The New Immigrants to Israel Aren’t Fleeing Persecution but Seeking Opportunity

March 31, 2021 | Emily Benedek
About the author: Emily Benedek, the author of five books, has contributed to, among other publications, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Tablet, and Rolling Stone.

While Zionism’s founders certainly sought to create a state where Jews could live without the threat of anti-Semitism, they also embraced a positive vision of a place that would be far more than a refuge for the persecuted—and this was as true of Theodor Herzl as it was of Ahad Ha’am. This latter part of the Zionist vision, perhaps, is being realized by a recent wave of immigrants from prosperous North America, where anti-Semitism is far less of a threat than in Europe or elsewhere. Emily Benedek writes:

[These] immigrants to Israel . . . are going not out of personal fear, nor only to protect an embattled homeland, but because they see Israel (and IDF service) as a way to improve and expand their lives. Many of these new olim do not fit the earlier picture of vulnerable Jews from countries like France or the former Soviet Union, fleeing imminent threats or declining fortunes at home. Nor are they primarily motivated by religious belief. [Rather], they’re moving to Israel because they believe it can offer a unique place to unlock their human potential and create a robust future in a vital and growing society.

In fact, COVID-19 unleashed an unprecedented jump in interest in aliyah from all ages around the world. In July, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Isaac Herzog, announced that he expected a startling 250,000 immigrants over the next five years, 15,000 more per year than pre-pandemic numbers—a 42-percent increase. But what surprised the Jewish Agency even more was the unexpected jump in calls requesting information about aliyah from residents of Western countries in particular, up 31 percent. The next step in the immigration process, actually opening a file with the Jewish Agency, saw a 91-percent increase from Western countries, and a 400-percent increase from North America, mainly driven by interest from residents of New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, and Ontario.

Yael Katsman, vice president for public relations at Nefesh b’Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, said in an interview that . . . the massive disruptions caused by the pandemic are providing a new freedom. Katsman said people tell her they are finally doing what they always knew they wanted to do. “Basically, COVID-19 has readjusted people’s priorities and plans—and working remotely and keeping up with family via Zoom has shifted their ideas of where they need to live.”

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