TEL AVIV — Despite their country’s turbulent history, Israelis enjoy a fairly secure existence: They have military might, a world-class high-tech industry powering a strong economy, and America as a solid ally.
Yet in recent years, tens of thousands have requested and received the citizenship of European countries such as Poland and Germany, which were killing fields for Jews just six decades ago.
On the surface, the attraction is practical: An EU passport enables free travel and work in the entire union of 27 nations, giving access to high-quality and subsidized higher education.
But just beneath lurks some fear for the future.
“Because of our situation, it’s good to have an escape path,” said Moti Alberstein, a 36-year-old doctoral student in biochemistry who just received Polish citizenship. “Life in this country entails so much uncertainty that there is this need to have some security. That’s why people are drawn to this.”
Israelis in general have more access to foreign passports than most, because the majority of them, or their parents, came here from somewhere else and many retained the right to a passport from their countries of origin.
There is no stampede to leave a country that — for all its troubles — actually weathered the global financial crisis better than most.
In 2009, fewer than 16,000 Israelis left and stayed abroad for more than a year, while 11,000 who had lived abroad for more than a year returned, according to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Immigration is also slightly on the rise, approaching 17,000 in 2010.
Statistics about second passports are notoriously hard to nail down. Countries do not always know whether their nationals have taken another citizenship. The U.S. Embassy estimates there are between 120,000 and 200,000 Americans in Israel.
Israel’s government claims it does not know how many of its immigrants retained their previous citizenship.
More than 1 million immigrants arrived from Russia, Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union since the collapse of communist rule there 20 years ago. The quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which handles immigration, says most of them probably kept their foreign passports.
The new phenomenon is the accession to the EU, between 2004 and 2007, of several countries in Eastern Europe, where millions of Israelis have roots. The biggest numbers are attached to Poland, where some 3 million Jews lived before the Holocaust, and Romania, with close to a million.
That has made acquiring passports from those countries attractive enough to overcome the painful history.
One incentive, possibly as important as a safety net, is simply practical. It is easier to travel under a European passport than an Israeli one. Many more countries require Israelis to acquire visas, compared with Europeans.
If there is a trend toward seeking a safe haven, there would be several possible explanations.
Israel considers Iran to be an existential threat, charging that its nuclear program threatens Israel as its leaders talk about destruction of the Jewish state. Israel dismisses Iran’s denials.
Domestically, many Israelis are concerned about the growing influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews, especially since many of the men in that rapidly expanding community spend their lives studying scripture and surviving through government handouts. They fear the dampening affect they could have on the liberal aspects of Israeli society, such as nightlife, army service for women and low-key acceptance of gays.
Others are worried about unrest sweeping the Arab world and its potential to threaten Israel, and closer to home, many despair of ever making peace with the Palestinians, facing a long-term existence of attacks, disputes over settlements and international condemnation.
There is internal unrest as well. Tent cities have sprung up all over the country, and hundreds of thousands have demonstrated to protest housing shortages, high prices and poor government services.
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