Aliyah numbers are meaningless without also talking about olim retention and yeridah

To be useful and honest, Israel’s aliyah numbers have to be understood in the context of the much underdiscussed question of post-aliyah retention

Aliyah figures may be healthy, but if we fail to consider them in light of the very partial data about how many former olim are leaving Israel, a dishonest picture is always going to emerge. Photo: an El Al aircraft. Wikimedia.

A few short days ago, an extremely worthwhile article appeared in The Times of Israel discussing the housing crisis facing countless young Israelis, including olim hadashim (Jewish immigrants to Israel).

Times of Israel Startups and Business Editor Ricky Ben David painted a grim picture of the state of the country’s real estate market, which continues to rise even in the face of a global pandemic.

Among the piece’s many shocking findings: to afford a downpayment on your average Israeli apartment, a young couple now has to muster up more than a quarter of a million dollars (!) in personal equity. Effectively, Israel is banking on its young generation being well on their way to becoming paper millionaires in order to be able to afford to even quality for a mortgage. In a country with one of the highest cost of livings in the world and an average salary somewhere in the $40,000 territory, to call this approach fantastical is a gross understatement.

Sometimes it’s best to call a situation for what it is and avoid the plague of false positivity that I have long contended is endemic in the English-speaking community in Israel. It’s depressing. And it speaks of a housing and rental market that is utterly broken.

Read honestly, there are few slivers of hope in Ben-David’s analysis. Only many urgent questions and ideas worth exploring.

Does the government need to focus its effort on boosting supply? Should wealthy foreign Jews be precluded from owning the Israeli investment property that is driving the market through punitive taxation measures? And can anybody think of a better scheme to incentivize first time home ownership in Israel than the paltry 20% lottery discount on apartments in less-desirable locations that, to date, has been the government’s only response to this growing crisis?

It’s been a mere four days since Ben-David’s piece was published. And already the English-speaking media circus has moved on to a much more enjoyable and well-explored topic: aliyah (Jewish immigration) is on the rise again (current figures show a 31% year on year growth) and because Aliyah Day is happening in a few days’ time we can all stock up on the beer and champagne.

Although the figures haven’t yet corrected to what they were pre-pandemic (2019 naturally being the last pre-pandemic calendar year), they’re showing healthy sounds of rebounding.

But all this hustle and bustle begs the question: were we not discussing less than a week ago about how property ownership in Israel has now become a near impossible dream? How many of these olim are going to actually stay in Israel? Weren’t many of us decrying how the data revealed painted a picture that would hardly entice any rational migrant to live in this country?

The rapidity with which the discussion has moved from one of enormous significance of olim to year on year aliyah calculations speaks to a much bigger and problematic issue. If we fail to balance a discussion of aliyah with an investigation of what this year’s retention figures are looking like, then Israel is like a business that only reports on its sales.

If Israel Only Reports Inbound Immigration, The Picture Is Always Going To Look Various Shades Of Rosy

Truth be told, the Times of Israel coverage about the jump in aliyah figures is illustrative of any of the many pieces that have been written on the subject in recent years.

We get the statistics about aliyah. When they jump, we’re supposed to feel good and government ministers celebrate how aliyah continues to be a major driver of Israeli society. The Zionist dream is flourishing, we’re told, perhaps by a margin of 20% more than it was flourishing last year. This year’s uptick will undoubtedly be leaned on heavily by government ministers presiding over Aliyah Day celebrations. Politicians have a habit of behaving like this. None less so in Israel than abroad.

When they’re down, we’re supposed to be mildly “concerned” and “worried” about the fact that they’re down although no effort ever seems to be undertaken to get to the cause of why so many in the Jewish Diaspora continue to voluntarily reside outside of the borders of the State of Israel. (Note: the majority of world Jewry continues to live outside of Israel, even though the margin is growing slimmer by the year. At the last count, Israel was home to 43% of world Jewry, leaving 57% residing in the Diaspora. In the US alone, for instance, there are about 5.5 million Jews).

Many of these Jews identify with the Zionist cause and have some feeling of affiliation with the State of Israel, although a good deal more are antithetical to either the movement itself or towards the policies which Israel has chosen to implement, particularly in its conflicts with its neighbors.

But even among this tranche, many of these individuals are pragmatists (not all: a core contingent is so driven by ideological further that practical considerations simply don’t matter).

For this group, no matter how many great speeches they hear on Birthright tours about the virtues of moving to Israel, they are going to want to live in a country that affords them a chance of furthering their career and which recognizes their hard-earned foreign credentials (non-recognition of these has been a major cause of grievance among French olim). Living in a country in which the only means of owning property is mustering up more than a quarter of a million dollars — and in which the only alternative to that is a largely unregulated rental market — is, ultimately a significant dealbreaker too. For the same sum of money, I could own a reasonably comfortable property in my hometown of Cork, Ireland. Not just afford the downpayment. And a house, not an apartment. When Zionism is taking out of the picture, these factors do not make the prospect of moving to Israel, or staying there, particularly appealing. And if we continue to ignore them, the discussion of aliyah will always remain a very partial one.

There’s one vital statistic that has been conspicuously absent every time aliyah is promoted in articles such as these: How many olim actually stay in Israel over the long term and how many of those who leave were skilled workers whose departure constitutes something of a brain drain for Israel. My belief is if this data were included in the report, we’d be able to have a much more honest look at where aliyah truly stands.

But it would seem as if getting there, from a data standpoint, would need to start from the ground up. First, we need to collate. Only then can be begin to analyze.

Efforts have been made to get to the root of that. But those appear to require investigation and digging on the part of private citizens. That fact alone is concerning.

Ariella Bernstein is a personal friend and the author of Aliya: Home, Hope Reality which she authored alongside her husband.

It’s one of the very few books that have attempted to provide more honest guidance about the aliyah process than can be found in the literature of organizations promoting the choice which typically gloss over this uncomfortable topic of retention entirely.

According to data compiled for the book, 94% of olim knew of a fellow oleh who had left Israel within five years of their aliyah date (p. 209). Some sources have guesstimated that the figure of actual yeridah (leaving Israel) is in reality much higher than that. Nobody seems to have a firm answer.

But if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, then the answer is an awful lot — and the percentage is believed to be higher among Western olim who were drawn to Israel not out of persecution or desperation (ie push factors) but rather because of migration pull factors such as their affiliation with the ideological cause of Zionism and the belief that Israel was the only logical home for Jews. The promoter of one organization dedicated to promoting aliyah retention reckons that hundreds of his friends have left the country since they moved here.

So all this begs the question: Why, for the most part, is nobody talking about this? If Aliyah Day is a sort of unofficial chag then why does it need to be a relentlessly positive one celebrating how many olim are coming and what those who have come have achieved? Is that vital, yes. But addressing the continuance of aliyah deserves to be more than a footnote in that discussion. To date, it hasn’t even been made it into the book.

Israel’s aliyah figures are like a business only reporting on sales

I have a suggestion for the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration — which is the government organ responsible for organizing the upcoming Aliyah Day celebrations and promoting the whole notion of aliyah generally.

It should be obliged to maintain a rigorous system for keeping track of post-aliyah retention. By law. Because otherwise it is going to argue that this falls outside of its remit.

Every oleh who goes through the process of leaving Israel — closing Bituach Leumi accounts etc — should be asked whether they are merely leaving the country for a vacation or whether their aliyah voyage has come to its close. If given the chance, many will be eager to affirm the latter. Their aliyah dates should be tabulated. Their length of stay calculated. And they should be grilled, by an official government organ (not a book author or private surveyor) about why they chose to leave the country.

If Israel were an employer, this would be called an exit interview. It’s become standard practice in the corporate world. And if Israel is intent on continuing to make a song and dance about recruitment, then it needs to spare at least a passing though to those leaving the country too — beyond disparaging them, as Rabin once did, as wimps.

These numbers should be carefully tracked and aggregated in the same manner that the numbers of olim coming to Israel are maintained.

And every year, when we discuss aliyah numbers (typically in the week leading up to Aliyah Day) we should discus what that year’s yerida numbers look like too.

Comparing one against the other, we can see what the net migration flow looked like.

Just as we consider what trends are driving aliyah we should be looking at what the push factors are for those who made aliyah. And who those choosing to return to their countries of origin are.

If we fail to do that, Israel is like a business that only reports its sales numbers every year and shares no data about what its expenses or profitability looked like.

The only conclusions that can be drawn are that this year was slightly less profitable than the foregoing one or slightly more so. Various degrees of good. Such an analysis is dishonest.

This Aliyah Day will likely be seized upon by politicians to herald how great a job the State of Israel is doing at encouraging world Jewry to live in Israel. We’ll be told that aliyah is robust and healthy and nary a word will be spared about those who left in the past year or about why many are continuing to do so.

The picture they will try to paint is a disingenuous one. Or at least one that is highly selective in its interpretation of facts and figures.

To be honest, every discussion of aliyah also needs to look at, and investigate, how many former olim have left the country and why.

To fail to do that is to be grossly dishonest.

Daytime: tech-focused MarCom. Night-time: somewhat regular musings here. Or the other way round. Likes: Linux, tech, beer. https://www.danielrosehill.com