Israeli government wants American Jews to migrate to Israel
Israel is offering new incentives to attract more American immigrants in response to its steadily declining Jewish majority.
Immigration is at an 18-year-low, and members of Israel's Arab minority are having children at a faster rate than Jews. Some lawmakers are keen to protect Israel's identity as a predominantly Jewish state.
The drop in immigration is of great concern, said Aryeh Eldad, an Israeli parliament member with the National Union Party. "This will no doubt have a negative effect on the demographic balance in the country," he said.
The Jewish Agency, the Israeli government organization that oversees immigration, helps arrivals from the USA and elsewhere to obtain jobs. It also is streamlining paperwork that may have chased off potential applicants in the past.
The agency works with Nefesh B'Nefesh, a non-profit organization that provides grants of $3,000 to $10,000 as an incentive for Jews to move. Nefesh B'Nefesh, which means "Soul to Soul," also helps arrange housing, jobs and schools for immigrants' children.
"Immigration to Israel is the ultimate means to securing the future of the state of Israel and the Jewish people," said Daniel Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is the co-chairman of Nefesh B'Nefesh.
The number of immigrants from the USA increased 5% last year to 2,157, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics said in a statement released Tuesday. This came despite a 9% drop in overall immigration in 2006 to 19,264 new arrivals, the lowest level since 1988.
Jews constitute almost 76% of Israel's population of just more than 7 million people, while Arabs make up nearly a fifth, the bureau said. The Israeli-Arab population grows at an annual rate of 2.8%, more than double the Jewish population's rate of 1.3%, according to Sergio Della Pergola, a demographer from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Low immigration is here to stay for a while, and this will definitely affect demographics," Della Pergola said.
The USA, which has a Jewish population of 5.3 million, is the largest potential pool for recruits. Ayalon said Nefesh B'Nefesh relies primarily on word of mouth to promote immigration, but it also has put ads in Jewish community newspapers and organized seminars.
Israel has historically depended on immigration for population growth. But the country has been unable to repeat the influx of more than 1 million Soviet Jews into Israel during the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, about 80% of Americans who immigrate to Israel are Orthodox Jews, said Steve Bayme, director for contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee in New York. Orthodox Jews account for about 8% of the Jewish population in the USA.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said many Orthodox Jews believe it is their duty to live in Israel and find it easier there to observe Jewish holidays and provide an Orthodox education for their children.
The deteriorating security situation in the Middle East, especially the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, could be discouraging immigration, said Aaron Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"Unless you can create the same kind of economic and psychological security that exists in the United States, most U.S. Jews are going to stay in the United States," Miller said.
Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, warned that Iran's nuclear progress might be scaring away prospective immigrants, as well as native-born Israelis.
Ayalon said he believes more immigration will aid Arab-Israeli peace talks, once Israel's enemies "understand we are here to stay and that time is not on their side."
Immigration to Israel Drops
JAFI expects record British aliyah
Interior Ministry to limit Ethiopian immigration
Rise In Western Aliyah In 2006
Is Israel Capping Ethiopian Aliyah? Some Falash Mura Petitions Denied