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Farewell, Old Chaps. Shalom, Olim.

British Jews making aliyah aren’t part of a trend: they’re bucking it

Eylon Aslan-Levy
October 24, 2014

The number of Jews making aliyah to Israel from the United Kingdom is low, and has been for several years. According to the Jewish Agency, 6,356 Britons made aliyah from 2004 to 2013—roughly equivalent to two to three percent of British Jewry in total. Although more British Jews opened aliyah files this summer than the last, potentially a result of the ugly spillover onto Britain’s streets of the latest Gaza war, it remains to be seen whether this recent interest will translate into actual emigration. Plus, if one considers the number of Israelis emigrating to the U.K., the net migration rate to Israel is even lower.

As Haviv Rettig Gur observed in the Times of Israel, migration from high- to low-GDP-per-capita countries is the exception to a very stable global rule. Which means that today’s olim are not part of a trend—they’re bucking the trend. So what is motivating young British Jews to begin life afresh in Israel, with its biennial mini-wars and comparatively modest paychecks?

For many young olim, Israel simply feels like home. “My identity is ‘whole’ here,” explains Gideon Bratt, 24, who made aliyah from London in January. Whereas he might feel the need to wear different hats in Britain as a Briton and as a Jew, “the aspects of who I am are more in harmony here.”

For Zahava Raymond, 27, Israel is “the one place we can truly be ourselves. We don’t have to explain our religion [or] what we’re doing; we don’t have to fight to be able to keep our traditions and practices. And we don’t need to hide it.”

Aliyah, for many, is the realization of a longstanding dream and lifelong attachment to Israel. “In my house, it was never ‘if’ we make aliyah but ‘when’,” explains Yosef Tarshish, 23, the former president of the U.K.’s Union of Jewish Students. Having been involved in the Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva in the U.K., Yosef was inspired by the personal example of youth leaders who had made the move. He expects the rest of his family to follow soon.

This summer’s spike in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity left many British Jews apprehensive about their future, but all the young olim I spoke to were adamant that they were attracted to Israel—not pushed from the U.K.

Alan Hoffman, CEO of the Jewish Agency, which helps organize immigration to Israel, sees it differently. He believes that increasing British hostility to Israel is indeed motivating aliyah from the U.K. and causing British Jews to think, “this place that has been a home to me is no longer a home.” He’s concerned, however, that these same forces may also be alienating British Jews already on the periphery of Jewish life in the U.K.

Once in Israel, military service is a rite of passage: men arriving after the age of 22 must serve for six months; women are exempt after age 20 but may volunteer. Birmingham graduate Eytan Halon, 23, made aliyah in August on the Garin Tzabar program, which facilitates the absorption of young olim seeking to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. This year, Halon says, Garin Tzabar has 350 participants—including some 25 Britons. Halon will soon start two years’ service in the infantry. “I can’t justify living happily in this country without having contributed to the forces that make such a life possible,” he says.

For most Israelis, the Promised Land does not exactly flow with milk and honey: the cost of living is notoriously high, and university graduates cannot dream of earning the sums they would expect as London professionals. While this sacrifice might put off would-be olim, for those who have made the move it was not a deal-breaker. Tali Osen, a Manchester Economics graduate, called the financial situation “annoying” but “prefer[s] life here so it doesn’t matter much right now.”

The Jewish Agency’s Hoffman sees a similar optimism in olim from other countries. For the first time ever, he says, a majority of Jews emigrating from South Africa are choosing to make aliyah rather than move to other developed Anglophone countries, which he attributes to confidence in the Israeli economy. (Indeed employment rates in Europe are nothing to boast about either.)

Are young British olim filled with nostalgia for England’s pleasant pastures? There is an unavoidable sadness in leaving one’s childhood home and waving goodbye to friends and family, but these new waves of young olim are full of hope for the future of the Jewish state. The same idealism that drives olim to move to Israel also motivates them to want to shape and influence its future.

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.

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