Leaving or remaining? We’re still thinking about it

No not Brexit. Jonathan Boyd looks at whether British Jews are really considering leaving the UK as a result of increasing antisemitism

February 06, 2019 10:20

I have to say, it has crossed my mind. Not seriously and not often — I certainly haven’t taken any practical steps at all, however small — but I have thought about it.

I’m talking about leaving. Emigrating from the UK because of antisemitism. And I’m not alone. In 2012, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research won an EU research tender to conduct a survey of Jewish people’s perceptions and experiences of antisemitism in nine European countries. One of the questions the survey investigated was whether respondents had considered emigrating from the country in which they live over the previous five years due to fears about antisemitism.

At the time, 18 percent of respondents in the UK said they had considered emigrating for that reason over that five-year period — ie between 2008 and 2012. But according to the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel, the total number of Jews who emigrated to Israel from the UK over those five years was just 2,899 — one percent of the UK Jewish population. So the gap between those considering emigrating and those actually emigrating, appears to be very large.

Of course, people contemplating emigration could be thinking about going anywhere, not just to Israel. And unfortunately, data do not exist on the numbers of Jews emigrating to other places — countries typically do not record the religion of new immigrants. So it is possible that large numbers of UK Jews may have gone elsewhere. That said, if that was happening, we would have noticed it — for example, in the numbers attending Jewish schools, or in synagogue membership figures. But there is no such evidence — schools figures went up, synagogue membership figures went down, but the changes in either case over that period are small and explicable in other ways. In short, we can be very confident that there was no significant phenomenon of Jewish out-migration from the UK over that period.

But that was then. What about now? Well, in 2017, JPR won the follow-up tender from the EU to repeat the 2012 survey, this time working in thirteen European countries. The fieldwork for the survey took place in May and June 2018 and asked the same question again.

Intriguingly, we found that the proportion who said they had contemplated emigrating from the UK over the previous five years — essentially, 2013 to 2017 — due to fears of antisemitism, had risen from the 18 percent found in 2012, to 29 percent.

But how many made aliyah from the UK between 2013 and 2017? 2,579. A strikingly similar number to that recorded for the 2008-12 period; in fact, a slight decline of 11 percent. And, for the record, the 2018 figures are completely in line with this — based on the data available, there is no evidence of any kind of significant rise, or indeed fall, over the past twelve months.

Importantly, unlike the 2012 study, the 2018 one asked those who said they had considered emigrating a follow-up question. To which country were they thinking about moving? 73 percent said that they had Israel in mind as their preferred destination: further evidence that aliyah figures are good indicators of what’s going on.

What should we make of this? Empirically, we can say that more Jews are considering leaving the UK today due to concerns about antisemitism than was the case in 2012 — for every two then, there were about three in 2018. But we have no evidence at all to indicate that more Jews are acting on it.

Contemplating emigration is clearly very different from actually emigrating. We could possibly hypothesise that the numbers making aliyah in the coming years might increase from a current average of about 550 per annum to about 800 or 900, that is from about two per 1,000 Jews in the UK, to about three. That wouldn’t be the highest it has ever been — that was immediately post-1967 — but it would be up there.

So, in short, antisemitism in the UK, based on current data, seems rather unlikely to significantly alter the size of the UK’s Jewish population. Are we going anywhere? No, not really — not at the moment anyway. But are we thinking about it, however vaguely, in numbers not seen for decades? Yes — unquestionably.

February 06, 2019 10:20

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