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Historical development of Jewish immigration | Israel (2008) |

Historical development of Jewish immigration

Jan Schneider

/ 7 Minuten zu lesen

Jews have been migrating to Palestine since the early 1880s and the emergence of the Zionist movement. Five waves of immigration (aliyah, plural: aliyoth) are generally identified for the time leading up to the founding of the state in 1948.

Before the founding of the state

The first aliyah, between 1882 and 1903, comprised about 25,000 mostly Russian and Romanian Jews and was, not least, a reaction to a series of anti-Semitic pogroms in southern Russia. It led to the first major towns and agricultural holdings in an area that had hitherto been relatively sparsely populated and economically poorly developed. Between 1904 and 1914 a further 40,000 Jews came to Palestine. This group predominantly consisted of members of the "Zionist Workers" in Russia who were dissatisfied with the slow pace of social reform and who had likewise become victims of anti-Semitic attacks as a consequence of the 1905 revolution. The third aliyah, between 1919 and 1923, was made up of a further 35,000 immigrants, approximately, predominantly from Poland and Russia or the Soviet Union and motivated, among other things, by the Balfour Declaration and the associated boost for the Zionist project, which aspired towards an independent Jewish state.

Between 1924 and 1931 a further 80,000 Jews arrived, once again primarily from the Soviet Union and Poland. The Polish Jews in particular suffered from anti-Semitism in Polish government policy, which excluded them from important segments of the economy. By contrast, the prospects for economic development for Jews in Palestine at this time were already significantly improved, and a Jewish infrastructure had been established. The biggest pre-state wave of immigration, the fifth aliyah between 1932 and 1939, involved about 200,000 Jews. They had recognised the signs of the times, largely following the assumption of power by the National Socialists in 1933, and decided to leave their homeland. The immigrants of the 1930s also already included several thousand Jews from Middle Eastern countries with large Jewish communities such as Yemen and Iraq. Between 1939 and 1945 around a further 70,000 European Jews from Poland, Germany, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia succeeded in fleeing from Nazi terror. They are sometimes also included in the fifth aliyah. These immigrants not only had to overcome the difficulties of leaving Central and Eastern Europe, but, against a background of the looming partition of Palestine, were also confronted by the British Mandatory power's restrictive immigration regulations. On the eve of the founding of the Israeli state, the Jewish population of Palestine numbered more than 600,000 people.

The War of Independence: refugeeism and displacement

At the start of Jewish immigration at the end of the 19th century Palestine was by no means uninhabited. Living in the area – initially in peaceful coexistence with the Jewish immigrants, for the most part – was a partly nomadic, partly settled Arab population totalling about 400,000 people. In addition, there were a number of small Jewish communities which, taken together, numbered about 20,000 people and whose settlement went back predominantly to Jews driven out of Spain at the end of the 15th century as well as Jewish pilgrims from the latter years of the Middle Ages.

At the end of the 19th century and turn of the 20th century the living space and economic areas of both population groups overlapped, especially in the mixed-population cities of Haifa, Yaffo (Jaffa), Ramle and Akko. Like the Jews, Arabs, too, migrated from surrounding regions to Palestine and settled there. The early 1920s, however, saw riots and at times armed conflict between Jews and Arabs (mostly over land issues) as well as between both groups and the British Mandatory power in Palestine. In the 1930s and 1940s there were civil war-like clashes, increasing in magnitute after the United Nations (UN) Partition Plan of 1947 which proposed two states on Palestinian soil,. Immediately after the Declaration of Independence made by the Jewish National Council on the 14th May 1948, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq declared war on the new state of Israel. This first Arab-Israeli war lasted over a year and led to massive displacement and refugee movements, since the victorious Israel also conquered areas that, according to the UN Plan, were to belong to the Arab state of Palestine.

In all, between 600,000 and 800,000 people of Arabic origin were left without a homeland: more than 450,000 settled in the Gaza Strip as well as in the part of the West Bank under Jordanian control until 1967, 70,000 in Transjordan (today's Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan), 75,000 in Syria and a further 100,000 in Lebanon. Palestinian refugees also found themselves in Iraq (about 4,000) and in Egypt (around 7,000). Unlike most Jews, who saw in the newly-founded and defended independence of Israel the realisation of the Zionist dream, the war, refugeeism and displacement of the year 1948 meant catastrophe (Nakba) for Arab Palestinians. In 1948 a small number of Arabs stayed in the newly founded state: a good 150,000 non-Jews were granted Israeli citizenship, making them an ethnic minority. Depending on (self)definition, members of that minority are described as Israeli Arabs or as Palestinian Israelis. Today this group comprises more than 1.4 million people.

Since the founding of Israel

Figure 1: Jewish Immigration to Israel, 1948-2006 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

For the surviving Jewish communities in post-war Europe, winning the War of Independence sent out a signal. Several thousand Jews set out for Israel. Shortly after the founding of the state there was mass immigration of Middle Eastern Jews from Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen that, in some cases, resembled an exodus and led to the virtual disappearance of Jewish population groups in the countries from which they came. In the first years between 1948 and 1952 alone, more than 600,000 Jewish immigrants came to Israel, doubling the total population. In the mid 1950s and early 1960s the annual total of new immigrants fell. Arrivals averaged 15,000 per year between 1960 and 1989, most of them coming from Europe and North and Central America. The biggest wave of immigration to date started after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

It was characterised by the fact that almost 90% of the immigrants came from the former Soviet Union and this continues on a low level through to this day. The main countries of origin are Russia and Ukraine. Since 1989 a total of about 1.3 million Jews and non-Jewish family members have come to Israel as immigrants. In addition, a significant immigrant group in recent decades has been Jews from Ethiopia (see "Integration"). Since the outbreak of the second Intifada in autumn of 2000, however, immigration has declined drastically; in the year 2006 fewer than 20,000 new immigrants arrived in Israel, in 2007 the numbe stood at just 18,000 (in comparison to an average of 73,000 per year between 1992 and 1999).

The immigration/emigration balance

Figure 2: New immigrants in Israel according to country of origin, 2006 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

Since the founding of the state, Israel´s net migration has been consistently very high. Particularly when compared with the record immigration numbers of the early 1990s, emigration figures have been of little consequence; nonetheless, there have been examples of emigration at all times: Jewish Israelis, who for family or professional reasons preferred to live, for example, in the United States or Europe; new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were unable to cope with the climatic conditions and political clashes in the Middle East and returned home or migrated to another country after a relatively short time; as well as long-established residents grown weary of the prolonged conflict or the tense and sometimes dangerous living circumstances in Israel who were trying for a new start elsewhere. As early as 1980, results of the US American population census revealed that more than 150,000 Israeli citizens – some with dual nationality – were living in the United States, of whom about a third had been born in Israel.

The flow of people out of Israel did not necessarily, however, lead to permanent emigration. Frequently it represented only a temporary transfer of the main place of residence. If we consider net migration, then between 7,000 and 12,000 Israeli citizens leave Israel each year. In the years 2001 to 2006 there were about 65,000 in total, and of these about 90 % were Jews. In each of the last three years this "demographic bloodletting" has only just been compensated for by immigration. For the year 2008, US-American estimates assume a positive net migration of just 2.5 migrants per 1,000 inhabitants.

Emigration stands in direct opposition to the Zionist Ideal on which the raison d´être of the state is founded: the Jewish diaspora communities in the world were to gather in Israel – in other words, to "return home". Against this background Israelis who left their country to lead what they believed would be a more comfortable life overseas away from the wars and conflicts were often spoken of disparagingly. Yet the general increase in mobility, as well as processes of re-migration or economically driven circular migration, have meanwhile led to (temporary) emigration being regarded as a normal phenomenon. Very highly educated young adults in particular frequently work abroad for a few years, by preference in the cities of the North American west and east coasts.



  1. Between 1917 and 1948, Great Britain as victors in the First World War wielded the administrative and military power in Palestine ("Mandate") which had previously belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The so-called Balfour Declaration was a letter from the British Foreign Secretary at the time, Arthur Balfour, in which Great Britain declared that it was essentially sympathetic with Zionist aspirations to establish a "national home for the Jewish people".

  2. The Arabs in Palestine were not an homogeneous group of people. They were predominantly Sunni Muslims, including some Bedouin. In addition there were large groups of both Christians and Druze (members of a non-missionary sect of Shiite-Islamic origin with strong group identity and their own, partly arcane religious practices).

  3. Cf. Gilbert (1996)

  4. This was the case, for instance, in Yemen and Iraq; the total number of Jews remaining and living in Arabic countries today is estimated at only about 60,000 (cf. Shiblak 2005).

  5. The term Intifada refers to the violent Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The first Intifada began in 1987 and its conclusion is generally associated with the Oslo Accords of 1993. The second Intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa Intifada, began in September 2000 and ended with a formal truce at the beginning of 2005.

  6. Cf. Eisenbach (1998)

  7. Cf. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Fact Book (online), as at: 13.06.2008. Israel Central Bureau of Statistics data for 2007 was not available at the time of going to press.

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