Creating a New Society: Immigration, Nation-Building, and Ethnicity in Israel

By Goldscheider, Calvin | Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Creating a New Society: Immigration, Nation-Building, and Ethnicity in Israel


Goldscheider, Calvin, Harvard International Review


CALVIN GOLDSCHEIDER is Professor of Sociology and Dorot Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University.

More than most countries, Israel has been shaped by immigration. The large number of immigrants to Israel relative to the native-born population, the diverse national origins of the immigrant streams, and the powerful ideological underpinnings of Israel's immigration policies are unique in comparative context. In combination, these features have been critical in nation-building and have had profound implications for the emergence of Israeli society. These implications have ranged from the demographic impact of numbers to the complexities of politics, from internal ethnic group formation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, from regional developments to social inequalities, from cultural diversity and pluralism to Westernization and capitalistic economic development. As for the United States at an earlier point in time, immigration is Israeli history.

Over the last 50 years, over 2.5 million immigrants arrived in Israel from diverse countries of origin. They were added to a 1948 base population of 650,000, largely with the economic, political, and ideological support of the government. Immigration has been an important part of Israel's strategy of nation-building and national integration. The Zionist movement since the nineteenth century and the state from its establishment in 1948 have sought to gather together in one country those individuals from around the world who consider themselves Jewish by religion or ancestry.

The Forces Behind Immigration

The processes, patterns, and policies of immigration to Israel have been distinctive. The conditions preceding and following the Holocaust and World War II in Europe, the emerging nationalism among Jews around the world, the conditions of Jews in Arab countries, and the radical changes of the 1990s in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been among the most obvious external circumstances influencing the immigration of Jews to Israel. The emergence of a large and integrated Jewish community in the United States that has not immigrated in substantial numbers to Israel is another factor in understanding the selectivity of immigration to Israel.

Developments within Israel have also influenced the pace and selectivity of immigration over time. The expansion of the Jewish population, the attractions of economic opportunity and Jewish political control, and Israel's cultural development and religious activities have been important factors in the decisions of many to immigrate and the decisions of many more not to immigrate. War, military conflict, and general internal tensions have often generated national commitments and euphoria as in the post-1948 and post-1967 periods, but they have also caused fear and anxiety about living in dangerous and uncertain circumstances.

Many who have immigrated to Israel come under some broad definition of refugee movement, either in the sense of having been stateless, having been forced to move out of some country, or having been on the move with few other destination options. Throughout most of Israel's short history, the major force encouraging periodic large-scale immigration has been the absence of alternative destinations for those who prefer not to remain in their native countries. The figures on immigration are marked by two peaks: the period of mass immigration immediately following the establishment of the state and the more recent immigration from the former Soviet Union. Both of these immigration streams can be understood only in the context of major pushes out of places of origin leaving migrants with few options to settle elsewhere. Those strong pushes out of places combine with the ideological and policy commitments of subsidizing Jewish immigration to explain much of the 50-year history of immigration.

Zionist ideology is a necessary but not a sufficient determinant of immigration to Israel.

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