By Anshel Pfeffer
After all the recent talk of the threat facing Western European Jews – in the wake of Islamist terror attacks on Jewish targets in France, Belgium and Denmark, plus last summer’s rise in anti-Semitic incidents – the latest quarterly immigration figures, published by The Jewish Agency, are the first indication of whether the immigration calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been heeded.
The headline statistic – that in the first three months of 2015, aliyah was up 41 percent – would indicate they have been. A closer look, though, shows a completely different picture. Here are a few takeaways from the Jewish Agency’s report…
1. Jewish immigration from the largest European community, and the one most in the headlines with regards to Islamist threat, shows only a tiny rise. Some 1,413 French Jews arrived in the first three months of 2015, compared to 1,271 in the same period last year. That’s hardly a panicked exodus, and that 11 percent rise is actually in line with the gradual increase in immigration from France over the past four years. Jewish Agency experts attribute this mainly to the stagnating economy and higher taxation under Socialist President François Hollande.
2. The rise in immigration from another large European community that’s been in the headlines, Britain, is much sharper: 43 percent. But when you look at the actual numbers – a total of just 166 immigrants in three months – it’s clear that this is statistically meaningless. For all the talk of U.K. Jews thinking of leaving Britain, emigration to Israel remains very small.
3. Where did most of the 6,499 immigrants who arrived in Israel between January and March come from? Well, over half of them came from two countries at the other end of Europe, where Jews have never been targeted by Muslims. The largest number, 1,971 immigrants, is from Ukraine – more than three times the number who arrived in the first quarter of 2014. Many of these Jews are refugees from the ongoing warfare caused by pro-Russian separatists, backed by regular Russian army units. The conflict has caused a deep financial crisis (the Ukrainian hryvnia was the worst-performing European currency in 2014), which is another key reason for emigration.
4. Russia’s economy has also suffered badly as a result of the plummeting oil prices and economic sanctions placed on President Vladimir Putin’s regime in response to the invasion of Ukraine. As a result, Jewish emigration from Russia jumped by nearly 50 percent, from 1,016 to 1,515. It seems Russian Jews have diminished faith in Putin’s ability to turn his country around.
5. Three necessary caveats. First, trends in immigration are played out over years and decades: three months is merely a snapshot. Second, it usually takes Westerners who decide to emigrate many months, if not years, to carry out their plans. Those arriving from poorer and war-torn countries pack their bags much more quickly. Finally, the first quarter of the year is not always a good indicator, since emigration from Western countries tends to be much heavier around the summer months. A massive surge in aliyah from France may only materialize, if at all, this summer – or even only next year. But still, these figures signal that, despite recent events, the Jews of the West are taking things in their stride.
6. Some leaders of Russian Jewry, especially Chabad rabbis, have lately taken to favorably comparing their president – the allegedly Judeophile Putin – to the United States’ Barack Obama, whom they accuse of all sorts of hidden hatreds toward the Jews. The absurdity of these comparisons is underlined by the numbers. North America is the continent with largest number of Jews, but only 478 of them emigrated to Israel in the first three months of 2015 – down seven percent on last year. For now at least, Jews aren’t leaving their home countries in the face of Islamist terror, but are fleeing Putin in increasing numbers.