Voting with their feet

Palestinian families forced to leave the village of Faluja in 1948. The village was ethnically cleansed by Jewish forces. On its looted lands, Israeli settlers founded Qiryat Gat in 1954. (UN Photo)

The official role of Israel as sole protector of the Jewish people is being increasingly tested by a large and growing number of émigrés from Israel to other countries around the world, matched by a diminishing number of new immigrants. This is creating serious problems for Israel in seeking to maintain the exclusively Jewish character of the Israeli state.

Israeli right of return

That Israel should be viewed as sole protector of the Jewish people is possible through the so-called Israeli right of return (or Aliyah). This law creates the right of any Jew, anywhere in the world, to emigrate to Israel and, provided they can prove maternal Jewish heritage, to claim an Israeli nationality and passport.

It is an exclusive law benefiting only Jews. It is terribly cruel in its implementation since Palestinians are simultaneously denied the right to return to their homes, which they fled or were otherwise forcibly removed from since establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.[1]

One of the central tenets of Zionism, Aliyah has formed a major pillar of Jewish culture, particularly in the United States, where it has also proven to be highly contentious. Rob Eshman has referred to Aliyah as the ‘oat bran of the Jewish People’: “We know it’s good for us. We know we should be having more of it. But truth is, we just find it hard to swallow. And we certainly don’t like it shoved down our throats”.[2]

Not staying …

According to the Israeli government’s own statistics, the total number of departures (émigrés) from Israel between 1998 and 2001 has been roughly 20,000 per year, with a sharp increase in 2001,[3] presumably following the eruption of violence after the second Intifada.

Some have explained the ‘exodus’ of Israelis to other countries as a ‘reverse Aliyah’, citing problems in the economy as one of the strong reasons for seeking greener pastures elsewhere, in particular the United States. It has been reported that out of the total number of North Americans who emigrated to Israel since 1989, 25 per cent have since returned to the United States.[4]

Furthermore, European passports have become increasingly popular in Israel. With the European Union (EU) making passports available to 20 per cent of Israelis, in the context of the EU’s enlargement to 25 member states, the descendants of people from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and any one of the other 22 EU countries who escaped from or survived the holocaust are often entitled to EU citizenship. In 2003, the German embassy in Tel Aviv issued 3000 passports to Israelis. Israelis apply for EU passports because it gives them a sense of security, as well as employment opportunities in the EU.[5]

Russians, historically an important source of immigrants to Israel, are also returning home. It is reported that returning Russian Jews have become disillusioned by Israel’s high unemployment, stagnant economy and fear of suicide bombings. As one Russian émigré complained, “I do not know why the government encouraged us to emigrate in the first place… They promised us a beautiful future, but life here is pretty tough, and they should have warned us about that.” [6]

… Not arriving either

To add to Israel’s problems, as covered in our last article featured in the Electronic Intifada,[7] the number of émigrés is matched by an equally devastating drop in new arrivals.

According to the Israeli government’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the balance of movement of Jews into Israel (immigrants and potential immigrants, against Israelis leaving) shows a distinctly downward trend, especially from 2000. In 2003, these figures showed a negative rate of increase of approximately 9,000, and in the first two months of 2004 the figure had reportedly reversed even further to a negative growth rate of 13,000. Consequently, the diaspora of Jews are moving out of Israel, rather than claiming their “homeland”.

To what future the “Jewish homeland”?

In short, people are ‘voting with their feet’, shattering the myth that a Jewish homeland must remain, which indeed formed a founding principle of the Zionist movement.

Yet, despite these trends, the myth is showing surprising resilience and is by no means an issue exclusive to the right wing. While there may be those who question the law of return, there are few who question the continued need for a Jewish homeland.

The need for a Jewish homeland has, for example, been defended by Marcia Freedman, considered by many to be a ‘progressive’ American-born Jew who emigrated to Israel and later became a member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), but eventually returned to the United States to begin an NGO.

In September 2004, Freedman spoke at the Conference on the Question of Palestine at the United Nations in New York. At that meeting, she was challenged to defend or reject the Jewish right of return when a conference participant asked if she had “a position on the Jewish right of return when Palestinians are denied the right of return to their own homes in Palestine”.

Freedman responded: “(My organization) does not have a position on the right of return, has never debated this issue and probably will have to one of these days, but we’re not there yet. How do I personally feel about the right of return? I think that I made it clear in my presentation that I share a belief in the right to the Jewish nation to a State of their own. I have in that sense been a Zionist and will always be one. I myself, I must say, exercised my right of return in 1967 when I went to Israel and became a citizen of Israel and I have not renounced my citizenship in Israel. … on the other hand I … continue to see Israel as a refuge for the Jewish people in the event of persecution in Europe or in the United States and I said this many times in many places. If I were a German sitting in Germany in early 1920’s or … early 1930’s and somebody were going to predict that the Jews were going to be exterminated in Europe I would say they’re crazy. If somebody said that here in the United States I would say you’re crazy. … I personally have advocated that there doesn’t need to be a law of return necessarily, but I would like there to be a law of refuge, that Jews everywhere in the world, in the event of need … to escape persecution, would have the Jewish state to go to. I think that that would in fact cover my needs as an Israeli Jew.”[8]

Ending Aliyah in the road to peace

The world that Ms Freedman, and particularly more conservative proponents of Aliyah, see through the lens of the 1920’s and 1930’s has, of course, changed dramatically. As our last article illustrated, with the emergence of international refugee law (which, incidentally, excludes most Palestinians) it is not legitimate to insist that Jews need a separate homeland to offer them protection.

Removing the right of return to persecuted Jews only, but opening its doors to all persecuted persons, and allowing Palestinians the opportunity to reclaim their homes and property would be significant gestures towards a lasting peace in the region.

In the meantime, as Israelis ‘vote with their feet’, simply ending the practice of Aliyah would bring Israel closer to the definition of a democratic state, which so far it has shamefully failed to achieve.

Jeff Handmaker and Adri Nieuwhof are human rights advocates, based in The Netherlands


  1. See and
  2. Rob Eshman, The Answer Isn’t …, Jewish Journal (28 November 2003)
  3. Departures and Returns of Israelis, Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel)
  4. Israel’s bleak economy spurs reverse aliya - to U.S., Jewish News Weekly (29 August 2003)
  5. EU Passport Gets Popular in Israel, Deutsche Welle (21 July 2004)
  6. Israel faces Russian brain drain, BBC Radio 4 (25 November 2004)
  7. Is Israel a safe haven for Jews? (3 April 2005)
  8. The original recording of this session is available online at

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