By Joseph Chamie, Barry Mirkin
Over more than six decades of statehood, successive Israeli governments have repeatedly stressed the centrality of Jewish immigration and the Law of Return of all Jews to Israel for the well-being, security, and survival of the nation. Yet while much is published on Jewish immigration to Israel, considerably less information is available about Jewish emigration from Israel.
Government estimates of the numbers of Israelis residing abroad vary greatly due mainly to the lack of an adequate recording system. Consequently, scholars and others have questioned the accuracy of government figures. Besides the statistical and methodological shortcomings, the numbers of Israeli expatriates are open to considerable debate and controversy because of their enormous demographic, social, and political significance both within and outside Israel.
At the lower end is the official estimate of 750,000 Israeli emigrants — 10 percent of the population — issued by the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which is about the same as that for Mexico, Morocco, and Sri Lanka. The Netanyahu government places the current number of Israeli citizens living abroad in the range of 800,000 to 1 million, representing up to 13 percent of the population, which is relatively high among OECD countries. Consistent with this latter figure is the estimated 1 million Israelis in the Diaspora reported at the first-ever global conference of Israelis living abroad, held in January 2011.
Current estimates of Israelis living abroad are substantially higher than those for the past. During Israel’s first decade, some 100,000 Jews are believed to have emigrated from Israel. By 1980, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics estimated some 270,000 Israelis living abroad for more than a year or seven percent of the population. Several decades later, the number of Israeli emigrantshad swelled to about 550,000 — or almost double the proportion at the end of the 1950s.