The issue of Israelis leaving Israel has been a contentious topic since the foundation of the state in 1948. To be precise, the immigration of Jews to Israel has been encouraged and legally enshrined, while their emigration has been discouraged. Both carry legal as well as also social consequences for the individuals concerned. A plethora of historical sources cover early Israeli emigration to previous homelands (Silber 2008; Webster 1995), but most research that focuses on present-day Israeli emigration covers English-speaking countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, where the Israeli populations are sizeable and long established (Cohen 2011). Although the history of Jewish immigration to these countries should not be clouded in idealism, all are countries not tainted with perpetration of the Holocaust. On the other hand, migration to German was a dual taboo – first, because one left Israel and second, because one left for Germany. Furthermore, this migration did not at all fit with the dominant Zionist Israeli discourse.

The Old and the New Germany

European countries, in particular Germany and Poland, are related to the darkest part of Jewish history. Poland is connected to death camps and Germany to masterminding the Shoah (Holocaust). Furthermore, the German language itself is intricately linked to the Holocaust; in fact, it is the language of the Shoah. To date, the sounds of the German language cause (some) Israelis to react badly, bringing up personal (Katz 2011) or cultural traumas (Kidron 2004). In addition to language, ‘trite’ trauma events are common, such as travel by train or loud speaker announcements in train stations (Kranz forthcoming). These may have a much stronger effect than memorials, which can be avoided, as they trigger memories directly related to the Shoah, to deportations, and to mass murder.

Yet, the Shoah, the past, and trauma are not all that make up the Jewish Israeli perception of Germany. There is Berlin – the new Berlin, the Berghain, the Black Forrest, scholarships to obtain advanced degrees, economic opportunities, and also the Sommermärchen (summer fairy tale) of the football World Cup of 2006, when Germany turned into a country of street parties and Germans displayed patriotism. This patriotism was not perceived as threatening by Israelis living in Germany, who saw it as an expression of the new Germany and pride beyond the Shoah. Locally raised Jews did find it rather threatening, however, indicating the different perceptions of Germany held by those two (heterogeneous) Jewish subgroups in Germany.

More than a decade after the Sommermärchen, the (new) patriotism has developed nationalistic tropes and the limits of the effable have markedly shifted. Right-wing parties enjoy increasing support among the population, and election campaigns that play on negative attitudes toward Jews and stir up anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, at times coded in anti-Israeli or anti-immigration resentment, have become a common phenomenon. Furthermore, these minorities are pitted against each other: A significant number of the migrants of 2015 are Muslims who come from countries that are hostile toward Israel. Fears about the impact of this migration became rife among the German resident population, along with fears about a ‘new, imported anti-Semitism’ as well as anti-Semitism specific to criticism of Israel and its policies. Violence against Jews and Israelis on the part of Muslim/Arab perpetrators became hotly debated. Yet the worst anti-Semitic hate crime was perpetrated by a right-wing, German assailant who attempted to shoot his way into the synagogue in the East German town of Halle on Yom Kippur 2019. Thus, intergroup tensions in Germany have increased, while Jews as well as Israelis occupy a special position because of German-Jewish history and also owing to German-Israeli relations: Their security is a raison d’êtat.

All of these different tropes make for diverse perceptions from the Jewish Israeli side. Yet, what brings Israelis to Germany? Who are they? What do they do in Germany and how do they relate to each other, to Germans, and to other migrant groups in the country? Are they a specific ‘diaspora’ or do they share parameters with other migrant groups in Germany, when the German-Jewish and German-Israeli exceptionalism is set aside?


Institutional migration might sound odd as a starting point to describe Jewish Israeli migration to Germany. It encapsulates migration 
that is facilitated by institutions, which is the case for Israeli migration to Germany. Since the inception of German-Israeli diplomatic relations in 1965, the (West) German state created opportunities for Germans and Israelis to meet and to cooperate. Such cooperation falls within the category of soft diplomacy endeavours, a vital part of German reconciliation efforts (O’Dochartaigh 2007). As one Israeli migrant in Berlin remarked: “They’re throwing at lot of money at that stuff, and it (soft diplomacy) works!” By way of the institutional structures that allow Israelis and Germans to meet, they get to know each other, and for some Israelis – also some Germans – this leads to permanent migration (Kranz 2018). Even where the outcome is not permanent migration, the establishment of interpersonal contacts results in former exchange partners continuing to visit each other. Needless to say, mobile communication and social network applications are an infrastructure that plays a vital part in the ability to continue non-local relationships.

Israelis who did not benefit from participation in one of these educational exchange programs might still come to Germany to seek 
economic opportunities. Israelis perceive Germany to be an economic powerhouse. Within our project “The Migration of Israeli Jews to Germany since 1990” (GIF Grant 1186), we found that professional and economic opportunities were the most common motive for immigration to Germany (61.9%), followed by the wish to seek challenge and adventure (53.1%). German culture came a very close third (50.6%), followed by educational opportunities (43.6%). Matters of the heart – a German partner – were the reason for 31.4% to immigrate to Germany, while German origin and potentially reclaiming German identity on the ground were a reason for 20.6%.

Behind the Numbers: Who are the Migrants?

The reasons for immigration to Germany are also indicative of the age of the migrants: When we collected socio-demographic and quantitative data in 2015 and evaluated some 804 questionnaires, we found that the Israeli migrants have specific profiles. These profiles supported their becoming immigrants, emigrants, transnational migrants, or sojourners: The self-definitions differed and suggested specific characteristics of the migrant population that set them apart from the majority of the Jewish Israeli population.

Israelis in Germany tend to be from the center of the country, and more than 80% are born after 1974 (‘third generation’). They tend to be highly educated (60%) according to the OECD definition, which means they have at least an undergraduate degree. The vast majority of 70% self-identify as Ashkenazim – Jews of European descent; as politically left-leaning or moderate; and as secular. Israeliness dominates over Jewishness for the absolute majority (80.1%). This is to say that these Israeli immigrants to Germany are very different from the Jewish Israeli majority in terms of their profile, which should be factored in when considering why they came to Germany (of all places). It also explains why Israelis critical of Israeli society and Israeli politics seem to be common in Germany and active in all sorts of groups that carry this political message. The perception of these Israelis is enhanced when viewed against the background of German-Jewish and Israeli-German relations: In nuances, these Israelis fulfil German hopes regarding Israel, such as when they lobby for Israeli democracy; at other times, they align with German resentment toward Israel, when they blame Israel as the sole party responsible for the Middle East conflict.

Just as the migration of Israelis to Germany and the specifics of this group can be explained, one can hypothesize why Israelis with other profiles are not attracted to Germany. Germany has a weak infrastructure when it comes to catering to religious Jews. Berlin has no area that resembles Stamford Hill in London, which has a comprehensive Orthodox infrastructure, including synagogues, shops, and schools.

Having said that, while Israeli migrants to Germany do show particularities, they also confirm an established trend in migration studies: All migrants differ from non-migrants in regard to specific characteristics – if migrants did not exhibit these different characteristics, they would have not migrated at all (Uhlenberg 1973). By that token, Israelis in Germany are both distinct and not distinct within the broad area of migration studies. The reactions to their migration forcefully underline the specifics of German- Jewish as well as German-Israeli relations, how these intersect, and how past, present, and future form a melange that Israeli migrants need to navigate (Kranz forthcoming).

Mythical Numbers

A question that came up time and again in our interviews and a myth that refuses to die away concerns the number of Israelis in Germany. Based on our research, we estimate that about 20,000 Israelis in the broadest sense live in Germany. This number comprises Israeli citizens, dual German-Israeli citizens, individuals with at least one citizenship that is Israeli, or those who have the (statistical) migration background ‘Israel.’ The Mikrozensusran a specific evaluation of the data of Destatis, the Federal Office of Statistics, based on a request from the German parliament. They put the number slightly higher, at 25,000. Be that as it may, these figures lag far behind what has been postulated in the media: that 20,000 Israelis, maybe 50,000, live in Berlin alone. There might be 20,000 Israelis at any one time in Berlin, but they do not live there as a matter of fact. Berlin and the Black Forrest are very popular holiday destinations for Israelis. Filtering in the touchiness of the topic ‘Jews’ and ‘Israel/Israelis,’ which are intricately linked, it is 
unsurprising that the numbers are overestimated. Furthermore, considering that most Israelis are perceived as white in Germany but that the sounds of Hebrew are unfamiliar to German ears, that Israelis tend to travel in groups, and that they are perceived as noisy by Germans, Israelis show as ‘others,’ which supports the overblown, mythical numbers.

Seen in perspective, the mythical numbers make sense. They reflect interwoven strands of German-Israeli-Jewish relations, past and present, as well as ideas about a possible future. At the same time that the German idiom ‘Der Wunsch ist der Vater des Gedanken’ (in plain English ‘wishful thinking’) applies to Israelis in Germany as harbingers of a final reconciliation, Jews, and Israelis even more so, conduct ideological labor for German. By their mere presence, they convey that things in Germany are not that bad – and also, for those who harbor less favourable attitudes toward Israel, that things in Israel might not be that great.

Conclusion: Between Ideological Labor and Relations to Germans

Y. Michal Bodemann used the concept ‘ideological labor’ to analyze the societal function of Jews in (West) Germany post-1945 and how their presence and well-being was important for the German state (Bodemann 1991). This symbolism goes back to the early post-war – post-Shoah – period and, in particular, to German relations with the United States. US officials clarified to German politicians that how Germans behaved toward the remaining Jews and what relationship (West) Germany was going to develop with the Jewish state, with Israel, would be decisive if Germany were to be admitted into the league of civilized nations again (Geller 2005). Philo-Semitism became the desired status quo domestically, while philo- Zionism became the status quo in German foreign policy (O’Dochartaigh 2007).

Bearing this heavy baggage in mind, it is beyond doubt that all sides remain impacted to date. Israelis react to the sounds of the German language and to trains, while Israel, Israelis, and Jews remain fraught for many Germans. This situation is supported by the small numbers of Israelis, and also Jews, in the country; most Germans have never met a living one, although open encounters tend to have the most positive impact on German-Israeli relationships. Against this background, it is positively surprising that most Israelis reported that they have good relations with Germans, that the past does not play on their minds constantly, that they actively chose Germany because they like German culture, and that they engaged in intimate partner relationships with Germans. Furthermore, Israelis in Germany are not that dissimilar to Americans (Klekowski von Koppenfels 2014), when factoring in socioeconomic profiles and reasons for migration. Certainly, if research on British citizens or other voluntary migrants from the old EU countries or Australia existed, a similar pattern would emerge, and these immigrants would fit into the patterns of lifestyle migration (O’Reilly & Benson 2009).

The reportedly good relationships with Germans might not be that surprising after all, given the particularities of the Israeli migrants in Germany. They fit with the holistic characteristics of the Israeli migrant population in Germany, which shows parameters that differ from Israelis in other locations – and by this token, the Israelis in Germany offer keys to crossing a void that was created more than 80 years ago. If anything, and despite openly voiced anti-Israel resentment and anti-Semitism, the Israeli migrant population offers insights into a particular strata of Israeli (Jewish) society and into the dynamics of Israeli-German as well as German-Israeli Jewish relations, which have undergone significant changes over time. Israelis in Germany vehemently underline that they are not a diasporic group but a group of voluntary migrants that is not shy to challenge dominant ideologies.


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