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Benjamin and Michele Katz, seen in Netanya on Nov. 2, are not alone in choosing this time to move to Israel.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Benjamin and Michele Katz already had tickets to Israel when Hamas militants broke through the walls around the Gaza Strip and massacred more than 1,400 people on the other side.

Their trip was not a vacation. Israel was to be their new home, their move a culmination of years of thinking about the country, where they met decades ago. Last year, they applied to make aliyah, the process of immigrating to Israel. After completing the necessary bureaucratic procedures, they secured a seat on an Oct. 19 flight.

Then the war began. The Katzes, from Cleveland, watched the images of bloodshed coming out of Israel in a state of shock. But the idea of backing out never occurred to them.

“We never thought about it. We knew what we were doing,” Michele said. She is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and had grown up hearing stories of atrocities committed against Jews. Those horrors seemed to be returning to life. This time, however, she had Israel.

“I don’t know why anyone would not want to be here,” she said this week, speaking from her new home, a short stroll from the Mediterranean in Netanya. “We have a place to be that’s ours.”

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On Oct. 7, Hamas militants killed Israelis in their homes and took at least 242 people hostage. Israel’s subsequent war on Hamas has killed more than 9,700 Palestinians, including nearly 4,800 children, according to authorities in Gaza, and laid waste to large parts of the densely populated Palestinian territory. The war has been waged in part by a huge mobilization of Israeli reservists that has touched every corner of the country. In communities large and small, sirens frequently warn of incoming missiles and rockets.

But the Katzes are not alone in choosing this time to move to Israel.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, a state-funded body that encourages immigration, has seen a considerable rise in the number of people opening files to make aliyah. Compared with the same period last week, it counts a 40-per-cent increase in files opened from North America and a 50-per-cent rise in those opened from France.

In Canada, the number, while still small in absolute terms, was up 64 per cent.

“Unfortunately, we know that every time in Israel there’s a crisis, it directly influences Jewish communities around the world,” said Shay Felber, director of the aliyah and absorption unit at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

No movement for Canadians stuck in Gaza after Rafah border crossing closure

He pointed to a global rise in acts of antisemitism, with synagogues vandalized and a cemetery attacked by arsonists. Britain has recorded a quadrupling in antisemitic incidents. Last week, Israel’s National Security Council cautioned Israelis against all foreign travel, saying it would be prudent to avoid “openly displaying Israeli and Jewish symbols and features.”

People now considering moving to Israel “are Canadians, they are South Africans, they are French. But they feel unsafe,” Mr. Felber said. “They feel the antisemitism. And then they start wondering if this is where they want to stay. Or maybe it’s time to make aliyah.”

The rise in numbers reflects only a small window of time. It also does not necessarily mean a swell of people will relocate to Israel. Applying for aliyah tends to take a year or two. Historically, only half of those who have finished their applications have made the move. Fears have also driven some to abandon plans: At least seven people dropped out of the Katzes’ Oct. 19 flight to Tel Aviv.

Nonetheless, the increase in the number of opened applications is a marked departure from an overall decline in numbers of people making aliyah in 2023, after a surge of Russian applicants last year.

“To say that we have applications for over 1,000 North Americans in the past three weeks is really amazing. It’s much more than we usually get,” said Marc Rosenberg, vice-president of diaspora partnerships at Nefesh B’Nefesh, a non-profit that helps people make aliyah from Canada, the United States and Britain.

It is an indication of the profound questions being contemplated by Jews around the world after the Oct. 7 attacks and the subsequent outbreak of war.

“It really reflects a tremendous amount of commitment to this idea of strengthening Israel, and building Israel,” he said. For some who had long contemplated the idea of moving to Israel – which offers generous tax and other benefits to those who immigrate – the war has been a clarifying moment.

“This is something they can do. And this is something they want to be a part of,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

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It is nonetheless a fraught decision. Israel is at war. The country’s vaunted defences have proven imperfect. Learning Hebrew remains difficult.

But for some, the war has made home feel less secure, too. Joe Roberts, a political strategist who chairs the board at JSpaceCanada, a progressive Jewish advocacy group, said he was startled when fellow progressives expressed solidarity with Palestinians immediately after the Oct. 7 attacks.

“To see people that I personally know, that I have stood alongside in the battle for racial justice or economic justice – to see them saying on the 8th that this was righteous resistance,” he said. “It was so painful and eye-opening and shocking.”

Mr. Roberts lives with his family, including two toddlers, in Cobourg, Ont. “I think about what is it going to be like for them to grow up here? Is it safe?” Seeing antisemitism in Canada has made him wonder whether neighbours or the people in the grocery store might also be willing to justify the killing of Jews.

He knows few people who have made aliyah. But he himself has now begun the application process. He’s not yet certain his family will leave Canada.

But he is leaning toward the idea.

“If we didn’t have kids, I think I would be much more in fight mode than flight mode,” he said. “But just thinking about their future – it changes the way I think about everything.”

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