Israel's emigration rate jumps as it learns to count

Ben Gurion Airport  credit: Yossi Zamir
Ben Gurion Airport credit: Yossi Zamir

The Central Bureau of Statistics has decided that Israelis who pay short annual visits are not residents, lopping 150,000 off the population figures.

Last week, Israel launched an expanded immigrant absorption (aliya) program. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich promised that "the program will spur many new immigrants, and immigration in the coming years will be a tremendous springboard and growth engine for the Israeli economy." As part of the program, "solutions will be provided to immigrants in all areas of life, from extensive rent assistance to generous assistance for students, and more."

But while we Israelis get excited, rightly, about immigration figures, new and particularly grim figures came out last week about the rate of emigration from Israel. Naturally, no politician rushed to talk about it, nor did the government launch a well-publicized population retention campaign. The drama is two-fold: not only did the rate of emigration increase significantly in 2022-2023, but the Central Bureau of Statistics decided to change its counting method, causing a sharp hike in the number of emigrant yordim ("those who go down" from the Land of Israel, as opposed to immigrant olim, who "go up").

To explain: to date, only those who had not visited Israel for 365 consecutive days were recorded as emigrants. People paying an annual visit to aging parents, or just coming back to Israel on vacation, continued to be counted as residents. Now, after research revealed the unreliability of this counting method, and wishing to adopt global standards, the Central Bureau of Statistics has announced a switch "from a contiguous approach to an approach that takes short visits into account."

Dr. Ahmad Hleihel, Director of the Demography Sector at the Central Bureau of Statistics, explained that the change in the system increased the number of people emigrating and immediately cut "Census Day 2022" numbers by about 105,000 Israelis: 1.1% of the total population; 0.7% of the Jews, 0.2% of the Arabs, and 12% of the remainder. Since then, the data reveal, another 60,000 Israelis emigrated in 2023, which compares with an average of just 40,000 emigrants annually over the past decade, and 47,000 new immigrants during the last year. "This is a big difference," emphasizes Hleihel. "Within a year and seven months, the number of Israelis decreased by 150,000, in comparison with the old calculation."

The good news is that 30,000 Israelis have also returned during the past year, some to join the war effort. Still, this is an exceptional negative net balance of 30,000 emigrants within one year.

The figures do not take into account the impact of the war, as it is still not possible to identify those who have chosen or will choose to emigrate afterwards. It is also difficult to estimate the aftermath’s effect: on the one hand, antisemitism and hatred of Jews and Israelis the world over, serves as a reminder that there is a Jewish homeland. On the other hand, the bitter truth about October 7th is that it was precisely in Israel, stronghold of the Jewish people, where the horrific massacre occurred. If that were not enough, a combustive social environment, and a state budget deficit that will inevitably lead to a heavy tax burden, and reduced public services, may persuade Zionist Israelis that their place is elsewhere.

But last week’s emigration figures were of interest only to statisticians wishing to explain the sudden drop in the number of Israelis. The public instead prefers to turn a blind eye to the yerida phenomenon, and in any case for some time now has favored the less loaded term "relocation."

This is nothing new: overlooking emigration and focusing on immigration is a tradition in our short Zionist history. Israeli schoolchildren learn about the mass waves of immigrants who came before the establishment of the state, but never hear a word about the multitudes who despaired and gave up. According to historian Dr. Meir Margalit, in the years 1926-1927, four times as many Jews exited the Land of Israel as entered it. 2-3% of the total Jewish population of the Land of Israel left in the first half of the 1920s, and 6% in the second half.

Nor was it easy to leave in those days - socially, ideologically, economically, or even logistically locating a ship and a country willing to receive migrants. Many wanted to leave but simply could not. In 1926, Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky warned, "There are many leaving the country, and I have found even more who plan on leaving, but these are not the cause for fear. The most concerning are those who do not leave because they have nowhere to turn, but have lost all hope, and they are many." Today, we are justly far from those sentiments, but we must not ignore a worrisome trend.

It’s also important to say that, 100 years after Jabotinsky’s speech, one can imagine the relief of those who "lost all hope" but stayed nevertheless. We don’t have to go very far back to be reminded that we have no other home to fight for.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on February 26, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Ben Gurion Airport  credit: Yossi Zamir
Ben Gurion Airport credit: Yossi Zamir
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