Demographic Trends in Israel

October 1, 2010
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Uzi Rebhun, Gilad Malach, & Ruth Gavison

What level of Jewish majority does Israel need in order to be both Jewish and democratic? The question — though an issue since the beginning of statehood — became more acute after the 1967 Six-Day War; it is also, though, relevant within the confines of Israel’s Green Line.

The goals of Israeli society reach beyond being Jewish and democratic; Israel also aspires to be a developed and prosperous country that upholds human rights and is committed to the welfare of all its residents and citizens. This essay presents findings from the 2009 report* of the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought in Jerusalem. Our underlying premise is that accurate demographic information is essential for both intelligent public debate and decision making about how to define and fulfill a demographic policy that will allow Israel to survive as a developed and democratic state — one that is attuned to the welfare of all its inhabitants and in which the Jewish people can fulfill their right to self-determination.

In its 62-year history, Israel’s population has grown in a dramatic way — unprecedented in the West — from fewer than 900,000 persons at the time of the first census (1948) to 7.5 million at the end of 2009. The Jewish majority, however, has been clearly diminishing since it peaked in the early 1960s at 89 percent. In 2009, Jews (including “others,” i.e., non-Jews who are allowed to immigrate under the Law of Return) accounted for 80 percent of the total population. Three main factors explain the erosion of the Jewish majority: (a) higher natural increase of the Arab population (especially Muslims), (b) the annexation of eastern Jerusalem in 1967, and (c) periodic downturns in Jewish immigration.

Various subgroups of the two major populations — Jewish and Arab alike — also underwent important demographic changes. The number of Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) Jews has grown rapidly over the past 20 years. During this time, the proportion of Jews who define themselves as Haredi increased from 3 percent to roughly 9 percent. In 1990, fewer than 10 percent of Jewish children attended Haredi schools; in 2008, some 21 percent did so. The share of Muslims in the Arab population has climbed from 70 percent when the state was founded to 83 percent today.

The geographical distribution of populations is also of interest. Jews in Jerusalem have remained a steady 10 percent of the Jewish population in the country. About half the Jews live in the central regions of the country and the Tel Aviv area, where they form a clear majority. In the Galilee, on the other hand, Arabs have become the majority.

The most conspicuous trend in the Jewish sector during these years is an upturn in the total fertility rate, due in large measure to the proportional growth of the Haredi population. Concurrently, immigration has fallen off severely, to less than 20,000 per year, after mass immigration in the 1990s delivered almost 1 million people to Israel’s shores.

In the Arab sector, the fertility rate has been falling steeply (18 percent) in recent years, especially among Muslims. The Negev Bedouin population recorded a 27-percent decline. And the “family unification” phenomenon, which at its peak in 1995–2000 allowed thousands of Arab migrants to enter the country each year, has declined perceptibly due to legislation limiting it.

Future Trends
Looking into the future (toward 2030), we juxtapose two demographic scenarios: one pursuant to the Central Bureau of Statistics, and an original alternative scenario derived from the entire set of pervasive trends in recent years — a scenario that assumes a continued increase in Jewish fertility and the contraction of Muslim fertility.

According to the first scenario, the Jewish (and other) majority will narrow to around 76 percent by 2030 and Jewish (and other) children will account for fewer than 70 percent of all children in Israel. By contrast, in the alternative scenario, the erosion of the Jewish majority is gentler and Jews’ share in the population in 2030 is anticipated to come to 77 percent. The difference reflected by the long-term trend is more conspicuous. The proportion of Jewish and other children, in the second scenario, will be slightly higher in 2030, resembling the Muslim fertility rate. Thus, we are witnessing a possible change that may allow the balance of Jews and Arabs in Israel to stabilize in the long run.

A second aspect of these two projections concerns the continued proportionate growth of the Haredi population. By 2028, 15 percent of Israel’s population and more than 20 percent of its Jewish population are expected to be ultra-Orthodox. Even more salient is the projection that, among children, roughly one-third of the Jewish children will be Haredi.

Implications for Public Policy
Any public policy should ensure Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic, developed, and prosperous state that protects human rights and promotes the welfare of its residents and citizens. Israel will not be Jewish and democratic, let alone developed and prosperous, unless it has a stable Jewish majority that will facilitate stable majority–minority relations and an economy oriented to growth and development.

Three major actions may help to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority. The first is Jewish migration, including an effort to bring back to Israel emigrant Israelis and their families — a group that is estimated at more than half a million persons. External processes and a policy tailored to this population may influence thousands of people to return to Israel each year. Second is the continued reduction of Palestinian migration to Israel, especially following the 1990s family-unification policy and the subsequent amendment of the Citizenship Law, which limits such migration. And, third, reversing the annexation of Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem may buttress Israel’s Jewish majority and the Jewish complexion of its capital.

As it pursues the goals of democracy, welfare, prosperity, and the safeguarding of human rights, Israel also needs to develop civic cohesion and civic participation in national life while, of course, acknowledging the plurality of groups, nationalities, and cultures. To that end, we suggest a substantial cutback in allowances that will contribute to a decline in fertility among the country’s economically weak groups. Other suggestions: strengthening core studies in primary and secondary schools in the Haredi educational system; improving the quality of studies that confer knowledge and social-integration skills for Arab pupils; requiring national civic service for Haredim and Israeli Arabs in order to strengthen civic cohesion and future participation in the labor force; and, finally, encouraging labor-force participation, especially of those with the lowest participation rates — Arab women and Haredi men — in order to reduce the poverty rate.

We saw that two challenges operate simultaneously for Israel: how to maintain its Jewishness and concern for its future as a developed and prosperous state. Prosperity requires changes of policy regarding both Arabs and Jews. The Jewish majority has been eroding in recent years and is expected to continue eroding in the foreseeable future. Policies seeking to slow down that erosion are justified so long as such policies fall within the constraints required by upholding citizens’ and residents’ human rights. Accordingly, two contrasting views — that Israel is inevitably moving toward binationalism and that the current trends are not threatening the preservation of the Jewish majority — should be revisited and assessed with greater caution.

* This essay was adapted from the position paper “Demographic Trends in Israel” of the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought, Jerusalem (2009). To read the full report, visit

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Uzi Rebhun is a senior lecturer at the Avraham Harman Division of Jewish Demography and Statistics at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Gilad Malach, an expert in public policy and Jewish thought, specializes in religion-and-state issues and intergroup relations in Israel. He is currently writing a doctoral dissertation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on public policy strategies toward the ultra-Orthodox.

Ruth Gavison, founding president of the Metzilah Center, is the Haim Cohn Professor of Human Rights in the faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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