Background InformationCapital: Jerusalem
Languages: Hebrew, Arabic
Area: 20,770 km2 (CIA World Factbook)
Population (2008): 7,112,359 (CIA, includes Israeli settlers in der West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights)
Population density (2008): 342 inhabitants per km2 (CIA)
Population growth (2006): +1.8%
Foreign-born population as a percentage of total population (2006): 33.8%
Share of Arab population (2007): 19.9%
Labour force participation rate (2006): 55.4 %
Percentage of foreign-born employees amongst gainfully employed (2007): 6.9%
Unemployment rate: 8.4% (2006), 9.0% (2005), 10.4% (2004)
Religions (2004): Jews 76.4 %, Muslims 16 %, Arab Christians 1.7 %, other Christians 0.4 %, Druze 1.6 %, not stated 3.9 %


1 worldwide legitimacy and accelerated its realisation. Mass immigration characterised various periods of the 20th century, especially the years immediately before and after the founding of the state in 1948. The subsequent war that broke out with the neighbouring Arab states (War of Independence) led, on the other hand, to a wave of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Later wars generated further refugee movements, with the result that today almost three quarters of Palestinians (about 7 million) live outside their homeland.2

The population of Israel has doubled several times over the past 60 years, in particular as a result of immigration (see Fig. 2). Today the country has 7.1 million inhabitants. Since 1948 more than three million immigrants have been registered, and in the 1990s Israel was even the country with the highest percentage of immigration worldwide in proportion to the size of its population. At the same time, Israel is also a country with an indigenous Arab-Palestinian population that makes up about 20% of the total population figures.

Historical development of Jewish immigration

Before the founding of the state
Jews have been migrating to Palestine since the early 1880s and the emergence of the Zionist movement. Five waves of immigration (aliyah, plural: aliyoth3The War of Independence: refugeeism and displacement
45 Unlike most Jews, who saw in the newly-founded and defended independence of Israel the realisation of the Zionist dream, the war, refugeeism and displacement of the year 1948 meant catastrophe (Nakba) for Arab Palestinians. In 1948 a small number of Arabs stayed in the newly founded state: a good 150,000 non-Jews were granted Israeli citizenship, making them an ethnic minority. Depending on (self)definition, members of that minority are described as Israeli Arabs or as Palestinian Israelis. Today this group comprises more than 1.4 million people.

Since the founding of Israel
For the surviving Jewish communities in post-war Europe, winning the War of Independence sent out a signal. Several thousand Jews set out for Israel. Shortly after the founding of the state there was mass immigration of Middle Eastern Jews from Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen that, in some cases, resembled an exodus and led to the virtual disappearance of Jewish population groups in the countries from which they came.6Intifada7 in autumn of 2000, however, immigration has declined drastically; in the year 2006 fewer than 20,000 new immigrants arrived in Israel, in 2007 the numbe stood at just 18,000 (in comparison to an average of 73,000 per year between 1992 and 1999).


The immigration/emigration balance


Emigration stands in direct opposition to the Zionist Ideal on which the

Immigration policy

aliyah). From the very beginning, however, the virtually unrestricted Jewish immigration did not go undisputed. In consideration of the immense challenges of integration in the early 1950s, the Israeli government attempted at times to control immigration through regulations: the young, healthy and potentially productive were to be given precedence. In practice, however, the restrictions proved hard to carry out.10

In order to contend with the realities of family immigration the scope of the Law of Return was even extended, for, according to Jewish law (Halacha), a person is only Jewish if either the mother is a Jew or if the person has been converted to Judaism in accordance with the rulings of the Orthodox rabbinical court. This made family reunification more difficult. If the original version of the Law of Return already reached beyond the Halachic definition of belonging to Judaism, since 1970 immigration law has also included non-Jews if they have at least one Jewish grandparent. Spouses are also granted a legal entitlement to immigration and citizenship whether they are themselves Jewish or not.11



melting pot13

A special Israeli feature are the so-called absorption centres (merkazei klita) founded and administered by the Jewish Agency. These simple housing estates for new immigrants were built in the 1960s and offer a range of different support services. These include, for example, the offer of a Hebrew language and integration course (ulpan14 Moreover, unlike most immigrants, Ethiopian Jews were not unreservedly received into the state and religious system in accordance with the Law of Return. On the orders of the rabbinate, several thousand had to subject themselves to a certain ceremony, which some found humiliating, in order to substantiate their allegiance to Judaism, since some of their early forebears had been forced to become Christians. The religiously and bureaucratically controlled absorption process, as well as the sceptical behaviour of the population, which also includes racist stereotypes, have led to Ethiopians in particular becoming a marginalised immigrant group occasionally suffering discrimination.15


The citizenship law is based primarily on jus sanguinis and thus follows ethnonational or ethnoreligious principles. As a rule, Jews who make aliyahEthnic democracy

Labour migration

Foreigners are permitted employment in just five economic sectors: in agriculture, in the building and construction trade, large-scale technical industry, home care and the catering industry. With the exception of care for the sick and aged, fixed annual quotas are determined for all areas. In the year 2006, for example, 15,000 foreigners were newly employed in the building and construction trade, 26,000 in agriculture and 3,200 in other services (in fact 32,700 guest workers entered the country with a work permit). For 2007 the quotas for construction and agriculture were each increased slightly. Foreign workers come from a relatively broad spectrum of countries. Some countries, however, stand out in terms of numbers (see Fig. 6).

In addition, the sectors of the labour market demonstrate a clear allocation bias based on regional origin and gender.  Thus the majority of guest workers in the construction sector come from Romania, China and Turkey, while predominantly women from the Philippines, Nepal and the states of the former Soviet Union are employed in care work. The majority of guest workers employed in agriculture are of Thai origin. Figure 7 shows the gender distribution for selected groups. In relation to the Israeli population, the foreign employment dimension is entirely comparable to the migration of guest workers to European countries up to the beginning of the 1970s. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, at the end of the year 2006 there were a total of 102,000 foreigners living in Israel who had entered the country with work permits. The total number of foreign workers (including those who entered the country on tourist visas and did not comply with exit requirements) was estimated at 186,000 at that same point in time.18


Irregular residence and migration control

Irregular residence in Israel is rarely the result of illegal border crossings. More often it comes as a direct consequence of the restrictive recruitment policy which limits residence permits to a maximum of five years, as well as of a system that binds guest workers closely to their respective employer or professional employment agencies. It is true that a portion of the workers overstay their visa period or enter the country with only a tourist visa. However, illegality, and therefore forfeiture of their right for residency, occurs primarily through migrants leaving their jobs due to prolonged illness, outstanding remuneration, illegal underpayment, overlong working hours or exploitative employment conditions.

Although never official policy, until the beginning of the new millennium most migrants without a residence permit were de facto tolerated because, among other reasons, no system existed to expel or deport them and they had a supporting function for some of the areas of the Israeli labour market listed above. In 2002, however, the government of Ariel Sharon justified a radical about-face with the symptoms of an economic crisis during the second Intifada19

Current developments and future challenges

Measures against the exploitation of foreign workers

Through the first steps towards reform in 2004, the dependence of guest workers on their employers has already been reduced. Measures to limit the power of employment agencies and to strengthen the individual rights of foreign employees, discussed by a separate parliamentary committee in the Knesset, have to be the next steps. In addition to this, the improvement of health provision for these migrants is on the agenda.

Border security
In recent years, the prostitution industry in Israel has increasingly become a market for professional human traffickers and smugglers who deal in the sexual exploitation of women, in particular,  from the former states of the Soviet Union. Further efforts on the part of Israeli migration control are thus concentrated on securing external borders. The more than 200 km long Green Line with Egypt, which runs primarily through hard-to-access desert areas between the Negev and Sinai, is paricularly favoured by human traffickers. Sinai is deemed a transit route for transporting drugs and weaponry. In January 2008 the border was opened by force, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to cross over into Egypt and stay there temporarily.22Refugee and asylum policy

A relatively recent refugee movement has left Israel facing new challenges. Hundreds of refugees from the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan have fled to Israel via Egypt since 2005. The immigration of Sudanese via Egypt increased especially in the middle of the year 2007, when at times more than two hundred civil war refugees per month arrived in Israel. According to some estimates, at the beginning of 2008 more than 2,000 Sudanese were staying in the country of whom, however, only some filed applications for asylum. They were initially accommodated in prisons and in temporary reception centres. The city council of Tel Aviv, in whose area of responsibility the considerable majority of Africans stay, fears a humanitarian crisis and is pleading for rapid integration in the labour and accommodation market. Together with the Ministry of the Interior, it is currently discussing plans for financial assistance so that the refugees can settle independently; as early as the summer of 2007 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit were deliberating offering Israeli citizenship to several hundred Sudanese from Darfur.2425

The question of Palestinian refugees and the demographic factor in the peace process

Pluralisation of society


  1. Zionism is the term given to a worldwide Jewish national movement and ideology originating in the second half of the 19th century. Its aim was the founding or reconstitution of a Jewish national state in Palestine.
  2. The following account relates primarily to circumstances relevant to migration policy in the state of Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict, matters of Palestinian statehood and migration movements and policies in the Palestinian-administered or Israeli-controlled areas are not the explicit subject of this country profile.
  3. The Arabs in Palestine were not an homogeneous group of people. They were predominantly Sunni Muslims, including some Bedouin.  In addition there were large groups of both Christians and Druze (members of a non-missionary sect of Shiite-Islamic origin with strong group identity and their own, partly arcane religious practices).
  4. Cf. Gilbert (1996)
  5. This was the case, for instance, in Yemen and Iraq; the total number of Jews remaining and living in Arabic countries today is estimated at only about 60,000 (cf. Shiblak 2005).
  6. The term Intifada refers to the violent Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The first Intifada began in 1987 and its conclusion is generally associated with the Oslo Accords of 1993. The second Intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa Intifada, began in September 2000 and ended with a formal truce at the beginning of 2005.
  7. Cf. Eisenbach (1998)
  8. Cf. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Fact Book (online), as at: 13.06.2008. Israel Central Bureau of Statistics data for 2007 was not available at the time of going to press.
  9. Cf. Hacohen (2003).
  10. Entitlement to immigrate and the granting of Israeli citizenship are not, however, synonymous with recognition as a Jew under civil and family law.
  11. By contrast, to administer the immigration of Jews from countries of the former Soviet Union, the Israeli state has created additional official structures within the responsible ministry on account of the exceedingly high number of cases since the beginning of the 1990s.
  12. Cf. Haaretz, 11.9.2007; Spiegel Online, 9.9.2007
  13. Cf. Hertzog (1999).
  14. For more information on this controversial debate in Israeli political science see Peled (2007) and Smooha (2001).
  15. Cf. Ghanem (2002).
  16. Cf. CBS (2007) and Central Bureau of Statistics press release dated 30 July 2007 (
    , 12.12.2007).
  17. Cf., 09.12.2007.
  18. Kav LaOved, Annual Report 2006 (, 21.02.2008); The Hotline for Migrant Workers,  Kav LaOved (2007): Freedom Inc. - Binding migrant workers to manpower corporations in Israel (, 12.3.2008)
  19. Cf. Kemp (2004); Haaretz, 29.3.2007.
  20. Figures according to the UNHCR.
  21. Cf. Haaretz, 5.9.2007; 29.1.2008; 18.2.2008.
  22., 21.11.2007).
  23. Cf. Sicron (2007); Peled (2007)
    , 22.02.2008)
  25. Cf. Khanin (2007).
  26. Cf. Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein (2004)

About the author:
Jan Schneider


References and Further Reading

    • Arian, A. (1986): Politics in Israel. The Second Generation. Revised Edition. Chatham, NJ.
    • Benvenisti, E.; Gans, Ch. and Hanafi, S. (Eds.) (2007): Israel and the Palestinian Refugees. Heidelberg.
    • Gilbert, M. (1996): The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Sixth Edition. London.
    • Hacohen, Dvora (2003): Immigrants in Turmoil: Mass Immigration to Israel and its Repercussions in the 1950s and After. Syracuse/NY.
      Hertzog, E. (1999): Immigrants and Bureaucrats. Ethiopians in an Israeli Absorption Center. New York/Oxford.

    • Kruger, M. (2005): Strangers in a Strange Land: International Migration in Israel. Report for the Global Commission on International Migration (Global Migration Perspectives No. 25). Genf.
    • Semyonov, M. and Lewin-Epstein, N. (Eds.) (2004): Stratification in Israel. Class, Ethnicity, and Gender. New Brunswick/London.
    • Shiblak, A. (2005): Iraqi Jews. A History of Mass Exodus. London.
    • Smooha, Sammy (2001): The Model of Ethnic Democracy. ECMI Working Paper Nr. 13. European Centre for Minority Issues. (, 12.12.2007)
Migration Research Group
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