Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Still-Unending Stream of Jewish Immigration to Israel

"Oh, I am from (Country A or B or C), but I am Jewish and just got to Israel as a new immigrant."  This was one of the oft-repeated lines from self-introductions when the author spent his Wednesday night in Tel Aviv mingling with the local expat working crowd in one of the city's high-end beach bars.  "I still need to settle down, take those Hebrew lessons, and find a job, but so far it is great," the new immigrants would mention, quite hopeful of their situations in a completely new country for many of them despite their Jewish heritage.

Of course, migration to new countries for work and permanent residence is common enough in the modern world.  Millions migrate to more developed countries, lured by high wages, better living standards, and better opportunities for their posterity, while in many cases, sacrificing their social identities in order to make the transition.  In the Israeli case, some of the same factors are at play, but it seems the significance of those factors are much outweighed by the presence of the simple religious factor: a need to be in touch with the Jewish heritage in the Promised Land.

The impression is gotten by the fact that many of the new immigrants are not exactly in dire economic straits before landing in this country.  In fact, most of the new immigrants the author met for the night come from highly developed countries from Western Europe or North America, where wages for most types of jobs are, if anything, much higher on average than what is available in Israel.  Given that prices (especially real estate) in a big city like Tel Aviv is not that far off from the Western European level, their standard of living is bound to take a hit.

Still, they come because Israel makes the transition much easier.  Their Jewish background, naturally, would mean relative ease in comprehending local cultural traditions (despite initial language problems for many).  Israeli government support the new immigrants with various initiatives for them to settle down, learn the Hebrew language, and finding jobs.  Locals show little anti-immigrant bias (provided the migrants are Jewish), and finally, dual citizenship means the new immigrants can always go back home if they find Israel difficult to adjust to.

Such realities encourage even the most successful Jews from other countries to make attempts at migrating to Israel, only if they are doing it probably just for the very experience of it.  And because of the ease for Jews to do so, Israel has in its hands a great advantage: the ability to almost freely tap the successful global Jewish diaspora for their talents and capital in order to develop the country.  Such open labor market has no parallels in other countries with large ethnic diasporas.  For these countries, the diaspora is often something to guard citizens against in competition for limited jobs.

This is not to say that the relatively unimpeded ability for Jews to migrate to Israel is not without its set of problems.  Successful Jews bring with them significant capital that distort the markets of a small country.  Inflation, spearheaded by real estate, over the last few years have been insane, making it difficult for the average working class in the country to afford basic rent with meager salaries.  In particular, the need for shops to pay increasing amounts of rent to afford the same spaces led many to significantly up the prices of their products and services passed on to consumers.

And not all Jews are treated equally, leading to racial discrimination even among the Jewish population.  Lighter-skinned Jews originating from Europe and America, in general, hold much higher social status than darker-skinned ones, with their origins in the Middle East and Africa.  This is despite the fact that all Jews go to the same synagogues, speak the same language, work in the same workplaces, and hold the same immigration statuses.  Same socio-religious background has not entirely resolved the standard question of assimilation in the Israeli Jewish case.

Still, despite all the issues, the ability (and more importantly, the willingness) of successful Jews from developed countries (and from around the world) to freely migrate to Israel is remarkable given restriction on immigration is becoming the policy norm for most countries as they defend their own citizens' jobs against waves of more professionally qualified migrants.  There is no doubt that Israel has reaped significant benefits from such free migration regime, allowing Jews from all over to transfer their knowledge in building a wealthy and developed homeland for the Jewish people.

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