Covid-19 prompts Jews abroad to seek homes in Israel

Immigrants from Ukraine / Photo: Svetlana Soroka, Jewish Agency

Alongside a jump in aliya applications is a revival in apartment purchases, and not just in traditional strongholds like Jerusalem.

Thirty years ago, K left Israel for Silicon Valley in California. Twice a year, more or less, he would visit Israel with his family. Recently, he and his wife thought of buying an apartment in Israel, and dividing their time between the two countries. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic they fulfilled their desire, and bought an apartment in Ramat Gan, in the Dan Nadlan "Pisgat Dan" ("Dan Heights") project.

"Our impression is that the way Israel has dealt with public health in the context of the pandemic has been more responsible and more correct than in the US. The Jewish and Israeli community in Silicon Valley is close-knit, and so I have come across more and more stories of Israelis on relocation who decided to return to Israel early, or of people who decided to settle in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic started."

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"It's true that there has been a lack of focus, confusion, and shooting from the hip on the part of the government, but irresponsibility on the part of the public has contributed to this. Beyond that, in the US there is no human connection and sense of togetherness as there is in Israel. There is no mutual responsibility. In Israel, medical teams relate personally to every patient, and are committed to saving life at any price. You can't say the same of the US."

Like K, many Jews and former Israeli residents have decided that if they have to deal with Covid-19, they will be better off doing so in Israel. According to Jewish Agency figures, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of foreign residents enquiring about immigrating to Israel since the pandemic broke out. Real estate companies marketing projects around the country report that foreign residents are falling on new apartments.

The head of the Jewish Agency's Immigration and Absorption unit, Shay Felber, is not surprised. "The aliya figures and the figures for demand for apartments correlate. This certainly reflects the situation that we are seeing," he says. "When people consider making aliya, among other things they check out real estate, because that's an important part of the decision."

Until the middle of the last decade, foreign residents were buying thousands of apartments in Israel. In recent years, the numbers have declined substantially, because of the strengthening of the shekel, alongside stricter money laundering provisions that made it hard to transfer money. The current wave however, does not just consist of wealthy Jews buying vacation homes for themselves.

The Jewish Agency's figures are amazing . In June this year, aliya files were opened for more than 3,000 people in North America, which compares with 480 in June 2019. For Latin America, the figures are 580 versus 290, and for France, 730 versus just 200. Opening a file indicates an intention to make aliya, although not everyone who does so actually comes to Israel in the end.

Sivan Peretz, VP marketing and sales at real estate developer Bonei Hatichon, says that her indicator is figures she receives from Google Analytics. "In the past eight days," she says, "out of 1,500 hits to our website, 100 were from outside Israel."

Is that much more than usual?

"Generally, we see 10-15 hits from overseas. I hear the same thing from colleagues."

Developer Moti Kozhinof, one of the owners of the "Bereshit" tower in Tel Aviv's Bavli neighbourhood, says that in normal times their project is mainly aimed at Israelis, but that recently there has been interest on the part of Jews living in the US, France, Belgium, and South Africa.

"Most of them are Israelis who left decades ago and now plan returning. The coronavirus was the straw that broke the camel's back. It led them to decide that Israel was the safest place to be, and made them finally decide to come back. They are winding up their affairs and coming here."

Gidi Shmerling, VP marketing at real estate company Aura Investments, relates, "We have a group of Mexicans - things have really collapsed there. They are looking to live in the Dan area, not in Tel Aviv itself."

Ariel Edelstein, VP marketing and sales at the Avney Derech group, says that last week, together with Mizrahi Tefahot Bank, his company held a virtual investor conference in which hundreds of people from twenty countries took part. Besides the European countries from which most immigrants have come in recent years, this time there was interest among Jews from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Colombia, among other places.

"If in the past, aliya from these countries was mostly of people in the mid-to-high socio economic range," says Edelstein, "the wave of aliya expected now will include families in the mid-to-low band, and so whereas in the past expensive cities like Jerusalem and Ra'anana and those on the coast like Tel Aviv, Netanya and Rishon Lezion, Bat Yam, Ashdod and Ashkelon, were very attractive for new immigrants and were identified with them, in the current situation the immigrants have lower budgets and are looking for new and cheaper residential environments in the periphery."

Amir Cohen, VP marketing at YH Dimri Construction and Development, says that 40% of those expressing interest in buying apartments in his company's projects are foreign residents, mainly from Europe, particularly France.

"I have a customer who bought a penthouse for tens of millions of shekels in a project of ours in Jerusalem to stay in during the Jewish holidays, and now he has come here for a year, and will run his business remotely. We are also seeing interest from a younger target market in places like Ashkelon, Netivot, Harish. This is a group we didn't used to see before."

Why are they coming?

By way of explanation of the phenomenon, Shay Felber of the Jewish Agency mentions four motivations. "There are four reasons at the moment, all connected to the coronavirus. One is that people realize that they can obtain excellent medical care in Israel, better than in other countries, certainly in comparison with the US, where the health system is private.

"The second reason is that Israel is perceived as a place that knows how to deal with the coronavirus. Many people are from places where the economy is paralyzed. In Argentina, for example, they have been in lockdown for over 100 days.

"The third thing is antisemitism, which existed before, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it worse. And the fourth reason is economic: in many countries, Jews own businesses or are in the free professions. Because of the coronavirus they have suffered a severe blow, and they believe that if they come to Israel, with the aid they will receive as immigrants, they will be able to make a new start. Many people are realizing assets they own overseas and coming here, and it's not necessarily people looking for luxury apartments, but rather average homes, in the periphery."

According to figures from the chief economist at the Ministry of Finance, the favorite cities for overseas residents in the past were Jerusalem and the coastal cities of Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Ashdod. Now, the interest goes beyond these places.

"We just sold ten apartments in Beersheva to immigrants from France," says Yishay Roth, VP marketing and business development at Shoval Residence. Sivan Peretz of Bonei Hatichon: "Two weeks ago, I had an approach from a group of Americans who wanted to buy a whole building in Netanya. They explained that they wanted to have a home in Israel, that this would give them a sense of security, and I have another group of Americans, four friends who have expressed interest in our project in Kiryat Ono, because they wanted to have a place to be in a situation in which they had no choice."

One person who bought an apartment against any eventuality is Eliyahu, owner of a chain of clothing stores, who has lived for 30 years in Miami, Florida. As he does every year, he came to spend a vacation in Israel, and then he and his family were caught by the pandemic, and they have been here since then, in a rented apartment. Eliyahu recently bought an apartment in the Bonei Hatichon project in Kiryat Ono. "I feel safer here," he says. "In the US, I had a sense of uncertainty. When it's possible to fly again, I'll return to Miami - at the moment I'm in no hurry, because there's an outbreak there - alone, without the family, and then we'll see what we'll do."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 21, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Immigrants from Ukraine / Photo: Svetlana Soroka, Jewish Agency
Immigrants from Ukraine / Photo: Svetlana Soroka, Jewish Agency
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