The European Exodus

On Wednesday this week (Feb 24), the Central Bureau of Statistics issued its summary of the aliyah data for 2009 (the press release and accompanying tables are available at www.cbs.gov.il). The data were “good”, in the sense that 2009 was the first year this century – since 1999, to be exact – that saw an increase in the number of olim compared to the preceding year.

Thus, whilst 14,567 olim is not a very large number, it is still better than 2008’s total of 13,699. On the other hand, the last two years’ arrivals numbers are the worst in 20 years, since the onset of the great wave of aliyah from the FSU (former Soviet Union) countries. And, although their numbers have declined steadily, FSU olim are still the mainstay of aliyah: last year, they comprised 47% of the total, still by far the largest contingent, with the US a distant second at 17%.

Mind you, at almost 2,500 persons, 2009 was an outstanding year for American aliyah which, let’s not forget, has been consistently miserable: a total of 92,600 persons born in the USA made aliyah between May 15th, 1948 and December 31, 2008. (NB That’s not identical with ‘American aliyah’, which includes many people born elsewhere, who made aliyah from the US, But it’s a fair indication of the US track record).

However, we can skip the Americans – their time will come. The reason why this column is relating to aliyah is because it is part and parcel of the topic pursued here and throughout the global media these past few weeks: the crisis in Greece, which is the tip of the European iceberg. As the European crisis worsens – and it is now back in the headlines, after a week or two in remission – the next major wave of aliyah is taking shape.

That is not meant to be a prediction, much less a prophecy. It is merely the application of historical precedent to current circumstances, so that if there is anything at all to be learnt from the past, we should be gearing up for a huge influx of European olim. However, another feature of all major waves of aliyah is that they encounter a state of total unreadiness and lack of preparation at the receiving end – and that can certainly be relied upon this time. The current government, with its battalion of ministers and regiment of deputy ministers, is cocooned in its own dreamworld and out to lunch with regard to anything connected with reality.

The pattern of major aliyot is extremely simple: it starts with the fact that no large group of Jews has ever moved to the Promised Land voluntarily. Beginning with the exodus from Egypt, they have had to be forcibly expelled or, at the least, made to feel intensely uncomfortable, before they would up and go. Even then, Israel, was rarely the place they went.

If we relate to the most recent period, since 1880, the pattern is very clear: an economic slump creates social tension which, in Europe, brings to the surface the latent anti-semitism which is quiescent in times of prosperity. The resulting riots/ pogroms/ mayhem/ legal restrictions succeed in getting the message across to the indigenous Jews that they are unwanted. Only then do they begin to move – if they can get out, and if there is anywhere willing to take them. Sometimes (the 1930s), no-one will take them in. In the worst case (1940-45), they can’t get out.

Europe today is already in a severe economic crisis. This may well get much worse, if the Greek and ancillary crises play out badly. In any event, a prolonged period of socio-political unrest is a near-certainty – and this comes when anti-semitism is already rampant and quickly turning nastier. Many European Jews, especially in France, are well aware of this; English Jews, on the other hand, prefer to play ostrich. But they are all headed for the same boat, along with their co-religionists across the continent, from the Low Countries to the Urals.

The critical difference between this time and last time is that now they have where to go. Although the new mood of xenophobia means that everywhere, including the US, the gates are closing to immigration, Jewish emigrants can and will be allowed into Israel. Many Israelis will be entirely opposed to mass aliyah, others will agree only reluctantly; that, too, is part of the pattern. However, it is increasingly clear that the historical process is underway and the pattern will play itself out. In the course of the next few years, at most by the end of the decade, most of the Jews currently in Europe will have moved here. That, of course, is the best possible news for us and will save Israel from the main impact of the global depression now underway. The slight rise in aliyah in 2009 should prove to be the harbinger of much greater things to come.

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