Aliyah experts agree that the improving economy and lowering threat of antisemitism in Britain is leaving it well ahead of its European neighbours as a place for Jews to live.
The latest figures from the Jewish Agency for Israel for 2013 show that while aliyah from the UK dropped by 27 per cent, across Western Europe it grew by 35 per cent.
The most striking rise was aliyah from France, where it rose by 63 per cent. Belgium and the Netherlands both saw rises of around 50 per cent.
Shay Felber, deputy director of community services at the Jewish Agency for Israel, the body that approves aliyah applications, said that the sluggish economy had been a major push factor for UK émigrés in recent years.
Now, “one of the things we are sensing is that people feel much more comfortable living in Britain and not leaving,” he said.
Bobby Brown, former diaspora affairs adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “There are two basic things that seem to impact greatly on aliyah figures — the economy and antisemitism.” He added that with the economy viewed as improving and antisemitism under control, the drive for British Jews to make aliyah is weak.
Mr Brown, who has held senior positions in the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress, said he believed that the same factors influenced the aliyah figure for America, which dropped by 13 per cent.
He added that the UK and US figures reflect a decision by the Jewish Agency to concentrate its efforts on countries where aliyah is seen as urgent, such as France, where the sharp rise in immigration to Israel was largely prompted by concerns about antisemitism. “I think in essence they are concentrating less on the US and the UK and more on communities that are under threat, and that makes sense,” he said.
Mr Felber denied that there has been any rollback of aliyah promotion in the UK, saying that the Jewish Agency had actually “invested more resources in aliyah”. Elad Sonn, a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, insisted that efforts in places like France do not come at the expense of operations in the UK. “Nothing comes at the expense of anything,” he said.
Yet some experts on immigration to Israel argue that the Jewish Agency should admit that the drop in aliyah is a result of structural changes that it made.
Two years ago, the Jewish Agency made sweeping internal changes, including closing its historically prominent Aliyah Department. The organisation’s work became less focussed on promoting aliyah and more on education (which it hopes will bring aliyah in the long term).
“The Jewish Agency has de-escalated its aliyah efforts in the UK and this is the result,” said Michael Jankelowitz, who was the Agency’s foreign media spokesman for many years until the restructuring.
Although British aliyah was down on last year, the 2013 figure of 510 matches the average for this country since the beginning of the century.
After hitting a low of around 300 in 2002, aliyah from Britain began to climb, rising to more than 800 four years ago .
Zionist Federation chairman Paul Charney said that the current level reflects “the fact that British Jews are still motivated to move by positive factors such as their connection to their ancient homeland and the attractive living conditions in modern Israel, while avoiding being pushed out by negative factors such as the antisemitism that is sadly more prevalent in other European countries.”
At the Limmud conference in Warwick last week, the American-born Israeli MK Rabbi Dov Lipman called for more emigration from the West, saying that “I believe we should be raising our children to move to Israel.”
But he acknowledged: “I don’t think we are doing enough in our government to help with English speakers who are making aliyah.”
One recent move made by the Israeli government was to invest around £60 million in an £180 million project to boost diaspora Jewish education.
UJIA chairman Michael Wegier, who is chairing an international committee on informal education for the project, said: “The Israeli government recognises is that you don’t get aliyah from the West without strong Jewish education, in the same way you don’t get strong Jewish communities without strong Jewish education.”
One outcome from the venture could be greater aliyah, although the education projects would not be “aliyah-focused”, Mr Wegier explained.
“One of the ideas being looked is how we might reduce the cost of gap years in Israel.”
The Zionist Federation said in a statement: “The ZF and the World Zionist Organisation will be increasing their level of aliyah work in the UK in 2014 and are devoting more resources to this end.”