December 27, 2006
Yonit Farago and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem
There is an ancient Jewish prayer that says: “Next year in Jerusalem.” That, however, is not soon enough for 40 British Jews, who will board aircraft today taking them to Israel, leaving one country in the dying days of 2006 and beginning their new life in a new land and a new year: 5767 under the Jewish calendar.
The migration of British Jews to Israel stands in marked contrast to the general decline in immigration to the Jewish state from elsewhere.
While the number of immigrants to Israel dropped by 9 per cent worldwide in 2006, arrivals from Britain increased by 45 per cent, the largest rise of any nation. This year 200 Britons migrated in a special charter jet, bringing to 700 the number that Israel will have absorbed from Britain this year. In 2005 it was 481.
For the émigrés the reasons given are the customary ones: Zionism, spiritual and familial. “We feel like God is returning His children to His home,” Jason Pearlman told The Times as he, his wife and 11-month-old son completed their packing yesterday before boarding a flight from London.
For the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Israel Appeal and other Zionist organisations whose work includes encouraging migration to Israel, it marks a serious effort to maintain the status of Israel as a Jewishmajority state in the face of steeper Palestinian birthrates and declining arrivals from more traditional sources.
This year the Israeli population topped seven million, according to government statistics. Of its 7,026,000 citizens, about three quarters are Jewish and the rest Arab, but the Jewish birthrate is consistently lower — about 1.2 per cent annual growth compared with 3.94 per cent in Gaza, according to recent Jewish Agency estimates.
The demographic issue has risen to prominence in mainstream Israeli politics in recent years, many analysts being convinced that it was a key factor in persuading Ariel Sharon, the former Prime Minister, to withdraw the 8,000 Israeli Jewish settlers from among the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza last year, overturning a lifetime’s championing of the settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel captured in the 1967 Six -Day War.
To supplement the Jewish population of Israel the State relied throughout the 1990s on migration from Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Numbers from the former Soviet Union fell by 22 per cent this year, however. More than a million had arrived since the late 1980s.
So important is immigration — the Hebrew term aliyah, or “going up”, conveys a spiritual element — for the Jewish state that these trends prompted the Jewish Agency to look elsewhere for immigrants. “Two years ago the Jewish Agency revised its strategic plan. From a demographic point of view it looked at where the Jews were, and where there were reservoirs from which immigration could come,” Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman, told The Times.
“It decided to place an emphasis on the ‘free world’ and encourage aliyah from places such as America, where there are six million Jews; France, with 600,000; Britain with 270,000; and Canada, which has 330,000. The agency has been concentrating on British Jewry because it felt that they had a strong Jewish identity. Britain is not far from Israel, there are thousands of British children who come to Israel on youth programmes. With a bit of attention and a bit of financial assistance, these people realised that maybe it was a good time to immigrate and begin a new life in Israel.”
The 200 British migrants travelled in an aircraft chartered by the Jewish Agency and the American-based organisation Nefesh B’ Nefesh (Soul to Soul), which began working in Britain in May.
Nefesh B’Nefesh organised today’s flights and claims to provide all services for migrants, including guidance on matters such as employment and education. “Our mission is to facilitate Jews who want to immigrate to Israel, making the process much easier and smoother for them,” Dani Oberman, its director said.
Nefesh B’Nefesh said that it had helped 10,000 North American Jews to emigrate to Israel since its launch five years ago.
The importance of 'Aliyah'
3 million immigrants to Israel since 1948
1.2 million went to Israel from the former Soviet Union
75,000 came from Ethiopia
30,000 came from the United Kingdom
200,000 immigrants arrived in 1990, eight times the 1989 total
50 per cent rise in immigration in the years after the Six Day War in 1967
1.18 population growth in per cent
76 per cent of Israelis are Jewish
Source: Israeli Government/CIA world factbook