felt not in Israel, but in the Diaspora. With nearly 0.5 percent and 1 percent of Brazilian and Belgian Jewry respectively having made aliyah in 2015, they are increasingly conspicuous by their absence. For small communities, the loss of whole families is having a visible impact that increasingly challenges the communities’ long-term viability. Avi Mayer, international spokesman of the Jewish Agency, told me: “Jewish schoolchildren [in these communities] see more and more empty seats in their classrooms at the start of every school year. Synagogue pews are noticeably emptier.”
Israel’s new immigrants will continue to contribute to its cosmopolitan character, but there is little prospect of a new wave—except, perhaps, from France—transforming it. According to these figures from The Jewish Agency, the future of Israeli society will be determined almost exclusively by those already part of it and their descendants. For a country that has always challenged itself to encourage immigration as a source of development, this alone should provide its own special challenges.