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The Role of Social Networks in the Immigration Decision-making Process: The Case of North American Immigration to Israel

Karin Amit & Ilan Riss

This study focuses on the role of social networks in the decision-making process
in migration which occurs between developed countries, specifically in
immigration from North America to Israel. The central declared motives for
immigration were religious; nevertheless, “materialistic” issues were also
mentioned. The decision-making process was long, usually taking from 2 to
10 years. Information was gathered via personal contacts from social networks,
during visits to Israel, and from Jewish organisations. The Internet also played
a major role in this process. Networks that were set up by Israeli and Jewish
organisations were found to be especially effective in organising immigration
because they connected non-numerous dispersed individuals, who were
thinking about Aliyah, and needed various kinds of support.

Social networks play a central role in the immigration decision-making
process as a source of information, and may also serve as central support
groups in the initial stages of integration into the host society. Social
networks are a key element in the well-studied social capital concept. Social
capital was defined by Pierre Bordieu as the total resources, feasible
or potential, that an individual or a group accumulates by means of the
constant maintenance of social networks or reciprocal social interactions.1
It follows that social capital is a resource associated with social interactions
conducted by the individual or the group and is based on mutual
commitment. Hence, social capital enables individuals to manage
financial and cultural resources, including information and knowledge.
Portes maintains that social capital is, in fact, the ability of individuals to
ensure benefits for themselves by belonging to organisations and social
Until now, the role of social networks in the migration process has
mostly been discussed in relation to labour immigrants arriving from less
developed countries into welfare countries.3 Contrariwise, the present
study explores the role of social networks in migration between developed
countries, and specifically the migration process of North American
immigrants coming to Israel.

Social Networks and the Decision to Immigrate
The role of social networks in the immigration decision-making process
has rarely been investigated in relation to highly skilled migrants moving
from one developed country to another,4 and, until now, has never been
examined in the Israeli context.5 In the current era of globalisation, there is
widespread agreement in industrialised societies that economic competitiveness
is increasingly linked to the quality and quantity of skilled human
resources available for any given economy.6 Consequently, countries
compete among themselves by adjusting their admission policies in order
to attract highly skilled immigrants, thereby increasing their “brain-gain”.7
The migration of highly skilled individuals necessitates the involvement
of migration authorities in facilitating procedures related especially to
employability and also the transportability of qualifications. These
processes cannot occur without network investments prior to and after
migration. In this respect, we should take into account the new efficient
modes of communication and transportation which allow migrants to
maintain transnational relationships and use them for a variety of reasons,
including information gathering.8
The decision to immigrate is a highly important step for the individual,
as the process involves economic, social and cultural risks and
expenditures. Economists who have studied the process presume that
individuals make their decision based on rational considerations; however,
this assertion has since been weakened by the growing understanding that
individuals do not always make completely rational decisions.9 Another
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distinction in migration decision-making relates to the difference between
free and forced migrations. The former describes individuals who believe
they will succeed in covering the costs involved in the immigration process
through their skills and talents and make a free choice to immigrate.10
These immigrants, whom the literature calls economic immigrants, are
motivated by economic considerations, and are different from refugees
who have no choice but to abandon their countries of origin (due to
persecution, prejudice, natural disaster, etc.).11 However, immigration
motives may also include non-economic considerations related to, say,
religion, lifestyle and feelings of social alienation.
The models dealing with immigration-related decision-making point
out the importance of information gathering in this process.12 Individuals
who decide to migrate must first gather and process a great deal of
information before making the actual decision to leave their country of
residence. An important link in this process may be the social network to
which these individuals belong. The centrality of social networks has been
discussed in the literature dealing with “social capital”, and has been widely
examined among various groups of immigrants.13 Some of these studies
have shown that immigration units are defined as neither single
immigrants nor even families, but rather as social networks.14
The influence of social networks on the decision to immigrate has been
studied extensively and was found to be related to phenomena known as
chain migration and herd behaviour, which are very important mechanisms
in the creation of immigration flows.15
In the immigration process, social networks may play a central role in
the initial stages of integration into the receiving country, especially when
they serve as support groups. In recent years, the promotion of supportive
social networks has come to occupy an essential place in policy makers’
interests,16 especially when dealing with migrants in poor neighbourhoods.
17 However, there are also examples of the formation of immigrant
networks among skilled migrants, like the voluntary network for skilled
immigrants set up in Australia.18 This organisation is supported by the
government and aims at facilitating the integration of skilled migrants
into the Australian labour market. This is accomplished by providing
information about jobs and employers, and by helping skilled migrants to
establish professional networks, which are important for job searches in
Australia. These institutionalised networks may serve as support groups,
but can also effect an individual’s decision to immigrate to a specific place
by pledging such support.
According to Lesger et al. there are three types of involvement of
social networks in the migration process: (a) Personal network migration
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(those who move through personal contacts); (b) Organisational or nonpersonal
network migration (those who move through contacts provided
by organisations, like professional guilds); and (c) Solitary migration
(those who move without having personal contacts in their final
destination country).19 The networks used by migrants vary significantly
depending on local conditions and socio-cultural characteristics. Past
research findings show a qualitative variation in the types of networks used
by different occupational classes.20 High occupational groups usually
count more on networks comprised of colleagues or organisational
networks and less on family-based networks, than unskilled workers. Since
most North American immigrants who migrate to Israel can be defined as
“skilled migrants”, it will be interesting to examine the types of social
networks formed among them, and explore the involvement of the Israeli
government and organisations in promoting their immigration. Official
programmes geared towards creating social networks among immigrants
in Israel exist; we would like to understand more about them, specifically
in relation to North American immigrants.

The Israeli Case
The migration of Jews to Israel can be classified as a “returning Diaspora”,
quite a unique feature among migratory movements in general. As a
returning Diaspora, the immigrants who come to Israel feel an affinity with
their new host society even before migrating and frequently exhibit warm
feelings of homecoming upon arrival. Throughout the years, the State of
Israel has been ideologically committed to the successful integration of new
immigrants into Israeli society.21 Among such immigrants to Israel, there
is a complex mixture of various motives; and at different periods, one
particular reason may be the most dominant. One of “the laws of
migration” formulated by Ravenstein states that the main reasons for
immigration are economic and this, of course, may be relevant for some of
the groups of immigrants coming to Israel.22
Within the context of Israeli immigration, alongside the religious and
ideological motivation for immigration, was the fear of nationalist
persecution, compounded by economic damage to the Jews’ interests.
Therefore, it is difficult to separate the two considerations. Moreover,
research findings have brought to light the fact that immigrants’
considerations have naturally varied throughout history, according to the
period of immigration.23
While there are many Israeli studies about immigrants coming from
counties in distress, less effort has been devoted to investigating immigrants
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coming from first world western countries in general, and from North
America in particular. Over the last decade, about 70,000 people have
migrated from western countries to Israel; among them 30,000 have been
North American immigrants. Western immigrants, and especially the
immigrants from North America, are quite a unique case in the Israeli
context; these people could easily have remained in their own countries, but
instead chose to come to Israel.24 That is why the current study has chosen to
focus on immigrants from North America (the USA and Canada) who came
to Israel sometime during the last decade. These immigrants come from the
largest Jewish Diaspora in the world, and thus constitute the largest Israeli
potential reservoir of immigrants. Moreover, immigrants from North
America are highly skilled; many of them are professional, managerial and
technical specialists. As was mentioned earlier, these highly skilled migrants
constitute an important element of contemporary international flows.25
The few studies conducted on North American immigrants in Israel
reveal that many of these immigrants are religious Jews whose main
motives for coming to Israel are religious. A study, conducted recently by
the Jewish Agency among Jewish communities in North America, France
and the FSU, attempted to assess the percentage of potential immigrants
from these countries and the factors likely to motivate them to migrate
(not necessarily to Israel).26 The study’s findings showed that among North
American Jews about one-third talk about an intention to immigrate
to Israel. Among the factors motivating them to immigrate, the most
important are: the desire to develop spiritually and maintain a Jewish way
of life, and their disappointment in the activities of the communities where
they reside. Those interviewed felt that economic compensation was a less
important factor in their decision to immigrate, although nevertheless a
factor to be considered. However, in previous studies concerning this same
population, neither the immigration decision-making process nor the role
of social networks in this process was explored.
The present study focuses on the following research questions:
1. What motivated North American Jews to come to Israel during the last
2. To what extent were the social networks in the country of origin involved
in the decision to immigrate to Israel?What characterises these networks?
3. What was the role of Israel-based social networks in the decisionmaking
process?What was the role of Israel-based social networks in the
decision to come to a specific town in Israel? What characterises these
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The Research Population
The population examined in the study is North American (US and
Canadian) immigrants in Israel. We examined immigrants who have been
in Israel for a period of up to 10 years and who came as adults (over the age
of 18). We decided to focus on immigrants who have been in the country
for up to 10 years mainly in order to neutralise the effects of both time and
perspective on reporting. In order to learn more about the population
study and construct our research instrument, we also interviewed several
key individuals who are professionally involved with the immigration and
integration of North American immigrants in Israel. We saw representatives
from the Ministry of Absorption, the Jewish Agency, the Association
of American and Canadian Immigrants (AACI), the Nefesh B’Nefesh and
Tehilla organisations, which bring immigrants from North America, and
professional organisations of English speakers in Israel. From these
interviews and from official statistical data, we learned that many newly
arrived North American immigrants are concentrated in three main cities:
Bet Shemesh,Modi’in and Jerusalem.We chose to focus on Bet Shemesh, a
city with a large population of immigrants, which in recent years has
become one of the main magnets for North American immigrants.

Research Method and Final Sample
The current study is exploratory in nature and uses qualitative research
methods based on grounded theory (GT) assumptions. The GTapproach is
a qualitative research method that uses a systematic set of procedures to
develop an inductively derived GT about a phenomenon.27 As such, it is
a systematic generation of theory from data. The main instrument of
qualitative research is the in-depth interview which is capable of providing
valuable insight into the complex range of human attitudes, values and
behaviour. In addition, it provides an opportunity to collect substantive
and detailed information, which is otherwise difficult to obtain. We used
in-depth semi-structured interviews in line with Smith’s recommendations.
28 Smith saw the benefit of this instrument in that it allows the
researcher and the interviewee more flexibility in comparison with either a
structured interview or questionnaire. A semi-structured interview is
based on the outline of an existing questionnaire, yet allows the interviewer
to ask differently formulated questions in a different order, as well as go
in-depth on individual points related to the issues being investigated. As a
result, these interviews are then easier to analyse.
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We conducted a total of 11 in-depth interviews with key personnel
involved in the immigration and absorption of North American
immigrants in Israel, and particularly in Bet Shemesh. We hoped to
receive answers to the following questions from these representatives: Why
do North Americans come to Israel and what helps them to make the
decision to immigrate? What are their demographic and socio-economic
characteristics? Where in Israel do they reside? In what way(s) is the
representative’s organisation related to these immigrants? Had his/her
organisation been in contact with the immigrants before their arrival? If so,
what was the nature of this contact? Does his/her organisation maintain
contact with these immigrants after their arrival? If so, what is the nature of
this contact? How are these immigrants absorbed into Israeli society?What
are the main difficulties related to their absorption? In addition, at the end
of the interview, we presented our main research questions to the
participants and recorded their replies and comments based on their
professional experience.
The interviews with key personnel helped us to construct the immigrant
in-depth semi-structured interview, our main research instrument. We
conducted a total of 20 interviews with North American immigrants in Bet
Shemesh. The interviewees were first randomly selected from a list given to
us by the Bet Shemesh Community Center (MATNAS). In addition, we
asked each interviewee to refer us to another North American immigrant
in Bet Shemesh; thus, obtaining about half of the interviewees using a
“snow-ball” method. This method is acceptable in research concerned with
social networks regarding cases where it is difficult to locate subjects.29
Most interviews took place in the immigrant’s home; in some interviews,
both the immigrant and his/her spouse were present. Each interview took
about an hour and a half. Most of the interviews were conducted in
The first questions asked in the interview were informative in nature:
Demographic and socio economic questions related to: age, degree of
religiosity, religious denomination, years of schooling, academic degree,
income, occupation in the country of origin and in Israel, and informative
questions concerning the immigration to Israel, such as year of
immigration and country of origin. Next, we asked questions about the
motives to immigrate and the immigration decision-making process, such as:
What was the main reason for immigrating to Israel?What were the factors
in favour of immigration? What were the factors against immigration?
How long did you think about coming to Israel before actually coming?
How did you go about collecting information in preparation for
immigration? What information resources did you use? Did you collect
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information systematically? Who were your advisors? Did you visit Israel
prior to your decision? To what extent can you define your decision as
being “personal”? Was the decision made by the entire family? Did other
close family members resist or support your decision? What did your
friends say?
The next phase in the interviews was dedicated to questions about
the immigrants’ informal and formal social networks in their country of
origin and their influence on the decision to immigrate: In your country of
origin, with whom did you enjoy friendly relationships in your daily life?
What was the frequency of these relationships? Did the friends you were in
touch with from the USA or Canada influence your decision to immigrate?
At what point was their involvement most significant? Were you affiliated
with any community organisations? Were these organisations related
to Israel in any way? If so, how were they connected to your decision to
In the interview, questions about the role of social networks in the
destination country (Israel) were also asked: Did you enjoy any social
relations with anyone in Israel before immigrating? Were you a member of
any Israeli organisations? Did these connections/organisations in Israel
have any influence on the decision-making process to immigrate? If so,
during which phase of the decision-making process was this influence
most significant? How did you communicate with them?.
Another part of the interview asked questions about the immigrant’s
expectations from migration to Israel: What was your main image of Israel
before you came? What were your expectations about the migration to
Israel regarding social, economic and political issues or other areas?
To what extent was the decision-making process to migrate to Israel
accompanied by concerns and worries? If you experienced concerns and
worries, which factors (if any) helped to reduce these feelings? To what
degree did your social networks help reduce these feelings? To what extent
did significant Figures (leaders) provide help and support?
The interview ended with several questions about social integration into
Israeli society: Do you and your family now feel “Israeli”? Do you speak
Hebrew? To what extent do you feel connected to Israeli culture? Are you
satisfied or dissatisfied with your life in Israel?

Data Analysis
The interviews were inputted into aword-processing format, after which they
were imported to the ATLAS.ti 5.0 software package for an analysis of the
qualitative data. Initially, preliminary analysis looked for general themes that
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arose from the collected data. Then, based on these themes, a more detailed
coding system was applied to identify the study’s main question domains.
This qualitative software enables the organising of texts and their coding into
projects. It also explores how words are used in context and investigates the
frequency with which particular categories have been assigned to a word
or text segment. Furthermore, it creates and maintains categories and
categorisation schemes.

In our first research question, we wanted to learn what had motivated
North American Jews to come to Israel during the last decade. In the
interviews, we first asked this question in a direct manner and then tried to
obtain more information about all the considerations involved in the
decision to immigrate. Citations from interviews are presented below;
immigrants’ real names have been changed in order to ensure the
anonymity of the survey. The following citations illustrate general themes
and main domains that were taken from the data (the exact location in the
ATLAS document is specified in parentheses).

Immigration Motives
Under the general theme motives for immigration derived from the direct
question about the main motive for migrating, we found that the
religious motive was very dominant. This is apparent from the following
Don, emigrated from Canada in 1998. He is 41 years old, a father to five
young children and religiously defines himself as ultra-orthodox:
Because it is for me the right place to be in, for religious reasons . . .
Although I knew that not all Jews are religious in Israel, I felt that
Israel is the right place for Jews . . . For me, religion today is everything,
but I also thought about my children and about our quality of life as
Jews. . . . In Israel we can easily observe religious traditions and
Sara, emigrated from Canada in 2003. She is 37 years old, a mother to four
young children and religiously defines herself as ultra-orthodox:
We came to Israel because it is the Holy Land, the land of the Jews.
My husband and I became religious in Canada and it changed our lives.
The peak of this process for us was the Aliyah (immigration) to
Israel. . . . We came for religious reasons, not Zionistic ideological
reasons. God said that we should live in the Holy Land.
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Paul, emigrated from the USA in 2005. He is 31 years old, a father to five
young children and religiously defines himself as ultra-orthodox:
My wife wanted to come to Israel for religious and Zionistic reasons.
We wanted to live in a Jewish state, in a Jewish environment.
We believed that Israel is a good place to raise children in terms of the
Torah (The Bible).
From these citations, we understand that the immigrants believe that
Israel, the “Holy Land”, is the right place for both them and their children,
as Jews. As religious people with young children, they believed that Israel is
a good place to raise children. According to most interviewees in our
sample, and especially those with the same religious and demographic
profile, the declared reason for immigration was religious reasons.
A more complex picture is obtained from the interviews with key
individuals who have professional dealings with the North American
immigrants, for example, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s
representative in Bet Shemesh:
Most of the immigrants from North America are religious . . . The
reasons for their coming to Israel are related to religion: They love Israel
and it was important for them, as Jews, to be here . . . They were afraid
their children would not remain Jews in America . . . Their life in
America, as Jews, was less comfortable and they had to pay a lot of
money for Jewish education.
As we can see from this citation, the religious motives for immigration are
dominant; however, alongside these reasons, other considerations are also
mentioned in this interview: living as religious Jews in America is
expensive; hence, economical considerations are also a factor. Economical
considerations were also emphasised by other representatives. For example,
a representative of Nefesh B’Nefesh, working closely with immigrants both
before and after their migration, states that:
Before emigrating, they ask a lot of “budget” questions: How is
the economic life in Israel? What is the cost of living? How much
money will they get after arriving?What is the economic cost of the entire
immigration process?What is the cost of education for the children?
When we asked the immigrants to elaborate on the considerations both in
favour and against migrating, we were provided with economical and
social considerations, some of which related indirectly to religious issues,
while others did not. The following selected citations demonstrate these
Micha, emigrated alone from the USA in 2003. He is 33 years old, single
and defines himself as religious:
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I had always thought about coming to Israel . . . After September 11th,
I changed my perception about security in the US . . . If I was supposed
to die, let it be in Israel, where God is present . . . Since I’m single and
I’m looking for a nice, Jewish bride and it is supposed to be easier
here . . . However, if I had had difficulties in finding PARNASA (a job)
I would probably have thought it over and not come.
John and Dana, who came from the USA in 2006, and are parents to three
young children, define themselves as modern orthodox:
From the economic point of view, in the long run, we will be better off
. . . in the US there is a lot of peer pressure among Jews . . . We believe
that we will have the same quality of life in Israel.
From the citations, it appears that economical and social considerations
were also involved in the immigration decision-making process of North
Americans coming to Israel. However, the religious motives were more
frequently and more directly expressed.

Social Networks in the Country of Origin
Our second research question addresses the involvement of social networks,
in the country of origin, in the decision to immigrate to Israel. In the analysis,
several themes arose: The approval or disapproval of the immigrant’s family
in the country of origin, the influence of religious institutions and leaders in
the country of origin, and the influence of friends in the country of origin.
We were interested to know whether the immigrant’s family in the
country of origin had supported the immigration decision. Families may
serve as significant social networks and their attitude is important in
understanding the decision-making process individuals undergo.
The involvement of the immigrant’s family in the decision-making
process was discussed in the interviews, and it appears that for most
interviewees at least several members of their families were not supportive.
Here are some citations that demonstrate this:
Lea, emigrated from the USA in 2000. She is 32 years old, a mother to
three young children and defines herself as religious:
My family was against Aliyah (immigration) . . . My grandmother is a
Holocaust survivor and is very attached to the family; she wanted us to
live near her in New York.
My close family members were against my becoming more religious
and also against Aliyah . . . They thought we were making a mistake . . .
but they didn’t prevent me from leaving.
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By contrast, however, other respondents reported their family’s approval of
their decision. In these cases, some family members were already living
in Israel:
Mira, 34 years old, a mother to four young children, who religiously
defines herself as ultra-orthodox, emigrated from the USA in 2003:
My family was very supportive . . . I have three stepbrothers and an
uncle living in Israel . . . My husband’s family was less supportive, but
my mother in-law had lived in Israel for a couple of years, so she was
more understanding.
Since for most interviewees the main reason for immigration to Israel was
religious reasons, religious institutions in the country of origin
(synagogues) and religious representatives (rabbis), seem to play an
important role in the decision-making process. The following citation
indicates the involvement of these institutions and representatives:
We were members of the Yeshiva Aish-Hatorah . . .My husband went to
lectures at the Yeshiva concerning the Aliyah, but he also went to hear
about Aliyah in other forums and lectures.
Hanna, 44 years old, a mother to six young children, emigrated from the
USA in 1996 and defines herself as religious Zionist orthodox:
We consulted several Rabbis from Detroit. We wanted them to help us
prepare for Aliyah and also to tell us how to confront our families,
which were against the move . . .We wanted spiritual help, but they gave
us more practical suggestions.
David, emigrated from Canada in 2002. He is 40 years old, a father to one
child and defines himself as religious:
Back there, we were in contact with Nefesh B’Nefech representatives.
I was on the first plane to Israel with this organization and I have strong
social ties with Rabbi Fass, the organization’s Rabbi.
Rabbi Yaacov was one of the lecturers at Yeshiva University in New
York. . . He was also a Rabbi in my synagogue back then and had a great
influence on me . . . He had lived in Israel for one year, so I could
consult with him . . . I used to meet him or call him on the phone.
From these citations, we understand that prior to immigrating, our
respondents were socially related to religious organisations such as Yeshivas
and synagogues; some of them mention consulting with Rabbis regarding
the decision-making process. However, we did not witness any indication
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of these religious institutes in the country of origin having a strong influence
on the decision itself.
The involvement of friends (rather than family members) in the
country of origin, in the immigration decision-making process was quite
limited and, for the most part, family members tended to be against
immigration. For example, Shina, 55 years old, divorced, a mother to two
adult children, who defines herself as religious, emigrated alone from the
USA in 2000:
My friends were jealous of me, they didn’t try to prevent me from
immigrating, but they tried to figure out if I was serious.
However, the involvement of those friends and relatives, who had
already immigrated to Israel on the decision-making process, was
significant. This involvement is elaborated in the next section.


Social Networks in Israel
Our third research question addresses the involvement of social networks,
in Israel, in the decision-making process. In the analysis, several themes
arose: influence of friends and relatives already living in Israel, information
gathering patterns, and the involvement of official and voluntary
We were interested to know whether the immigrant’s friends or relatives
already living in Israel were involved in the decision to immigrate to Israel
or come to a specific town – in our case to Bet Shemesh. Social relations
with friends and relatives living in Israel and their involvement in the
decision-making process were discussed in the interviews, and it appeared
that for most interviewees the relations were significant. Here are some
citations that demonstrate this:
The first family from our group of friends that decided to immigrate to
Israel really influenced us. The wife, Karen, was a good friend of mine
back in Canada. Her husband, Don, wrote us letters and e-mails about
Israel . . . We thought that if Don was happy here, then maybe it would
work for us, too . . . We chose to come to Bet Shemesh mainly because
we had friends here and we knew more about the place.
Themost significant influence formewas the fact that twelve families from
our group back inCanada livedin Israel. . .We kept in touchwith themand
heard how they were getting along in Israel. Don was the one that kept us
updated . . . I also have family in Israel, but not in Bet Shemesh.
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My stepbrother lives in Jerusalem and my stepsister lives in Bet
Shemesh and they helped us in the initial stages . . . We chose Bet
Shemesh because the community here is very American and it is located
between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem . . . Some families from my husband’s
Yeshiva also came to Bet Shemesh, so for us it is very convenient.
As can be seen from these citations, friends and relatives already living in
Israel played an important role in the decision to immigrate and to live in
Bet Shemesh. As will be presented later on, these friends served as an
important source of information about life in Israel.
There were two interviewees who had neither relatives nor friends living
in Israel, prior to their arrival. However, these people admitted that had
they friends or relatives already living in Israel it could have facilitated their
immigration. So much is obvious from Hanna’s statement:
We came alone and we had no one here . . . We were determined to
come for religious reasons, but the fact that we didn’t know anybody
here was very hard for us.
Our introduction emphasised that information gathering is a key
element in the immigration decision-making process and, from the
interviews, we were able to classify such detail into three main sources:
friends or relatives, governmental organisations and institutions, and
voluntary organisations. Information was gathered using different methods
of communication, particularly the Internet. All interviewees visited Israel at
least once before immigrating; these trips were mentioned by the
interviewees as being very significant in shaping their desire to come to Israel.
Here are some citations that demonstrate the information gathered
through friends and relatives living in Israel:
Don wrote us letters and e-mails about Israel: about how wonderful life
is here, the miracles that happened to them here . . . The influence was
long-term and lasting . . . He sent us letters and e-mails for two years.
He (Don) was the first to come to Israel and he sent us e-mails. . . My
wife was especially enthusiastic about these e-mails, she used to read me
the e-mails . . . We learned a lot about Bet Shemesh.
First I talked with my nephew who lives in Israel . . . I came to visit him
several times and when I was here, he helped me check whether I could
find work in my profession . . . I also had some friend and relatives
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living in Israel . . . the contact was not frequent . . . we used to talk on the
phone or via e-mail . . . after deciding to immigrate, they sent me
information about the schools in the neighborhood.
As can be seen from these citations, friends and relatives living in Israel
served as a source of information about life in Israel. They provided
information about the city, Bet Shemesh, schools and labour market
opportunities. The most common mode of communication with friends
and relatives was e-mail communication.
Besides this informal information gathering process, the interviewees
also mentioned that they collected information provided by various
organisations. The main official governmental sources of information
mentioned are the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Absorption.
It appears that the information obtained from these formal organisations
was technical in nature and mostly taken from the organisation’s web sites.
The Jewish Agency’s representative (Shaliah) was not mentioned as a
significant figure providing information. Here is an example: Danny, who
emigrated from Canada in 1994, and is a 45 years old father to five
children, who defines himself as religious:
We came to Israel before Nefesh B’Nefesh was established . . . After a
visit in Israel, we started thinking about Aliyah . . . We took some
information brochures from the Jewish Agency’s Shaliah . . . We
checked out their web site.
Some of the interviewees reported that they had received no help from the
official organisations and were disappointed with the services provided to
them as immigration candidates. The following example demonstrates this
I received no concrete help from any official organization . . . I tried to
contact the AACI and the Jewish Agency, but they didn’t help me.
Voluntary organisations are mentioned as both a source of information
in the immigration decision-making process and organisers of the
immigration process. Two voluntary organisations were frequently
mentioned by the interviewees: Tehila and Nefesh B’Nefesh. Tehila is
defined as a voluntary movement for religious Aliyah. It was established
20 years ago and remains active in religious communities in the USA and
among American immigrants in Israel. Its activities include the
organisation of pilot trips to Israel and conferences about Israel prior to
migration. The involvement of Tehila in the migration process was
particularly mentioned by those emigrating prior to the establishment of
Nefesh B’Nefesh:
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Most of the information we gathered was through Tehila and the
Internet. . .We came to Israel on a pilot trip that influenced us a lot.
The organisation Nefesh B’Nefesh does not specifically address religious
people, although, according to its vice president, about 80% of the
immigrants who come to Israel through the organisation define themselves
as religious. Nefesh B’Nefesh was established at the beginning of 2002 by a
Jewish businessman who wanted to encourage Jews from North America
to come to Israel. It provides immigrants with much more than mere
information. According to its vice president:
We see ourselves as ’Aliyah facilitators’. Our activities are intended to
assist immigrants financially, help them find adequate jobs in Israel,
and help them deal with the Israeli bureaucracy . . . Our organization
brings the immigrants to Israel in special airplanes and facilitates the
initial stages of integration into Israel.
Most interviewees that came to Israel after 2001 used the services provided
by Nefesh B’Nefesh. The organisation operates through a marketing call
centre and has an Internet web site. In John’s and Dana’s words:
Nefesh B’Nefesh made the immigration process much easier . . . We
came with their flight and it was really an emotional adventure.
It appears from the interviews that the Internet served as the most
frequently used tool for gathering information and creating personal
contacts. As reported by Nefesh B’Nefesh’s vice president, almost all the
work with people who make enquiries is achieved through e-mails (99%).
The official and voluntary organisation’s web sites provide information
about the immigration process and immigrants’ rights. However, enquiries
were also made through independent Internet forums and communities.
For example, Micha reported the following:
I got on the Internet; I sent e-mails with questions to different
communities . . . Iwanted to know if there were singles in the community.
The interviews with the organisations’ representatives point out the
involvement of official Israeli organisations in the creation of immigrant
social networks. It appears that the Ministry of Absorption, together with
the involvement of the Jewish Agency and the cooperation of selected
municipalities in Israel (Ra’anana, Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh and Ma’ale
Adomim), operate a communal immigration and absorption project
(Aliyah V’Klita Kehelatit). This project is designed to provide new
immigrants with a supportive social framework, professional guidance and
financial assistance throughout their first year in Israel. The project
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coordinator in each municipality sets up the immigrant network prior to
immigration, in accordance with the targeted municipality in Israel.
The project addresses whole families and its members are chosen according
to criteria specified by the Ministry of Absorption and the targeted
municipality. As we learned from the project coordinator in Ra’anana:
The Jewish Agency’s representative gives me the forms filled out by the
programme candidates. In the forms, they specify why they want to
come and where they want to settle in Israel . . . I try to set up a group
according to their professional profile and children’s ages . . . this year
for example most of them are lawyers . . . I get their contact information
and their e-mail addresses and I contact them prior to their arrival.
Nefesh B’nefesh representatives are also aware of this programme and try to
promote it among relevant families that contact them. According to the
institution’s social coordinator:
This project’s rationale is to create a social support network, to form a
group that will immigrate together, which will help facilitate their
integration . . . In the case of North Americans it is different; the
members of the group do not know each other prior to migration
because they come from different locations in the US and Canada. But
still, the fact that they get to know each other here and receive support
and guidance together throughout the first year in Israel is important.
Apparently, the official Israeli organisations understand the benefits of
social networks in the migration process and in the initial integration
phases and are willing to invest money and efforts in this project. This
project has been operating in Ra’anana and Jerusalem for several years,
whereas it is only still in the pilot stage in Bet Shemesh. From the interview
with the current project coordinator in Ra’anana, we learned that strong
social relations are not formed between group members (10 families),
although they participate during the course of the project year in social
activities and events. However, the former project coordinator in Ra’anana
indicates that the 20 families in her group formed good social relations
during the project year and maintained contact even after the project had
ended. From these facts, we can assume that strong social relations are not
always automatically formed among families participating in the project,
and that the creation of an artificial social network does not necessarily
contribute to the project’s objectives.
Notwithstanding, the communal immigration and absorption project
may have geographical consequences. Through the formation of the
migrants’ networks, the authorities may influence the immigrants’ selection
of specific geographical locations. It is well known that migrants’ networks
influence their spatial selectivity, but here we encounter evidence that the
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organised migrants’ networks can influence the selectivity of immigrants
in their socio-demographic characteristics.30 It has been emphasised
that the Ministry of Absorption and the target municipality set up specific
demographic and socio-economic criteria for including candidates in
the project and this selection process is highlighted in the following citations:
The head of the absorption unit in Ra’anana:
The Jewish Agency’s representative in the community of origin
(Shaliah) checks to see if the candidates fulfill the community project’s
criteria. He then passes the list of relevant candidates on to the project
coordinator in Israel.
The project coordinator in Ra’anana adds that:
There are clear definitions about age, profession, kids’ ages, etc. . . . If a
child is an adolescent, it is not advisable to make Aliyah, it is preferable
to come with younger children or adults . . . The families, which
confirmed these criteria required by the Ministry of Absorption, go
through the Jewish Agency or Nefesh B’Nefesh. They also need an
Aliyah permit from the Jewish Agency.
The vice president of Nefesh B’Nefesh justifies the selection criteria for
immigrants coming through Nefesh B’nefesh in general (not just for the
community project):
We have two basic criteria: we accept candidates who visited Israel
prior to their migration and if they didn’t we arrange such a visit for
them, and we do not accept candidates with problems, such as debts,
mental problems. . . These conditions are important for the success of
the integration process. . . We want to encourage a quality
immigration that will be satisfied and in this way will encourage
others to come.
To conclude, from the findings concerning the involvement of social
networks in the immigration decision-making process of North American
immigrants in Israel, it appears that in accordance with the model of Lesger
and others, we detected all three types of social networks in this migration
process.31 The first and most frequent type of social network relates to
immigrants who moved through personal contacts in the country of origin
(who had migrated to Israel). Our findings indicate that these personal
contacts influencedthe decision to come to Israel and to settle inBet Shemesh.
The second relates to those migrants who decided to move through contacts
provided by organisations, termed “non-personal network migration” and
contacts with both official and voluntary organisations, which served as
sources of information and tools for facilitating the initial immigration
process. Thirdly, we found cases of solitary migration; those individuals who
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moved without having personal contacts of almost any kind, through
friendship-based or official networks.
The current study’s findings show that the central declared motives for
immigrating for most North American immigrants are religious reasons.
Nevertheless, alongside these considerations, economic issues were also
indicated. The decision-making process was long, usually taking between
2 and 10 years on average. During this period, information was gathered
via personal contacts from different sources, among them, social networks,
visits to Israel and Jewish organisations. A special role in information
gathering may be attributed to the Internet. It appears that social networks
in the country of origin have a certain amount of influence on the decision
to immigrate, but the members of the social networks who had already
immigrated to Israel made a stronger impact.
The results of our research have shown the different roles, played by
various kinds of social networks, in the immigration process, especially as
regards migration decision-making. Migrants’ networks are varied in
nature: from the spontaneous to those set up intentionally by various
interested parties in the migration process. Alongside the informal social
networks operating among immigrants, formal social networks also had a
special influence on the immigration process. These latter are organised by
governmental and voluntary agents in Israel, for the purpose of promoting
immigration and facilitating the initial stages of integration. These
networks are set up before the immigration process begins, in accordance
with the targeted residence site in Israel. These organised networks are led,
set up and operated by municipality representatives.
In addition, our findings may indicate that different roles may be
attributed to “strong” and “weak” ties. As described by Granovetter, strong
ties exist in relationships that are characterised by a substantial time
investment, high emotional intensity, intimacy and the reciprocal
exchange of services.32 A marital relationship or that between a parent
and a child is an example of such ties. Alternatively, low levels of time
investment, weak emotional bonds, a lack of intimacy and an
unreciprocated exchange of goods or services would characterise a weak
tie. Strong ties may tend to prevent emigration and, as we have seen, many
North American immigrants migrated against the wishes of their close
relatives and family members. Our findings also showed that the support
network should be distinguished from broader social networks, because
not all social ties are supportive.33 The strong ties that immigrants enjoyed
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in their origin country were not always supportive in their attempts to
reach their goals and satisfy their aspirations via immigration.
Alternatively, the networks based on weak ties supplied these needs.
Immigrants to Israel do not need strong ties for the Aliyah process
because they receive most of the required support from formal
immigration organisations. However, weak ties are still required for
decision-making purposes, for such aspects as receiving reliable
information, friendly advice and emotional support. Immigrants also
require aid via weak ties when it comes to finding jobs, particularly because
North American immigrants are mostly highly skilled professionals.
It seems that by arranging the migrants’ networks, Israeli and Jewish
organisations provide prospective immigrants with weak ties, which may
compensate for the breaking of the strong ties with their families, thereby
helping the immigrants come to Israel. Our findings highlight the
importance of the Internet as an information-gathering tool used in the
migration process of North Americans. According to Hardin, the Internet
is a form of social capital in which weak ties are formed.34 Relationships
created on the Internet are typically too insubstantial to truly build trust
and cooperation among people; however, the Internet enables rapid and
efficient information gathering and task performance.
Networks that were organised by Israeli and Jewish organisations were
found to be particularly effective in the organisation of immigration because
they connected dispersed people, who were contemplating Aliyah, but had
postponed their decision, due to a lack of personal information and the
various kinds of personal support: emotional and also organisational, which
is usually provided by their social networks. These dispersed people could
not set up these networks by themselves, because they are few in number and
have an extremely low prospect of meeting one another in a spontaneous
way. This opportunity was provided by the above-mentioned organisations.
The interviews also showed that membership in formal networks did not
necessarily create long-lasting ties among members. Hence, we may
hypothesise that migrants’ networks serve as specific mechanisms in helping
to “make the move”; the need for this support tends to cease to exist after the
immediate need for its existence has been fulfilled. The organised networks
played another important role in helping to influence migrant candidate
selection. Low-volume migrations are usually more selective than massive
migration streams.35 Thus, the role of such networks is very important in
selectivity in immigration to Israel form North America.
Our research may illuminate some questions for future research.Most of
the interviewees reported that their decision to immigrate to Israel was not
supported by their families. Does this mean that the immigrants went
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to Israel as a consequence of some family crisis or tension? Does it indicate
something about migrant candidate selection on the basis of specific
psychological traits, such as inability to maintain close ties with one’s
relatives? Have the high return migration rates of American immigrants
resulted, in some degree at least, from this selection process? How does
their Aliyah influence their ties with the family members they have left
behind?What can be learned from the migrant candidate selection process
in general? How are strong and weak ties related to migration decisionmaking
in the short and long term?
Another set of future questions may be directed at leadership issues.
In the interviews, we witnessed in some cases the influence of significant
figures in the social network on the decision to immigrate. Further research
is still needed to explore the characteristics of such figures, the way in
which they are perceived by the immigrants, and their influence on the
actual decision to immigrate.
Based on this qualitative study, another quantitative survey has been
planned and is currently underway. In this quantitative survey, we expect
to address about 500 North American immigrants, who immigrated
during the last five years.We believe this sample is representative.We hope
that this survey will help to both quantify and elaborate the results
presented here. In this respect, it is important to note that the conclusions
derived from the present study, which is based on qualitative methods, are

The research was funded by The Institute for Immigration & Social Integration, Ruppin
Academic Center, Israel.

[1] Bordieu, The Forms of Capital, 241–58.
[2] Portes, “Social Capital,” 1–24.
[3] Stark, The Migration of Labor; Massey et al., Return to Aztlan.
[4] Stark, The Migration of Labor.
[5] Katz, “Acculturation and Social Networks”; Dashefsky et al., American Abroad;
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[6] Mahroum, “Europe and the Immigration,” 27–43.
[7] Iredale, “The Need to Import Skilled Personnel,” 89–123; Mahroum, “Europe
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[8] Vertovec, “Transnational Networks.”
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[31] Lesger et al., “Is There Life Outside the Migrant Network?.”
[32] Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties.”
[33] Vaux, Social support.
[34] Hardin, “Internet capital.”
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