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2021 Was a Great Year for Aliyah

Analysis by Judy Maltz | 2021 Was a Great Year for Aliyah – Mainly Because 2020 Was Such an Awful One

Five key points from this year’s immigration data, where Aliyah was either 24 percent up on last year or 25 percent down on 2019 depending on how you choose to look at it

In the past, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry and the Jewish Agency would suffice with a press release to announce Israel’s annual immigration figures. It rarely drew much attention.

This year, Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata decided to break with tradition and hold a proper press conference. After all, there was much to celebrate.

Flanked by representatives of the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh – the organization tasked with facilitating aliyah from North America – she provided a detailed breakdown of the aliyah figures at Wednesday’s event, congratulating herself and the others for this “record-breaking” year, as she termed it.

Among the figures Tamano-Shata chose to highlight were the 30 percent increase in total immigration and the estimated 4,000 American Jews who moved to Israel this year – the latter being the largest in a single year since 1973.

But was 2021 really such a great year for aliyah? A closer review of the figures indicates that Tamano-Shata may have let herself get carried away a bit. Here’s why...

■ Saying that immigration rose 30 percent this year is stretching it. A very simple calculation shows that Israel’s aliyah professionals lack basic math skills. According to figures presented at the press conference, 21,820 immigrants arrived in Israel in 2020, while 27,057 arrived as of this Wednesday (that is, nine days to go until the end of the year). That represents an increase of 23.9 percent – not 30 percent.

When asked to explain the discrepancy, a spokesman for Tamano-Shata said that 23.9 percent is “about 30 percent.” He then corrected himself, saying the increase would eventually turn out to be 30 percent once the figures for the final nine days of the year were counted.

For that to happen, according to our calculations, another 1,316 immigrants would have to land in Israel over the course of this very short period. Based on immigration patterns in previous years, that is highly unlikely to happen. But who knows? Perhaps he knows something we don’t.

■ 2021 wouldn’t have been such a great year had 2020 not been such an awful year: it’s all a matter of what you’re comparing. Because of the pandemic, immigration to Israel dropped by a sharp 40 percent last year. Although Israel did continue to allow immigrants in, even when its borders were otherwise shut, often it was difficult to make the trip because of flight cancellations.

By contrast, during 2021, flying became much easier so more immigrants could make the move. Therefore, the relevant year for comparison is not 2020, which was an aberration, but instead pre-pandemic 2019. That calculation provides a very different result: the number of immigrants in 2021 was nearly 25 percent fewer than the number in 2019.

■ No, Jews are not fleeing America. To be sure, it has been nearly half a century since as many as 4,000 U.S. Jews immigrated to Israel in one single year – but let’s not forget that there are nearly 6 million Jews in the country. In other words, it’s hardly a drop in the bucket.

Here again, developments in 2021 needs to be explained within the context of developments in 2020. Many American Jews who had planned to move to Israel in 2020, but were unable to do so because of difficulties arising from the pandemic, postponed their aliyah by a year. If the years 2020 and 2021 are taken together and averaged out, it turns out that the increase in 2021 is much less dramatic.

■ It’s unlikely that the number of U.S. immigrants will actually reach 4,000. The aliyah figures from the United States come from Nefesh B’Nefesh, which includes in its tabulation “returning Israelis” – in other words, Israeli citizens who have lived abroad for many years and are returning home.

The Central Bureau of Statistics, widely regarded as the gold standard on immigration statistics, does not use this more expansive definition. Unfortunately, however, the CBS figures, unlike the aliyah ministry figures, are not published in real time, so it is too early to know what the actual number will be. But even based on the aliyah ministry’s own figures, the final number for December will have to see unusually high immigration from the U.S. to cross that 4,000 milestone.

■ If anything, this year’s increase in U.S. aliyah came not despite the coronavirus, but because of it. The surge in immigration in 2021 was all the more impressive, Tamano-Shata and her colleagues noted, considering that it occurred during a pandemic.

But even they admit that one of the main reasons for this surge was that the pandemic made Israel a much more viable and attractive option for relocation.

Indeed, the pandemic proved that it is possible to work remotely – something that many prospective immigrants might not have considered feasible before.

As Haaretz recently reported, a relatively large share of this year’s immigrants from the United States were ultra-Orthodox Jews. For many of them, the ability to work remotely became a deal changer. The ability to receive free health care and tuition for their large families made it that much sweeter.

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