Modern Aliyah

Economic, political, and religious trends shape the cultural makeup of the State of Israel.

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In a 2006 open letter to new immigrants, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielsky wrote that "the decision to make aliyah is a complicated personal decision. However, in these times it takes on a special meaning of national importance…  The best answer to terrorism is not military but in aliyah to Israel." But--as evidenced by the five snapshots--Bielsky's heroic, ideological conception of aliyah only goes so far in explaining the decision to move to Israel.

Aliyah in the Twenty-first Century

In 2010, over 19,000 people made aliyah, up from 16,465 the year before. The biggest group of olim or immigrants--40% of the total--came from the former Soviet Union, eastern Europe, and Germany. 1,650 olim were Ethiopians. France supplied 2,040 immigrants, while North Americans accounted for 3,980 arrivals. 1,470 South Americans made aliyah in 2010, including 380 Argentineans. 760 olim made their way from Britain, and 260 arrived from Australia and New Zealand.

While these figures seem impressive--especially in light of Israel's precarious security and economic situation--they pale alongside statistics from recent years.

During the 1980s, immigration to Israel had averaged just over 15,000 a year. Then in 1990, following the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union, this figure jumped to 199,516, dropping only slightly to 176,100 in 1991. During the '90s, Israel absorbed an average of 95,000 immigrants every year.

Push and Pull Factors

Israel's volatile aliyah rate fluctuates in response to push and pull factors. The 1990's post-Soviet olim initially responded to glasnost and the lifting of travel restrictions for Russian Jews, but were ultimately propelled out of the former USSR by political instability--accompanied by the rise of anti-Semitic ultra-nationalism--and economic collapse. In the 1990's, Israel was an attractive destination: it was coasting on a high-tech boom and, after the Oslo accords, enjoying what it hoped were the first glimmerings of peace with the Palestinians. Some immigrants saw Israel as a convenient staging post before traveling on to their final destination: America. Yet the early waves of post-Soviet aliyah were also characterized by Jewish involvement and a desire to become part of Israeli society. 

Parallel to the immigration wave from the former Soviet Union was a much smaller aliyah from Ethiopia. In Operation Moses (1984), 8,000 Ethiopian Jews crossed the Sudanese desert on foot before being secretly airlifted to Israel. Six years later, in 1991, most remaining members of the Ethiopian community--about 14,000--were transported to Israel over one weekend in the course of Operation Solomon. The Ethiopians were motivated by the need to escape from famine and civil war, but also by their belief in the biblical prophecies of the Israelites' return to Jerusalem. 

The recent Argentinean aliyah was prompted by that country's economic collapse. Argentinean Jews were fleeing unemployment and the threat of hunger. In 2002, 5,931 Argentineans made aliyah. As the crisis subsided, emigration to Israel dropped off: to 1,473 in 2003 and only 458 in 2004.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.