For many of them, involvement in actively subjugating Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories and the pressure of living the Zionist ideology every day is just too much.

Igor Dzhadan describes his situation simply. He emigrated to Israel in 1990 but returned home in 2001, blaming what he called the country's "sectarian nature".

"I feel more comfortable in Russia. My life prospects wouldn't be worse than in Israel. I didn't like it. I'm used to operating in an open society where people don't ask you to what community you belong."

Dzhadan was twice required to serve in areas of heavy resistance in Bethlehem and Hebron. "I had to wait during operations to see whether there would be any wounded that I would have to treat... I saw dead bodies."

Boruch Gorin, head of the public relations department at the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities, finds similar sentiments among many of the tens of thousands of Russian Jews that continue to head home.

Dangerous place

Thousands complained of the pressure of living like a Zionist ideologue rather than as a human being. "Living in Israel is an ideology," he says.

Sharon welcomes an immigrant
already wearing army uniform

In the past month - and with much media fanfare - some 450 Jews decided to leave the safety of North America and France to live in what must be the most dangerous place for Jews in the world.

Crowds greeted the new arrivals at Ben Gurion International airport, some even had their hands shaken by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Such a warm welcome is easy to understand. "If the current population trends continue, it is estimated that Jews will be outnumbered by non-Jews in the territory that Israel controls within 10 to 15 years," the BBC reported in July.

But winning the population battle is proving impossibly difficult - particularly when more Jews are leaving Israel than moving in.

Net immigration

Official Israeli sources contain no consistent, annual information about rates of emigration from the country or profiles of those leaving. 

Known within the Zionist ideological lexicon as yeridah, government statisticians do not even use the "e" word.

But in a presentation at the Association for Israel Studies in Jerusalem, Ian Lustick of Pennsylvania University has described as much as it is possible to know about emigration - given the lack of official data.

"It is quite likely that the real net immigration of Jews into Israel in 2002 was either near zero or negative," he said. And as the al-Aqsa Intifda continues, the figures are not likely to change.

With fewer than 22,000 immigrants registered for 2003, Lustick also believes only around 30% of these immigrants were classified by the government as Jewish.

'Missing citizens'

A major phenomenon is developing. New arrivals are deciding to leave almost as soon as they arrive. Of the 1000 Jews arriving from North America in 2003, half have now left to go back home.

"Before our eyes Israel is becoming ultra-Orthodox, nationalist and Arab. It is becoming a society that has no sense of a future"

Avraham Burg, 
former speaker of the Knesset

Evidence for these "missing citizens" is easy to come by. The head of manpower for the Israel Defence Forces reported in mid-2003 that 34% of Israelis of conscription age were not serving in the army - a significant number of whom had "left the country prior to their recruitment and lived abroad".

In Haaretz, journalist Aluf Benn reported sharp increases in Israelis applying for citizenship papers at the German, Polish, Czech, Austrian and Slovakian embassies in Israel in 2002 and 2003.

Even a Market Watch poll commissioned by the newspaper Maariv found 20% of adult Israelis had recently considered living in a different country, and more than half of these "would like their children to grow up outside Israel". 

Changing attitudes

In November 2003, Haaretz published a lengthy interview with Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset. The son of Interior Minister Yosef Burg, Avraham, had shocked many Israelis with an article he published in the International Herald Tribune entitled A Failed Israeli Society is Collapsing. 

"When you ask Israelis today whether their children will be living here 25 years down the road, you don't get an unequivocally positive answer.
 
"You don't hear a booming yes. On the contrary. Young people are being encouraged to study abroad. Their parents are getting them European passports ... a whole society is living here that has no faith in its future.
 
"Before our eyes, Israel is becoming ultra-Orthodox, nationalist and Arab. It is becoming a society that has no sense of a future, no narrative and no forces to maintain itself."

Government line

Even Tel Aviv estimates that "Israeli citizens living outside the country" - that is, emigrants - now number between 450,000 and 900,000, depending on whether you count children born outside the country.

Immigrant youths are forced to
do unpleasant military service

According to representatives of the Central Bureau of Statistics testifying before the Knesset's Committee on Absorption, 270,000 Israeli citizens emigrated between 1990 and 2001.

In other words, a third of all immigrants in the same period have returned home.

But in January 2004, Yuri Shtern, chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, asserted that these figures under-reported the problem.

He said the figures "did not include statistics for yeridah in the last two years, during which the number of those abandoning the country for Russia has increased very significantly". 

Panic reaction

Drastic ideas to stem the tide include the wholesale conversion of Beni Menashe immigrants from India and Peruvian Indians to West Bank settlements as well as quick and easy conversion procedures for thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Other suggestions are more traditional. Yisrael Harel, a veteran Gush Emunim activist and former editor of the Nekuda newspaper, published an article in April 2003 to propose "a solution".

The Egyptian and Jordanian governments, he suggests, should accept masses of Palestinian refugees and Israel must abandon the Gaza Strip and the heavily Arab areas of the West Bank. 

"The Jewish majority between the Jordan and the sea is disappearing day by day, and without an absolute Jewish majority the State of Israel will not be able to survive for long.

"Security for an absolute Jewish majority is a crucial foundation for any plan ... every solution [to the Palestinian presence], that does not guarantee a Jewish majority in the land of Israel is no solution."