Emigrants abandon life abroad, flock home to Israel

As the coronavirus closes universities and whittles the job market, many Israelis living abroad are now flying home and many more are considering it.

al-monitor Israel's El Al Airlines Boeing 737s are pictured on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel, March 10, 2020. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

backpackers, unemployment, covid-19, coronavirus, pandemic, israeli society, immigration, emigration

Apr 23, 2020

The count is not complete of the many Israelis abroad who are returning to their country right now, but the trend is clear. According to the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority, more and more Israelis who have been abroad for a long time are returning to Israel due to the novel coronavirus. Some 550,000 Israelis returned in February and March. About 15% of them, around 80,000 people, had spent an extended period abroad. That last group is growing, reaching more than 30% in April.

To understand the significance of this trend, it is useful to divide the returnees into four groups: First we have the students studying abroad, returning because their studies were discontinued over the pandemic. Then there are the backpackers — young Israelis who traditionally take several months after their army service to see the world. There are also Israelis who had relocated, moved abroad for periods of one to three years for work or study. Finally, there are the emigrants who had lived abroad for many years.

The post-military backpackers have returned for three reasons: concern over sub-standard medical care abroad, mainly in developing countries; parental pressure to come home while the virus is raging across the globe; and pressure to leave from local authorities in Thailand, South America and other places.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry mobilized to bring back the backpackers, even funding some flights. Upon arrival, thousands of them were put up in hotels for quarantine at the expense of the state. The government made great efforts to bring home those who found themselves in especially far-off places such as Columbia, Costa Rica, Peru and India.

Israelis who migrated abroad form a well-established population living mainly in Western countries. Many are tech workers, academics and businesspeople. At least half a million of them live outside of Israel, not including children born to them abroad. Most of the returnees in this group left their host countries due to the coronavirus, including academics whose universities have been closed and others who were fired or furloughed due to the pandemic. Most of these returnees had been abroad for relatively short periods of one to three years.

Journalist Shaul Amsterdamski decided to return with his family after a year and a half in Boston. He wrote of it, “As the epidemic spread, it became clear that our place was not in the United States. With a heavy heart and sense of missing out, but with an understanding that the world is changing for everybody and there is not a good chance that by June everything will be fine and we can tour the West Coast as we planned, we decided to return home. Even though we don’t have an apartment in our name or even furniture to furnish an apartment, our families are here, our friends, our hearts. The past few weeks have made this very clear to me. I carefully followed what was happening in Israel with the virus in terms of numbers, not the United States. I kept track of and reported on what was happening in government offices in Israel, not America. Because in America, it was someone else’s problem. In Israel, it involves me, my relatives, my friends. In America, it is an epidemic that I stumbled into; in Israel, it is an epidemic that I chose to be part of."

Among the well-heeled Israelis who had spent many years abroad, the trend is less distinct, but they, too, are showing interest in returning to Israel. Jewish Agency emissary in Long Island Gili Dvash told Al-Monitor that throughout the crisis there have been many enquiries from Israelis who have been in the United States for many years about procedures for coming home and the rights of returning residents.

Ther trend extends to other countries, with a wave of inquiries from emigrant Israelis about incentives to return. A senior official in the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption said on condition of anonymity that there are indications that the pandemic is creating a flood of returning Israelis because of Israel's relative success in handling the crisis compared with other countries including the United States. According to the source, Israelis’ strong sense of family also plays a role. “In times of crisis, people want to be with their family members. We are certainly witnessing that now.”

Ilana Levi, an Israeli who lived in Los Angeles more than 10 years, returned to Israel at the end of March with her husband and their three children. She told Al-Monitor that most Israelis living abroad have mixed feelings about it and a strong emotional connection to Israel. “This emotion appears especially during a time of crisis, wars or terror attacks or other major events. The difference this time was that we saw the entire world challenged by a crisis, and it seemed that Israel was coping better than most of the countries, even better than the large, rich United States. We felt proud, together with real concern about my own family. After a conversation with my mother in Israel, who is under isolation, we immediately decided to pack up our suitcases and go. During the packing-up process we made the decision to return for good. My husband is a freelancer and will find a way to use his profession in Israel. I have stopped working due to downsizing at my place of work. I’ll need to find work in Israel.”

Returning Israelis are entitled to National Insurance Institute benefits, importantly health insurance. Those who have been abroad longer than 18 months must wait one month for every year they were abroad before being entitled to benefits including medical care. However, they can pay a penalty and receive immediate benefits including health services.

But despite the legalities, in the current crisis, anyone returning from abroad who needs medical treatment receives it immediately — certainly sufferers of COVID-19. “At this stage, we don’t play games when it comes to all the various medical treatments. The hospitals and the HMOs and the National Insurance Institute as well — we are all on the same page,” said a source from National Insurance who deals with health insurance, on condition of anonymity.

Those returning from extended time abroad of more than two years or in some cases three years are considered "returning residents" entitled to additional incentives from the state including income tax breaks. They are exempt from most customs on the products they bring from abroad. Additional benefits include funding for studies and training programs and assistance with rent. All these benefits are available to students who spent at least 18 months in a recognized academic institution abroad. Those abroad for more than five years are exempted from income tax for five years, and from capital gains taxes for 10 years.

Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog has said that Israel is seen as a stable, well-established and well-functioning country with a good health system. He feels that despite occasional criticism and the kind of failures that take place everywhere, he anticipates a wave of new Jewish immigrants in addition to returning Israelis.

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