This chapter discusses and analyzes one demographic phenomenon among the many issues mentioned in the demographic dimension of the Integrated Net Assessment of the Jewish people: emigration from Israel. This phenomenon does not operate in a vacuum; rather, it involves many ideological, social, and identificational components. Likewise, it has important policy implications.
More specifically, and similar to many other Western societies, Israel has a diaspora of people who have moved their permanent residence to another country. The departure from Israel (sometimes called yerida i.e., descend) is driven by various considerations – from rejection of the economic, cultural, or political conditions in Israel, to the pull factors of professional opportunity or lifestyle in other places. Often there is no single reason for migration. People weigh the advantages and disadvantages, both individual and familial, in many realms that lead them to the decision to move, as well as the choice of a specific destination. Israeli emigrants do not necessarily set out having decided to leave permanently; many move to another country for a few years after which some will settle permanently, others will move to yet another country, and still others will return home. Many of those who remain abroad will continue to define themselves as Israeli.
A salient development of recent years is changing attitudes, of the Israeli public and the Israeli establishment, toward both emigration per se and the Israelis who live abroad. After many years of negation and condemnation, there is, today, a greater openness to, and understanding of, the right and desire of individuals to choose where they live. This acknowledgement is part of the process of normalization of the Israeli society after laying the foundation for nation building. Likewise, the Israeli leadership has become aware of the potential asset of Israelis abroad as a resource for advocacy, political lobbying, and fundraising. Hence, the attitude toward them is more sympathetic than before. For example, at the February 2015 conference of Israeli Leadership in the Diaspora held in Israel, President Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin sent his greeting to the participants in a letter he wrote “in the name of the State of Israel” where he noted the challenge facing Israelis abroad to maintain their Israeli and Jewish identity. He expressed his appreciation for their efforts to maintain ties to the State of Israel and its culture. In his letter, President Rivlin emphasized the communal and political significance of the Israeli community abroad for the bonds between Jewish communities in the world, and between the State of Israel and those countries with Israeli communities. He referred to Israelis abroad as “relatives” who are overseas.1 As Israel softens it stand vis-a-is its citizens abroad, local Jewish communities in their places of settlement are more comfortable opening their doors to Israeli newcomers.
More recently, we have also witnessed initiatives by Israeli expats to establish and institutionalize various activities in their places of residence. Along with social and cultural events around major Jewish holidays and Israel’s Independence Day, the publication of Hebrew newspapers in both written and electronic versions, and activities in Israeli Houses (sponsored by the Jewish Agency), several independent Israeli organizations operate in major Diaspora countries today. One, especially large organization, is the Israeli-American Council (IAC) which has ten branches in the United States.
This chapter first describes the Israeli diaspora by looking at its size and geographic distribution, its demographic and socio-economic characteristics, and analyzing the Jewish identification of Israeli expats and their attachment to Israel. Based on fresh data from JPPI’s Pluralism Project, we then describe the attitudes of Israelis toward their peers living abroad. Finally, we offer some policy recommendations aimed at strengthening ties between Israel and its citizens residing outside the country.