Immigration to Israel rose 28 per cent in the first half of 2019, fuelled predominantly by a rise in the number of Russian Jews immigrating to the country.
According to a report yesterday by Haaretz – which cited figures from the Jewish Agency, an NGO which encourages Jewish immigration to Israel – in the first six months of 2019, 16,019 Jews from around the world immigrated to Israel, an increase of 28 per cent compared to the same period in 2018.
Over half of these 16,019 immigrants originated from Russia, representing a 73 per cent increase in Russian immigration compared to 2018. A further 3,000 originated from Ukraine, representing a six per cent increase on the previous year.
Some five per cent of this year’s increase was also the result of immigration by the Falashmura, Ethiopian Jews whose right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return has long been the subject of controversy and has led to accusations of racism on the part of the Israeli state.
Meanwhile immigration from other countries with large Jewish populations – including the US, UK and France – fell drastically in the first half of 2019, despite efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to encourage their immigration. Immigration of French-Jews fell by 23 per cent, while Jewish-American immigration fell by 11 per cent.
Israel’s Law of Return states that only people with a Jewish grandparent, those who are married to a Jew, or have converted to Judaism can immigrate to Israel. However, conservative rabbis within Israel have claimed that most Russian immigrants cannot be considered Jews under Jewish law (the Halacha) because they do not have a Jewish mother and are not Orthodox.
In March, the Israeli rabbinate found itself mired in controversy after it emerged that it had been performing genetic testing on Israelis from the former Soviet Union to check if they are “genetically Jewish” as a condition for marriage registration.
Although the existence of such tests was previously denied by Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau admitted to having requested that some couples prove their Jewish status before allowing them to marry. The practice seemed to have disproportionately targeted Jews from the former Soviet Union, who the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities argue only have distant Jewish ancestry.
These Russian-speaking Jews account for approximately 15 per cent of the Israeli population, making them a considerable force in Israeli politics. Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who is himself of Soviet heritage – founded the Yisrael Beiteinu party to appeal to Russian-speaking, largely secular Israelis who have immigrated in consistently large numbers since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s.
These voters have largely remained loyal to Lieberman, with efforts by the ruling Likud party and its main opposition Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) to pry Russian-speaking voters away from Yisrael Beiteinu ahead of the 17 September election thus far proving unsuccessful.
This increased immigration comes at a time when Israel continues to crack down on non-Jewish migration to the country.
Last month Israel’s immigration authorities rounded up scores of Filipina workers and their Israel-born children for deportation, detaining them near the country’s Ben Gurion Airport. Despite attempts to appeal the deportation orders in Israel’s local appellate courts, earlier this week one Filipina care worker, Geraldine Esta, and her children – ten-year-old Kiyan and five-year-old Katherine – saw their appeal rejected and were given 45 days to leave the country.
Also last month, Israel tried to deport stateless Palestinian journalist Mustafa Al-Haruf. Al-Haruf was born in Algeria but has lived with his family in occupied East Jerusalem since he was 12, holding a residency permit that was previously renewed periodically. Despite being married to a Jerusalemite Palestinian and having a child together, Israel’s Interior Ministry has rejected Al-Haruf’s application for a family unification petition.
When Israeli authorities last month tried to deport Al-Haruf to Jordan, he was refused entry and returned to Israeli detention. An Israeli court yesterday remanded him in custody for another month until his deportation could be secured.