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Immigration to Israel: Introduction & Overview

Following their expulsion and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE, the majority of the Jews were dispersed throughout the world. The Jewish national idea, however, was never abandoned, nor was the longing to return to their homeland.

Throughout the centuries, Jews have maintained a presence in the Land, in greater or lesser numbers; uninterrupted contact with Jews abroad has enriched the cultural, spiritual and intellectual life of both communities.

Zionism, the political movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, founded in the late 19th century, derives its name from word "Zion," the traditional synonym for Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. In response to continued oppression and persecution of Jews in eastern Europe and disillusionment with emancipation in Western Europe, and inspired by Zionist ideology, Jews immigrated to Palestine toward the end of the nineteenth century. This was the first of the modern waves of aliyah (literally "going up") that were to transform the face of the country.

On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed.

The Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel stated: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles; it will foster the development of the country for all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex . . . ."

This was followed in 1950 by the Law of Return, which granted every Jew the automatic right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen of the state. With the gates wide open after statehood was declared, a wave of mass immigration brought 687,000 Jews to Israel's shores. By 1951, the number of immigrants more than doubled the Jewish population of the country in 1948. The immigrants included survivors of the Holocaust from displaced persons' camps in Germany, Austria and Italy; a majority of the Jewish communities of Bulgaria and Poland, one third of the Jews of Romania, and nearly all of the Jewish communities of Libya, Yemen and Iraq.

The immigrants encountered many adjustment difficulties. The fledgling state had just emerged from the bruising war of independence, was in grievous economic condition, and found it difficult to provide hundreds of thousands of immigrants with housing and jobs. Much effort was devoted toward absorbing the immigrants: ma'abarot — camps of tin shacks and tents — and later permanent dwellings were erected; employment opportunities were created; the Hebrew language was taught; and the educational system was expanded and adjusted to meet the needs of children from many different backgrounds.

Additional mass immigration took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when immigrants arrived from the newly independent countries of North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia. A large number of immigrants also arrived during these years from Poland, Hungary and Egypt.

Israel saw a large spike in immigration during 2014, with a 32% increase in general immigration over 2013's numbers.  As opposed to 2013's number of 16,968 immigrants making Aliyah to Israel, in 2014 approximately 26,500 individuals made Aliyah.  Immigration from the Ukraine increased more than 190% due to the ongoing civil war and social unrest, and for the first time in history immigration from France surpassed immigration from every other country. Looking forward, Israeli officials predicted over 10,000 French individuals to make Aliyah in 2015. During 2014 more people immigrated to Israel from free countries rather than from countries in distress, demonstrating Israel's attractiveness as a place to live and do business.  Aliyah from Western Europe in general was up 88% over the previous year's data, and Aliyah from the former Soviet Union was up 50%. 

The rising tide of anti-Semitism and fear of terror attacks prompted the largest immigration of Jews to Israel from Western Europe in history during 2015. The Jewish Agency reported that 9,880 Western European Jews made aliyah to Israel in 2015, the largest annual number ever recorded. The vast majority of these immigrants (7,900) came from France, where there were two large national terror attacks as well as many individual violent attacks against Jews during the year. An estimated 800 of these individuals made aliyah from England. In total, 2015 saw 31,013 Jewish individuals from around the globe make Aliyah to Israel, a 12-year high.

The year 2015 saw 16,700 Israelis leave the country to live overseas long-term, and 8,500 move back after living elsewhere for one year or more; the first year since 2009 that more Israelis exited than returned.  The number of Israelis returning to Israel in 2015 was the lowest in 12 years.  According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, from 1948 through 2015 about 720,000 Israelis moved to live outside Israel and never returned.  They estimate that approximately 557,000 to 593,000 Israelis reside outside of Israel currently.  

During 2016, 27,000 immigrants made aliyah to Israel, a significant decrease from 2015's total.  

Israel welcomed approximately 37,000 new immigrants during 2017, with the most immigrants arriving in Israel from Russia (27%), the Ukraine (25%), France (13%), and the United States (10%). 

Immigration from Western Countries

While mass immigrations to Israel have mostly been from countries of distress, immigration of individuals from the free world has also continued throughout the years. Most of these persons are motivated by idealism. This aliyah gained strength after the Six ­Day War, with the awakening feelings of Jewish identity among Diaspora Jewry.

Immigration from the Soviet Union & former Soviet Union

From 1948 to 1967, the relations between Jews in the Soviet Union and the State of Israel were limited. Following the Six­Day War, Jewish consciousness among Soviet Jews was awakened, and increasing numbers sought aliyah. As an atmosphere of detente began to pervade international relations in the early 1970s, the Soviet Union permitted significant number of Jews to immigrate to Israel. At the end of the decade, a quarter of a million Jews had left the Soviet Union; 140,000 immigrated to Israel.

Soviet Jews were permitted to leave the Soviet Union in unprecedented numbers in the late 1980s, with President Gorbachev's bid to liberalize the country. The collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 facilitated this process. After 190,000 olim reached Israel in 1990 and 150,000 in 1991, the stabilization of conditions in the former Soviet Union and adjustment difficulties in Israel caused immigration to level off at approximately 70,000 per year. From 1989 to the end of 2003, more than 950,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union had made their home in Israel.

Immigration from Ethiopia

The 1980's and 1990's witnessed the aliyah of the ancient Jewish community of Ethiopia. In 1984, some 7,000 Ethiopian Jews walked hundreds of miles to Sudan, where a secret effort known as Operation Moses brought them to Israel. Another 15,000 arrived in a dramatic airlift, Operation Solomon, in May 1991. Within thirty hours, forty­one flights from Addis Ababa carried almost all the remaining community to Israel.

The Israeli government approved the entry of the “last group” of Ethiopian Jews in November 2015, aiming to finish what was started by Operation Moses 30 years prior. This announcement comes two years after Israeli government officials claimed that no Jews remained in Ethiopia. There have been several supposedly “last” groups of Ethiopian Jews that have made aliyah to Israel, including a group of 450 who arrived in Israel in 2013. It is estimated that this proposal approved the entry into Israel of approximately 9,100 Ethiopian Jews, most of whom were at the time living in refugee camps in Adis Ababa and Gondar. The first group of this new wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel arrived eleven months after the initial announcement, on October 9, 2016.