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Why do Jews migrate, and when?

What we understand about Jewish migration worldwide by combining history and recent data

Prof Sergio DellaPergola

Since Abraham, the son of Terach, the first Jewish migrant, a vast amount of geographical mobility has been a central feature of the Jewish experience. The centres of gravity of the Jewish presence around the globe have shifted repeatedly due to periods of migration, shaping and reshaping Jewish culture and the modes of interaction between Jewish minorities and the surrounding hegemonic societies. From their initial origins and prolonged location in the ancient Middle East, Jews moved West following the rise of Islam. Their demographic centre shifted from Western to Eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages. Massive migration waves to transoceanic countries, followed by the Second World War and the Holocaust, made the United States the main pole of Jewish life in the early twenty-first century. Today, the state of Israel has recovered its pristine and symbolic role as the prime land of Jewish presence worldwide.

It is tempting to try to find some rules of behaviour, recurrent patterns and overarching logic within the nearly infinite set of different collective and individual experiences and situations that span the history of the Jewish People: studying the past allows us to formulate relevant insights about Jewish migration today. ~This is particularly true for the modern and contemporary period, when the data necessary for informed judgement have become more abundant and reliable, and the tools for studying migration have become more systematic and accessible.

What factors affect Jewish migration?

The feasibility and volume of modern large-scale Jewish migration mostly reflect the fall of empires. The decline of the old European powers at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, until the First World War, stood behind the massive transatlantic migratory current. The end of the Ottoman Empire allowed the establishment of a new order in the Middle East, enabling immigration to Palestine. The decline of the British Empire was necessary for the State of Israel's independence. The end of the French colonial power anticipated the departure of North African Jews to the West and Israel. The fall of the Soviet Empire opened the doors to Jewish migration waves from former Soviet Union countries. In each instance, the new order that was created necessitated and enabled a large-scale outflow of Jews who had been underprivileged or discriminated against under the old regime or had suddenly lost much of their previous role as mediators between the elite rulers and the local population.

Ukrainian Jews arriving in Israel

A prime factor in Jewish migration was the existence or absence of legislation that prevented Jews from entering a country (such as the US quotas since the 1920s) or prevented them from leaving (like the impediments to Jewish emigration from the USSR during most of its existence). Laws encouraging Jewish immigration, like Israel's Law of Return, evidently affected not only the opportunity to migrate but also the willingness to move.

Economic factors such as the rates of unemployment in the countries of origin, alongside the rates in the countries of destination, played a leading role in these migratory waves at the individual level. JPR's report Jewish migration today: What it may mean for Europe confirms the dominant role of individual economic rationality in the choices made by Jewish migrants who, in the first place, have always needed to ensure their and their families' economic viability.

The role of factors such as antisemitism and violence against Jews, or the rise of terrorism, cannot be denied in the build-up of migration motivations but appear minor. In Argentina, the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and, more dramatically, of the AMIA Jewish community centre building in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, was followed only by a pale emigration echo compared to the substantial wave that followed the bankruptcy of Argentina's Federal Bank in 2001. The timing of Jewish emigration from France in the 2010s did not correspond with the most significant terror attacks in the country, either against Jewish targets or in general. Instead, it followed the curve of unemployment in that country.

Over the last thirty years, more than 70% of the annual and country-by-country rates of global aliya to Israel can be explained statistically by unemployment rates

In fact, over the last thirty years, more than 70% of the annual and country-by-country rates of global aliya to Israel can be explained statistically by unemployment rates in the countries of origin and in Israel. Ideological factors related to the pull of absorbing countries – primarily Israel – have been necessary but insufficient to determine any sudden and large-scale deviation from the customary small trickle of more convinced people. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss it lightly: ideology and culture have played a role in the choice of the country of destination.

Looking into the future of Jewish migration from Europe

These factors explain the volume and timing of the most recent Jewish migration waves. The same factors also form the conceptual framework for any attempt to forecast future developments: we can only expect large-scale migration under conditions of deep ruptures in the political and socioeconomic order of the current geopolitical configuration.In this sense, Europe does not constitute one coherent and meaningful analytical platform. It must be be subdivided into regional components – at the very least, the European Union, its homologues (such as the UK), and the FSU. Concerning the latter, the war in Ukraine and its effect on the Ukrainian and Russian economies can potentially ignite a Jewish migration wave from these countries; early data from the past eighteen months suggest that such a departure might have already started. The relative underdevelopment and submission to totalitarian regimes support the scenario of continuing and increasing numbers of departures and the progressive emptying of Jews from other FSU countries such as  Hungary and Poland.

The situation in the EU and the UK is significantly different, and the present circumstances suggest continuing, relatively small and bi-directional flows of Jewish migration. The only scenario which might lead to a more substantial Jewish exodus in the future would be the disruption and demise of the EU as an institution, which would be conceptually similar to the already mentioned past disruption of well-entrenched geopolitical frameworks. Given recent political developments among European nations, it is a scenario we cannot rule out.

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Prof Sergio DellaPergola

Chairman of JPR's European Demography Unit

Prof Sergio DellaPergola

Chairman of JPR's European Demography Unit

Professor Emeritus and former Chairman of the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and Chairman of JPR’s European Jewish Demography Unit, Prof DellaPergola...

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