Article Library / 2016

2016 Annual Assessment


The fertility patterns of the Israeli population, measured here by the average number of children woman is expected to have over her life course (Total Fertility Rate), differs between Jews and non-Jews, and within each group by religious and ethnic affiliations. Likewise, fertility patterns are not constant and change over time. The number of children is affected, among other things, by educational attainment, employment status, level of religiosity, and familial characteristics such as age at marriage and stability of family.

When the state was founded each Israeli Jewish woman had, on average, 3.1 children (Figure 3.1). Shortly thereafter, the fertility level increased to 4 children largely due to the addition of a large number of immigrants from Asia and North Africa (Sephardim) who had large families (of 5-6 children). As time progressed, the Sephardic Jews gradually converged to the lower fertility level of their counterpart of European origin (Ashkenazim) who had, on average, 3 children. This tendency was not disrupted, albeit it was slowed by additional waves of immigration from North Africa. Overall, Jewish fertility in Israel diminished to 3 children in the second half of the 1970s, and further to 2.8 children on the eve of the large exodus from the Soviet Union.

Figure 3.1. Total Fertility Rate among Jewish Women in Israel, 1948-2014 (Selected Years)

Adopted from: CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel, Selected Years.
Adopted from: CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel, Selected Years.

The large number of FSU immigrants, on the one hand, and their low level of fertility on the other, affected the average Jewish fertility, which reached an all time low point of 2.6 children in the last decade of the 20th century. The recently observed slight increase in fertility among Israeli women of Soviet background, along with the increased share of the religious and Haredi sub-groups, explain the addition of half a child to the total fertility rate of Israeli Jews, which stood at 3.1 at the beginning of 2015. Thus, over time, there have been fluctuations in the average number of children per Jewish woman as a result of large waves of immigration and different fertility patterns according to areas of origin; processes of convergence to similar patterns after settling in Israel and especially among their offspring; and compositional changes of the Israeli Jewish population resulting from an increase in the proportion of people with a strong religious orientation. After all these ups and downs, the fertility level of Israeli Jews today is similar to the level when the state was founded.

As suggested, the Jewish fertility level has recently been on the rise. No less important is the fact that it stands above replacement level (2.1 children per woman). This means that Jewish natural movement is positive in Israel, and that young age groups are larger than older age groups, hence population growth. This differentiates the Israeli Jewish population from other Western societies in Europe and North America where fertility levels are at the replacement threshold or below it. Likewise, the fertility level of all Jewish sub-groups in Israel is higher than the average fertility level in Diaspora communities.

Level of fertility varies by religiosity (Figure 3.2). In 2012-14 the average number of children for Haredi woman was 6.9, 4.2 for religious woman, 3 for traditional-religious, 2.6 for traditional-not very religious, and 2.1 (replacement level) among secular women. Trends over time suggest some diminishing in Haredi fertility, and a concurrent increase among the other sub-groups (the religious, traditional-religious, traditional-not very religious, and secular). Notably, there have been periods in the past when the fertility of Haredi women had declined but later reversed itself and increased once again. In the past 35 years, Haredi fertility has ranged between a low of 6 children to a high of 7.5 children. The increase in the number of children among secular women reflects a return to the level that characterized this group on the eve of the large influx of immigrants from the FSU in the 1990s. Still, Haredi fertility is three times higher than that of secular women, and fertility among the religious is twice as high as among the secular. Hence, sub-groups within the Israeli Jewish sector have increased at a different pace, which has strengthened the weight of Haredi and religious Jews.

Figure 3.2. Fertility Rates among Jewish Women in Israel, by Religiosity, 1980-2013

Adopted from: Ahmad Halil, Fertility among Jewish Women in Israel, by Level of Religiosity, 1979-2014. Jerusalem, CBS, Series of Technical Papers.
Adopted from: Ahmad Halil, Fertility among Jewish Women in Israel, by Level of Religiosity, 1979-2014. Jerusalem, CBS, Series of Technical Papers.

As Jewish fertility has risen, the fertility of other Israeli groups has diminished (Figure 3.3). This process is especially salient among Muslims: in the early 1960s Muslim women, on average, gave birth to 9 children, by mid-1980s this rate had declined to 5 children, and to less than 3.5 in 2015. Among Druze, fertility has declined from 7.5 children in the first half of the 1960s to 2.2 children today; and among Christians the change was from 4.7 to 2.3 children in the same period. The contradictory trends among Jews and Muslims has totally masked the substantial differentials between the two groups of the past. Yet, because of the past high Muslim fertility, this population has a very young age composition and hence grows faster than the Jewish population. Jewish fertility is higher (by about one child) than that of the Druze or Christians.

Figure 3.3. Total Fertility Rates of Muslims, Christians, and Druze Women in Israel, 1960-2014

Adopted from: CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2015.
Adopted from: CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2015.


While fertility contributes to population increase, mortality exits people out. The balance between births and deaths determines natural movement. The death rates are affected by life expectancy, that is the average number of years a person is expected to live, as well as by the age composition of the population: the older the population the higher its mortality rates. Life expectancy reflects the level of medical services, the quality of the environment, and lifestyles that expose people to illness and risk of death.

Life expectancy differs for men and women. Women live longer than men. Gender differences are partly explained by genetics, and partly by different social, work, and health behaviors. Likewise, in any given country there may be life expectancy differences along racial, ethnic, or religious lines as well as those related to socio-economic stratification and cultural behaviors.

Israel is defined as a developed country and is notable for the longevity of its citizens. Life expectancy is steadily on the rise (Figure 3.4). Since 1970, the life expectancy of Jewish men and women has increased by approximately ten years: from 70.6 to 80.8 years for men, and from 73.8 to 84.1 years for women. Notably, the gender gap has remained fairly unchanged, and is among the lowest in the West.

Figure 3.4. Life Expectancy of Israeli Population, by Religion and Gender, 1970-2014

Adopted from: CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2015.
Adopted from: CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2015.

Life expectancy among non-Jews has also increased: among men – from 68.5 years in the early 1970s to 77 years today, and among women – from 71.9 to 81.0 years in the same period. The pace of increase in life expectancy was faster among Jews than among non-Jews. Hence, the gaps between the two groups have widened since 1970: among men – from a 2.1 year gap in favor of Jews to 3.8 today; and among women, from 1.9 in 1970 to 3.1 years today. This gap widening between Jews and non-Jews happened despite the fact that in the 1990s a large number of FSU immigrants arrived in Israel with significantly lower life expectancies than the veteran Jewish population. The life expectancy of non-Jewish men and women today is similar to that of their Jewish counterparts some 15 years ago.

International Migration

Since its founding, Israel has absorbed some three million people. Immigration to Israel has not been evenly distributed across the years, rather it has been characterized by a repeating wave-like pattern of periods of high immigrant numbers followed by periods with lower immigrant numbers (Figure 3.5). Within these ups and downs, there have been two salient waves: between mid-1948 and the end of 1951 (“mass immigration”), which brought to Israel 687,000 men and women; and the second wave between 1990 and 1994, in which slightly more than 600,000 immigrants settled in Israel. Because of the substantial increase in the size of the Jewish population over the first 40 years of statehood, the relative contribution of each of the waves, despite their similar absolute numbers, is very different: while the first wave doubled the size of the Israeli Jewish population, the second wave increased the Jewish population by 20 percent.

Figure 3.5. Immigration to Israel, 1948-2015

Adopted from CBS, Statistical Abstract, 2015.
Adopted from CBS, Statistical Abstract, 2015.

Following the mass immigration immediately after statehood, there were two additional waves, though much smaller, in the mid-1950s and in the first half of the 1960s that mainly brought Jews who had remained in east and central Europe and in North African countries. A relatively large number of immigrants arrived once again between 1968 and 1973; in the main, they were Jews from North America and west Europe motivated by Zionist passion in light of Israel’s victory and the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. Some immigrants also arrived at that time from central European Communist satellite states. Later in the 1970s, the Soviet Union allowed a limited number of Jews to emigrate, some of whom settled in Israel. In 1983 and 1991, Israel absorbed two large waves of immigrants from Ethiopia, which brought most of the Jewish community there. After the termination of the large FSU influx in the 1990s, the annual number of immigrants stabilized at the range of 15-25,000 people which includes Jews as well as non-Jewish kin that meet the criteria of the Law of Return. In last two years, the number of immigrants has increased chiefly due to the enhanced flow from France and Ukraine.

Concurrent with immigration, others, known as yordim (descenders), have chosen to leave the country. We do not know the exact number of Israelis who have left permanently. The available data relate to people who left Israel and didn’t return after one year abroad. This information can’t provide a real picture of the phenomenon of emigration from Israel and might be even misleading. On one hand, Israelis who settled abroad permanently but visit Israel frequently and are therefore no longer counted as emigrants; on the other hand, the data include people who traveled abroad for a relatively long period, for example to study, without visiting Israel but nevertheless intend to return. Notably, some of the emigrants are, in fact, return migrants i.e., Jews who immigrated to Israel and later decided either to return to their home country or move to a third country. Typically, the number of emigrants increases after each wave of new comers.

From 1948 to today 674,500 Jewish inhabitants left the country. If we divide this period into intervals of 10 to 12 years each, we see: a large emigration out of the country in the first dozen years of statehood (some 100,000 people); between 1971 and 1982 (133,000 emigrants); and a peak of emigrants between 1983 and 1995 of slightly more than 200,000. It stands to reason that large numbers of emigrants are associated with unsuccessful absorption of recently arrived immigrants. Also, in the last half of the 1990s through 2008, a substantial number of people (129,000) chose to leave the country, including some who had arrived from the FSU a few years earlier.

In each of the years from 2010 to 2013, approximately 16,000 people emigrated from Israel (Figure 3.6). At the same time, in each of these years, an estimated 10,000 Israelis returned back home. Hence, the negative balance between emigre and returning Israelis (who lived abroad for a continuous period of one year or more) ranges between 5,000 and 7,000 every year. During this period, there was a gradual increase in the negative balance of Israeli migration: a net loss of 5,400 in 2010, 6,700 in 2011, 7,100 in 2012, and 7,300 in 2013 (or an increase of one third between 2010 and 2013). This is a rate of growth in net migration much higher than the rate of increase of the size of the Israeli population.

Figure 3.6. Emigration, Return Migration, and Migration Balance of Israelis Who Stayed Abroad for a Continious Period of One Year or More, 2010-2013

Adopted from CBS, Statistical Abstract, 2015.
Adopted from CBS, Statistical Abstract, 2015.

It is worth noting that 41 percent of the emigrants were between the ages of 20 and 39, and another 32 percent were children. Thus, approximately three-forths of the emigrants were singles or young families, disrupting the most (re)productive age cohorts and those expected to carry the civic burden of military service (both mandatory and reserve duty).