Wednesday, December 31, 2003

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM — Immigration to Israel, suffering from a weak economy and continuing violence, receded dramatically in the past year and cut the Jewish state’s annual population growth to its lowest since 1990.

The Central Bureau of Statistics said yesterday that 23,000 people immigrated in the past year, down from 34,000 in 2002. It was the lowest number since 13,000 came in 1988, just before East European borders opened with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Israeli prime ministers have long made efforts to turn “aliya” — Hebrew for Jewish immigration — into a priority. Governments have feared that without steady immigration, the current Arab minority eventually could outnumber Jews in Israel.

Confronted with a 50 percent slide in immigration since 2000, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last year that he hoped for 1 million immigrants from North America in the next decade.

But aliya agencies have been critical of Israel’s approach to immigration, blaming the dwindling numbers in recent years to the poor economy and violence with Palestinians.

“Israel has been presented as a haven for those in duress or distress,” said Rabbi Joshua Fass, executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an aliya organization that brought 900 North Americans to Israel in the past year.

“But you reach a point where if Israel is not viewed as a haven in their eyes, people are not going to opt to move here,” Mr. Fass told Reuters news agency.

According to the statistics bureau, Israel’s population stands at 6.75 million — 81 percent Jewish and “other” nationalities, and 19 percent Arab. The occupied Palestinian territories have a population of about 3.6 million.

By 2020, according to Joseph Chamie of the United Nations’ Population Division, Israel is projected to have 8.2 million people, and the Palestinian territories about 6.1 million. The two areas are expected to reach parity around 2040.

“There is no other solution. You have to partition or you are outnumbered, and that’s the end of the Jewish state,” University of Haifa historian Amatzia Baram told The Washington Times.

Israel’s population rose by 116,000 people, or 1.7 percent, in the past year — its lowest growth rate since 1990. Growth in previous years regularly topped 2 percent.

In the 1990s, immigration ranged from 70,000 to 200,000 a year, as about 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union flocked to Israel to seek a better way of life.

But after three years of Palestinian suicide bombings and gun attacks and a recession in which unemployment has jumped to nearly 11 percent, Israel no longer is viewed as more attractive than other states for Jews considering emigration.

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