August 20, 2019

Rumors of mass Israeli emigration are much exaggerated

Interviewing Israel’s President Shimon Peres in the April 4 issue of Time magazine, a correspondent quoted the often-cited number in suggesting that 1 million Israelis live outside their native country: “It’s not as if Jews are flocking there [to Israel]. What do these demographics say about Israel’s future?” Peres, without disputing the reporter’s figure, responded: “Maybe we are swimming against the stream.”

But the reality is not so grim. Jews are moving to Israel, and the number of Jewish Israelis who have emigrated is not, in fact, 1 million, but rather closer to 230,000 — approximately 4 percent of the Jews born in Israel. In fact, Israel has retained its Jewish native-born population at a higher rate than most other countries have retained their own native-borns. Worldwide, the average emigrants from a country-of-birth numbers about 8 percent, double the proportion of Israeli emigration.

These numbers come from the Global Religion and Migration Database (GRMD) constructed by the Pew Foundation and representing a new source of world migration. Representing nearly a half-million data points, this global database estimates the global migrant population by origin, destination and religious affiliation.

According to the GRMD, about 3 percent of the world’s population — 214 million people — have migrated across international borders. Jews have the highest migration rate by far — 25 percent of the world’s Jews have migrated from one country to another, compared to 5 percent of Christians and 4 percent of Muslims who have left their native lands.  

Only 330,000 international migrants are from Israel, and only 230,000 of them are estimated to be Jewish. That worldwide number is far fewer than the number of Israelis that has been claimed to be in Los Angeles alone by Israeli government entities and Jewish organizations. Danny Gadot of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles recently estimated that, including dual citizens and children born to Israelis, there are 200,000 to 250,000 Israelis in California and between 600,000 and 750,000 Israelis in the United States.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people saying they were born in Israel increased by 30,000, according to the U.S. census, while about 26,000 Americans immigrated to Israel. Recent declines in Israeli migration to the United States, attributed to the economic conditions in both countries, may have equalized the migratory flow between the two countries.

Although there has been a net gain in total migration to Israel from the rest of the world, Israeli policy makers continue to worry about declines in immigration and loss of population to the U.S. Little comfort is found in the fact that Israel still attracts more worldwide Jewish immigrants than the U.S. In 2011, Israel received more than 16,000 immigrants, including 2,400 from the U.S. The U.S. gets an estimated 6,000 Jewish immigrants a year, the majority of them Israeli-born. While Israel remains the destination for most Jews undertaking international migration, the U.S. remains the preferred destination for Israelis.

A conservative estimate of Jewish-Israeli migrants ending up in the U.S. would be about 138,000, or 60 percent of the 230,000 Jewish Israeli-born international migrants. Los Angeles Jewry’s proportional national share of Israeli-born international migrant would be about 21,000, or about 4 percent of the estimated total L.A. Jewish population

Yet, the “million Israelis” living abroad remains the oft-repeated mantra. Israel has a population registry, and Israelis must carry identification documents, and everyone crossing the border has his or her identity recorded. Israeli exit and re-entry data are matched carefully, and the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics has published the numbers of Israelis who have not returned to Israel after two years abroad.  

In the 1980s, I interviewed the Israeli government statistician in charge of compiling this data, which showed that less than 400,000 Israelis, many probably deceased, had not returned to Israel since 1948. When I asked how it is that other Israeli government entities, such as the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, regularly publicize much higher numbers of Israelis emigrants, the statistician shrugged his shoulders and said: “They don’t come and ask us.”

Pini Herman has been assistant research professor at the USC department of geography, adjunct lecturer at the USC School of Social Work and research director at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He is currently a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research.