In Israel, era of mass immigration ends

TEL AVIV, Israel — Melissa Schwab is no Zionist zealot. She’s not an Orthodox Jew seeking to be nearer to God. She didn’t flee anti-Semitism.

So why move nearly 9,000 miles from her home in Hawaii and settle in life-on-the-edge Israel? Because, she says, she likes a lifestyle that is “secular and normal” while offering something “a bit more meaningful.”

The 26-year-old American student’s decision to make “aliyah” _ the Hebrew term for “going up” _ makes her part of the Jewish state’s vast immigration enterprise, the bedrock of its very existence. But the influx that brought together more than 3 million Jews from more than 100 countries following Israel’s creation in 1948 has dwindled to a trickle.

The last great immigration wave _ Ethiopian Christians of Jewish ancestry who convert back to Judaism for resettlement in Israel _ has just ended, and with it an iconic chapter in Israeli history.

The persecuted and the poor of world Jewry are for the most part already here. So most future immigrants will be people like Schwab, making a private, individual choice.

Israel’s appeal to the Jewish Diaspora used to be as a small feisty nation fighting for its survival, or as a socialist alternative to the capitalist rat race. There were kibbutzim to farm and deserts to make bloom.

But today the Jewish state is in many ways a normal industrialized democracy. Its immigrants today are as likely to be job-hunting non-Jews from Africa and Asia, many of them here illegally, as Zionists in search of spiritual fulfillment.

Diaspora Jews are also less likely to leave everything behind for Israel. It’s much easier today to be a dual national, living part-time in both worlds. Meanwhile, Israelis have also become frequent fliers. The tech-savvy nouveaux-riches of Tel Aviv joke that a visit to New York is more common than a 40-mile pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Schwab arrived a year ago from Maui, where she practiced Judaism in an informal “Aloha-style kind of way.” She is fluent in Hebrew and studies at an Israeli university. Her boyfriend is a “Sabra” _ a native-born Israeli. She lives in Tel Aviv, which next year celebrates its centennial as the world’s first purpose-built Jewish city.

She’s part of an old ideal, “the ingathering of the exiles” _ the raison d’etre of the Zionist movement from its beginnings more than a century ago.

Even before Israel became a state, the Jewish population grew to 600,000 in five great waves of immigration as European Jews beset by pogroms and then the Holocaust realized an age-old Jewish dream of returning to Zion after 2,000 years in exile.

More than 3 million more have followed, and Israel’s Jewish population now stands at 5.5 million, plus 1.4 million Arab citizens. Of the world’s population of just over 13 million Jews, Israel’s is the biggest portion, having surpassed America’s in 2006.

“There is no place in the world where the number of immigrants is five times the number of the people who were there. It is unprecedented,” said Sergio DellaPergola, a prominent demographer at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

The 1950s, according to the Jewish Agency which handles immigration, saw the arrival of 765,000 Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, driven out by the Arab backlash that followed Israel’s creation. Next came tens of thousands from the European communist bloc, and then another million from the collapsing Soviet Union.

Starting in the early 1980s, Israel clandestinely airlifted 80,000 members of Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community, nearly 15,000 of them in just two days in 1991.

Today, with no immediate threat to world Jewry, and with the most endangered communities already in Israel, such drama is a thing of the past.

Jews in America and other prosperous Western countries have no pressing motivation to leave everything for Israel, a country founded to provide a safe haven for Jews but which has become one of the most dangerous places for a Jew to live, because of war and terrorism.

Indeed, while the U.S. Jewish community is one of Israel’s most important backers, only 120,000 American Jews have immigrated here.

“I am going to destroy a myth here,” said Ori Konforti, the Ethiopia envoy for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency. “Waves of immigration have never been because of the pulling power of Israel but rather because of the pushing power of where those people came from.”

Most Jews in poor countries have already left, and for the first time, Israel is nearing zero growth from immigration, with the number of those leaving closing in on the number of those coming, DellaPergola said.

“We have brought all the needy and the situation of the rest of the Jews is pretty well off,” he said. “There is not a lot of distress in the Diaspora today so the question is what kind of quality of life Israel can offer these people.”

For Israelis, “aliyah,” is a revered term symbolizing the hope of a persecuted nation returning to its ancient homeland. Conversely, leaving the country is known as “yeridah,” meaning “going down.”

But these distinctions have lost their emotional charge. Israelis who leave to further their education or to earn more money are no longer pariahs.

The end of mass immigration comes as Israelis have lost some of their self-confidence, bogged down in their 41-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, perceiving their country to be under weak, corrupt leadership, nostalgic for the frugal socialist era.

But Israel isn’t giving up. Ingrained in Israelis’ consciousness is the conviction that their country is the world’s only guaranteed escape hatch for Jews in peril. They are steeped in the memory of boatloads of Jews fleeing the Nazis, only to be turned away at every port and ending up in gas chambers.

Since France suffered a wave of anti-Semitic violence a few years ago, widely attributed to rising passions over Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Israeli real estate agents have reported a sharp increase in house-buying by French Jews.

Last month, when war broke out in the Caucasus, some 40 Georgian Jews fled to Israel, and another 120 have applied to immigrate, according to the Jewish Agency.

So while it may no longer dream of mass immigration, Israel feels an imperative to keep in touch with the Diaspora.

Birthright Israel offers a free trip to Israel for young Diaspora Jews who have never been here. Another nonprofit, Nefesh B’Nefesh, offers economic incentives and helps immigrants navigate Israel’s notorious bureaucracy.

Birthright estimates that some 8 percent of its participants return to Israel within two years, and 5 percent eventually immigrate.

Schwab came with Nefesh B’Nefesh, sensed an idealism she needed in her life, and decided to make it permanent.

“Israel is a lot like the U.S. but there is something a bit more meaningful,” Schwab said. “There is a kind of mission for some higher ideal.”

Due in part to such projects, immigration from North America has picked up in recent years, with 3,200 arriving in 2006 _ a tiny number by past standards, but the highest in 23 years.

Natan Sharansky, the Soviet Jewish dissident who spent more than a decade in prison, immigrated to Israel and become a Cabinet minister, said people like Schwab are proof that Israel’s ideology is still alive and well.

“These people decided that Israel is a place that they want to live their life,” he said. “That is a victory of Zionism.”