Over the course of 68 years of statehood, Israel has experienced far reaching demographic trends. The size and composition of the Israeli population changed unrecognizably. This reflects different demographic patterns among its major sub-groups. Demography should be viewed a paramount factor in planning and policy making that seeks to maintain the Jewish and democratic character of the country, in which the Jewish people materializes its right for self-determination as well as for keeping the country’s social and economic strength.
We believe the following ten observations are pivotal for understanding Israeli demography. Each of them has a practical implication. Of course, every intervention, whether governmental or otherwise, should carefully guaranty equality between groups and adhere to international principles of human rights. We suggest that informed policy be implemented by means of negotiation and careful attention to the needs of the groups at stake.
1) Population Size and Composition
The number of Israeli inhabitants is steadily on the rise. The pace of growth is mainly affected by trends in immigration to Israel and changes in fertility patterns. In the midst of these processes the equilibrium between the two major components of the population, Jews and non-Jews, has remained fairly stable. We consider individuals of “no religion,” namely immigrants who are not Halachically Jewish but were granted the right to settle in Israel under the Law of Return, as belonging to the Jewish population. Ways should be found to officially incorporate them into the Jewish group, chiefly through easing the conversion process.
The fertility level of Israeli Jews is high in comparison to other developed countries. Substantial differences exist between ultra-Orthodox, religious, and secular Jews. Because of the low number of children among secular women, and in light of recent empirical evidence that the intended number of children by secular woman is higher by one child than the actual level3,
we suggest exploring ways to encourage greater fertility among this group. Fertility level among Muslim women has diminished over time, and has pretty much converged with that of Jewish women; this is a major dimension of successful social integration of Arabs into the Israeli society.
3) Life Expectancy
The life expectancy of Israelis is growing. Jews, men and women alike, live longer than their respective non-Jewish counterparts. Life expectancy gaps between Jews and non-Jews have widened slightly over time. The life expectancy of non-Jews resembles that of Jews 15 years back. Attempts should be made to find the reasons for these variations and develop policies to gradually reduce these gaps. Such policies are likely to improve the quality of life of the non-Jewish inhabitants and strengthen their feeling of being equal citizens of the state.
The overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry today resides in developed and democratic countries. Overall, they are not exposed to any political, economic, or social oppression that might push them to leave their home countries and settle elsewhere. Yet, occasionally, different areas undergo political unrest or a shaking of the personal safety of their inhabitants, Jews included. Recently, this has been salient in Ukraine and France as well as in Turkey (although the number of Jews there is small). Agencies responsible for immigration to Israel should prepare for such opportunities by examining the needs and expectations of potential immigrants, and directing appropriate resources to encourage immigration and ensure successful absorption in Israel.
Although the number of Jews who leave the country is small, it is somewhat on the rise. We know from earlier studies that many of those who depart have the high human capital that comes with education and occupations in advanced technology and research. Recently, Israelis abroad have been making efforts to establish organizations and institutionalize their connection to Israel. The State of Israel should do more to assist young people in finding jobs that suit their professional qualifications, lower housing prices for young families, and diminish inter-group tensions in order to keep young Israelis in the country. Concurrently, the government should maintain ties with Israelis abroad and nurture their commitment to Israel.
6) Spatial Distribution
The spatial distribution of the Israeli population does not reveal special concerns. Major alterations in recent years have taken place in the core area of the country, namely the declining weight of Tel Aviv in favor of the Central district. To a large extent, the North and South districts, as well as Jerusalem, have maintained their share of the Jewish population. Yet, spatial planning should direct attention toward how to attract more Jews to the North, which is the only district that does not have a Jewish majority.
The educational attainment of the Israeli population is gradually improving. This is true for Jews and non-Jews alike. However, the pace of growth is faster among the former, hence gaps between the two groups are widening. More resources should be allocated to raising the educational level in the non-Jewish sector, including the rate of those attaining matriculation diplomas, which enable them to study in universities and colleges.
The Israeli population is expected to continue to increase over the next two decades. The non-Jewish population will grow slightly faster than the Jewish population. However, this will not cause a substantial change in the balance between the two groups. Attempts to enhance immigration to Israel and diminish emigration out from Israel will complement each other and strengthen the Jewish component of the population.
In the public debate, some claim geography is more important than demography, and that one should not interfere in processes underway within the city’s population, even at the price of losing a Jewish majority. Related to this, one should keep in mind that East Jerusalem’s Arabs can vote and run for city council seats as well as the mayorship. Until now, most have not chosen to exercise this right, but a change in approach, or a decision by the Palestinian leadership to participate in municipal elections, could bring a change to the face of the city council or even the mayor’s office.
Others, who wish to ensure and strengthen Jerusalem’s Jewish majority can examine two policy measures in different but complementary directions.
a) The first is to implement measures to reinforce or accelerate the trend narrowing the negative balance of internal migration, such as job creation and the availability of affordable housing – especially for younger graduates of the city’s academic institutions (in the spirit of the recent June 2, 2016 government decision on the occasion of Jerusalem Day). Related to this, the government should take steps to raise and ensure the quality of life for non-Jewish citizens, especially in East Jerusalem. Non-Jewish Jerusalemites must be better integrated into the city’s social, economic, and cultural fabric to ensure peace and quiet. Conditions such as these will retain more residents in the city and raise the appeal of Jerusalem to new populations.
To ensure that these changes help reduce the rate of out-migration from Jerusalem and increase the number of new residents, we recommend strengthening the image of Jerusalem as a safe, developing, pleasant and special place to live.
b) A different policy measure could be changing the municipal borders of Jerusalem either westward or eastward, without altering Israel’s sovereign status over these areas. Shifting the border westward by annexing existing Jewish towns; or shrinking the current municipal boundaries, for example along the current route of the security barrier, perhaps even moving it in order to shift a number of Arab neighborhoods and villages to its eastern side.
Of course any unilateral step that would remove tens of thousands of Arab residents from the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem would need to be well conceived and implemented in a cautious manner to safeguard employment status, welfare rights, and the ability to maintain connections with relatives who will continue to reside within Jerusalem proper. Moreover, moves such as these must be cognizant of relevant political and security considerations.
10) Jerusalem and Diaspora Jewry
It is also important to take into account the viewpoint of Diaspora Jewry, much of which supports a united Jerusalem and would likely favor a Jewish-majority Jerusalem. While Diaspora Jewry holds little connection to the neighborhoods on the eastern side of the security fence, they see this physical barrier and its implications on the daily life and living conditions of the Arab residents, as something that does not sit well with their often-liberal views. A policy that would strengthen the Jewish majority of Jerusalem while improving the life of the non-Jewish population could receive greater support from world Jewry, and could even help strengthen its identification with Israel.
In recent years, we have witnessed meaningful changes in the cultural and leisure life of the city. The public spaces of Jerusalem have become more accessible and appropriate to a young population, and for families with children from all sectors, including the secular. This is praiseworthy and should continue.
In sum, judged by different complementary measures, we assess that Israeli demography is developing in positive directions. Still, several areas require interventions that will strengthen the Jewish character of the country in general and its capital city in particular. Equality between Jews and non-Jews should be enhanced. We believe that the targets presented above and the proposed means to achieve them could be embraced by the overwhelming majority of Israel’s citizenry.