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“It must be our immediate task,” he concludes, “to prevent this emigration and to strengthen the presence of the Arab Christian in our united East.”

Despite these words of concern, there is little hope that the exodus will stop. Violence between Israelis and Palestinians is seen as the primary destabilizing factor in the entire region. As this violence escalates, tourism, the Holy Land’s primary industry, has been reduced to a trickle. Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are now empty. Some were deliberate military targets during the recent Israeli offensive in Palestine. As long as pilgrims and tourists visited the Holy Land, many Arab Christians enjoyed a solid middle-class livelihood. With no hope for a quick solution, many are ready to pack up their families, board up their shops and leave. Very few, however, have savings that will ease this transition.

Many unemployed Arab Christians – some 60 percent – have lost property and possessions through bank foreclosures on mortgages and loans. Knowing that it will take years for the economy to recover, they do not intend to wait it out.

Living conditions, too, are deteriorating. Housing itself is as inadequate as it is expensive. Houses are small, often with only one or two bedrooms shared between a family of four or five. Rents are high – in many cases, two salaries are needed to pay the rent. Often, marriages are postponed since the young cannot afford to set up their own homes.

Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, it has proved difficult for Palestinians to build new homes. Required permits are rarely given and houses built without permission are razed. Houses damaged by fighting cannot be repaired. The Israelis also control supplies of water and electricity to Gaza and the West Bank. Many household water tanks maintained by the Palestinians have been damaged during the recent violence and underground supply lines have been bulldozed.

Since its establishment, Israel has been the goal of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Law of Return of 1950 granted rights to every Jew throughout the world to return to Israel as a citizen. More than 2.5 million Jews have responded to that appeal. The number of people seeking entry was especially high immediately following World War II, when the State of Israel was established, and after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Emigration from Israel is a new phenomenon, however, as many Israelis seek better and more secure lives in the West.

For the most part, many of the immigrants who responded to Aliyah, or the “ingathering” of exiles, were traditional Jews, religious observers fleeing persecution. Present-day immigration, however, has a different cast. Many of the arrivals from Europe, particularly Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, may identify themselves as ethnic Jews, but do not consider Judaism their religion. According to the Israeli Shas Party, half the immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union are non-Jews. Some are married to Christians, others are descendants of converts or have converted themselves. This causes concern among Jewish leaders, who fear the country will lose its Jewish identity.

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