Immigration and Population Growth

Encouragement of Jewish immigration has been the policy of all Israeli Governments. No desired level of immigration has ever been declared. When the state was established, the restrictions imposed by the British Mandatory Government on Jewish immigration were abolished. The Law of Return (1952), Israel’s basic citizenship law, entitles any Jew in the world to settle in Israel and acquire its citizenship. The Naturalization Law of 1952 offers non-Jews the possibility of naturalization. In 1970, the Law of Return was amended to entitle relatives of Jews, as specified in the law, to automatic citizenship.

The migration balance has accounted for 42.2% of all population growth since independence was declared. The first mass immigration, in 1948-51, strongly affected population growth. Subsequent waves of immigration arrived in 1955-57, 1961-64, 1969-73, and 1990 to the present day. These spurts of immigration are differentiated by several factors:

* size and structure;

* the political and economic circumstances in the countries of origin, especially with respect to the Jews there;

* The extent of freedom to emigrate, with or without personal possessions;

* the availability of immigration destinations other than Israel;

* the impact of ideological factors (Zionist, religious, or other) in emigrants’ choice of Israel as their destination;

* the political, economic, and social circumstances in Israel;

* Israel’s immigrant-absorption policy;

* willingness of the nonimmigrant population to assist recent immigrants.

Immigration Since 1990

In 1990, after almost a decade of negligible immigration, there ensued a massive influx of newcomers from the former Soviet Union (FSU), triggered by the collapse of the Soviet regime. More than 500,000 immigrants arrived in 1990-1993, 85% of them from the FSU. A new single- year record of 185,000 was set in 1990, and the cumulative figure reached 465,000 by the end of 1993. During these four years, another 150,000-200,000 Jews and non-Jewish relatives emigrated from the FSU to other countries.

About 45% of immigrants from the FSU to Israel had been employed before their immigration. Twenty-eight percent of the employed had held scientific or academic positions; another 22% were defined as "other professionals and technical workers." Their immigration has contributed mightily to the State of Israel, although it will take several years to assess the impact. In the short term, the immigration of doctors, engineers, nurses, and similarly trained individuals has doubled, if not tripled, the number of such professionals in the country and has, inevitably, caused an insufficiency of suitable job opportunities.

The second significant component of the mass immigration of 1990-1993 originated in Ethiopia. These immigrants, who accounted for 6% of the total influx during this time, were younger than the FSU immigrants (half were under the age of fifteen) and less educated.

The median age of all immigrants in 1990-1992 was 33, meaning that 50% were over this age and 50% under. The largest age cohort was the 20-44 group at 39% of the total. Children aged 15 and under accounted for more than 23% of all immigrants, and seniors aged 65+ accounted for more than 12%. Women were slightly overrepresented at 52.8%. Sixty-four percent of the adult immigrants were married; 18% were single, 8% divorced, and 10% widowed.


In 1975-1981, roughly 6% of all immigrants in the 18-70 age group left the country within one year of having arrived, and another 6-10% left after two to five years in the country. Most of the emigrants, a majority of whom had immigrated from the United States, were under the age of thirty, and were unmarried, headed for the United States and Western Europe.

Nonimmigrant Israelis are also known to emigrate, although at much lower rates. Total emigration in the 1980s is estimated at roughly 120,000.

Immigrant Absorption – Housing and Employment

Israel has always encouraged immigration, irrespective of the problems of demand for labor, job placement, and the attendant social consequences. The magnitude of the current wave of immigration, however, has reintroduced integration difficulties that had seemingly been forgotten since the mass influx of the early 1950s. In 1990, when monthly immigration spiraled into the tens of thousands, the Government housed the newcomers in provisional mobile-home sites and provided increased incentives for building contractors and owners of rentable dwelling units. The immigrants themselves helped solve their own housing problems by accepting a housing density of more than one family per dwelling unit.

The housing density among immigrants from the FSU who arrived in October-December 1990 was 1.5 persons per room as against only 1.1 on countrywide average. Twenty-four percent of immigrant households were trigenerational, i.e., with children, parents, and grandparents under one roof. One year later, however, 41% of these immigrants were living in private dwellings and 25% had purchased their own homes.

Most of the immigrants made use of the Government’s policy of "direct absorption," providing direct financial support for immigrants and promotion of immigrant freedom of choice in choosing housing and its location. Immigrants with special problems were steered to "absorption centers" and a comprehensive array of services.

The magnitude of the recent immigration wave stretched the hiring capacity of the Israeli labor market to the limit. As the immigrants landed, they found a rather stagnant economy with an unemployment rate of 8.9%. The economy needed some time to respond to the challenge. Within a year of their arrival, however, 57% of working-age immigrants had joined the labor force. The unemployment rate among immigrants of October-December 1990, 32% after fourteen months in the country, plunged to only 19% after an additional year. In the first quarter of 1993, immigrants accounted for 9.5% of the working-age population (age 15+), 8% of persons employed, and 19% of the unemployed. The economic momentum stimulated by the immigration triggered an expansion in demand for labor in construction and services, thus creating jobs for large numbers of immigrants.

The labor-force participation rate of immigrant men is similar to that of men countrywide; that of women immigrants is slightly higher than that of all Israeli women. In the first quarter of 1993, the unemployment rate of immigrant women who had been in the country for twenty-six months was 23%, as against 14% for immigrant men with similar tenure. This is an improvement over the previous year, when the corresponding figures were 42% and 23%, respectively.

Thus far, the economy has not been able to create enough jobs for professionals to meet the needs of the recent immigrants, who are noted for a high level of occupational skill. Immigrant doctors have doubled the supply of physicians in the country and exceeded demand. The immigrant doctors also face licensing and certification problems.

Only 30% of immigrant scientists and academics found work in their professions within 2-6 months of arrival. This problem is most acute among women and the elderly. To narrow the gap, many immigrants have taken vocational-training or refresher courses: 22% of all immigrants aged 18-64 did so within fourteen months of arrival, and another 16% did so during their second year in the country.

Linguistic proficiency is a basic prerequisite for successful employment and acculturation. When judged by this criterion, the immigrants’ performance has improved over time. After fourteen months in Israel, 47% of immigrants reported that they were able to conduct a simple conversation in Hebrew. After twenty-six months, 53% of immigrants reported being able to write simple letters in Hebrew.