Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2004, pages 18, 20

Special Report

Facts on the Ground: A Jewish Exodus From Israel

On a search for new immigrants to the Jewish state, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Sylvain Shalom (l) listens to Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Seyoum Mesfine at a Jan. 8 joint press briefing in Addis Ababa. Shalom announced that hundreds of members of the Fellasha Jewish community left behind during a massive Israeli air-lift in the 90s will be allowed to rejoin their families in Israel the following week (photo credit AFP Photo/Marco Longari).


By Andrew I. Killgore

A JEW WHO LEAVES Israel for any reason and does not return for at least one visit within four years.—Israel’s definition of an emigrant.

Numbers talk in the Arab-Israel dispute. Indeed, they are the ultimate “facts on the ground,” as the Israelis are wont to say. When the Balfour Declaration promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine was issued on Nov. 2, 1917, Jews constituted 7 percent of the total Palestinian population. On Nov. 29, 1947, when the United Nations partitioned Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, the Jewish population numbered 650,000, while the Palestinians were 1.35 million, or just over two-thirds.

During the 1948-1949 Arab-Israel war, Israel gained a population advantage when it terrorized 750,000 Palestinians into fleeing the portions of Palestine allotted to it by the U.N., and from the additional areas it seized during the fighting. A further 300,000 were “ethnically cleansed” from the West Bank in the 1967 war, when Israel conquered the rest of Palestine, plus Syria’s Golan Heights.

In 1980—by which time statistics on Israeli emigration already had become super- secret—the semi-official Jewish Agency said Israel faced a “national emergency” because 500,000 Israelis were residing in the United States. The New York Times of Dec. 22, 1980 reported the national emergency story and the 500,000 figure.

Middle East observers long had predicted that the population race between Israelis and Palestinians would result in a tie around 1990. They had not reckoned, however, with the Russians who started going to Israel that year, when the Soviet Union broke up. Around 800,000 to a million Russians eventually immigrated—but not without some embarrassment to Israel.

Probably a third of the Russians had no real claim to being Jewish. But the worst part was that, at one point, 19 of 20 were choosing to immigrate to the United States rather than to Israel. This was when, gathered in Italy with Israeli visas, they were allowed to choose their ultimate destination. Later the Russian emigrants were given no choice but to fly directly to Israel.

Many Russians, however, apparently saw Israel as a second choice—a way station until the chance to go elsewhere presented itself. That, in fact, may be what’s happening right now. The Nov. 19 edition of Haaretz quoted Nadia Prigat of the Israeli Immigration Absorption Ministry as saying that 760,000 Israelis are now living abroad, compared to 550,000 in 2000. If these figures are correct, this means that 210,000 Israelis have left since the second intifada began three years ago.

In the spring of 2003, when suicide bombers were active, a Washington Post article described crowds of Israelis around the American, Canadian and Australian embassies, presumably seeking visas. Even the Czech and Polish embassies had big crowds, according to the report. With 75,000 Israelis holding German nationality, the German embassy had to limit the number of Israelis who could come in each day.

In 2004, when 10 Central and East European countries enter the European Union, Israelis who can claim nationality in any one of these nations may suddenly find themselves Europeans, able freely to move around and work in Europe. Living in Europe might seem attractive to many Israelis.

The fact that Haaretz published the 2000 and 2003 figures at all has to mean that they were authorized by the Israeli government. This in turn means that the real figures for emigration must be very much higher.

The Haaretz article represents the first emigration-specific story in over 20 years. A reasonable guess would be that twice as many Israelis, or 420,000, immigrated in the past three years.

For whatever reason, the government of Israel hides from public view the number of emigrants. In the United States alone, however, the figure comes to well above a million. The half-million who had come here by 1980 has been reinforced by nearly another half million by the year 2000 (40,000 times 20). Add 400,000 who left during the current intifada, and the total is 1.2 million Israelis living in the United States.

According to a Nov. 11 Haaretz article, 60 percent of Jewish emigrants live in the United States. That could mean that a million Israelis live elsewhere: in Australia, New Zealand (where the writer knew several during the 1970s) and in Europe.

Ariel Sharon is calling for more Jewish immigrants to Israel, according to an Agence France-Presse story from the English-language French Gazette on April 28 of last year. Sharon thought that if Jews “would make an effort,” a million Jewish immigrants would be possible. The same Haaretz article reported that Israel would spend “tens of millions of dollars” to bring thousands of young Diaspora Jews to Israel for up to 12 months. Such action would reinforce “Jewish identity and Zionist feelings.”

When Israel talks of “facts on the ground,” it means land taken for settlements on occupied Arab land. Another fact on the ground, however, is population. And there the Palestinians are more than holding their own.

Andrew I. Killgore is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.