The thoughts and writings of the founding Zionists on one hand, and the history of Israel on the other, are interwoven in three central demographic goals: Aliyah – the mass immigration of Jews to Israel; shifting the demographic center of gravity of world Jewry from the Diaspora to Israel; and ensuring a Jewish majority in the State of Israel. Reviewing the trends within each of these components over the course of the last 70 years points to considerable achievements. At the same time, it raises challenges and decisions policy makers in Israel and the Jewish world will have to face.
Since Israel’s establishment until today, more than three million Jews have made Aliyah. Throughout this period, Israel has become the central destination for international Jewish migration. Out of a total Diaspora population that numbered 10.5 million Jews in 1948 and today stands at about 8 million,1 roughly a third chose to leave their places of birth and settle in Israel.
Most of this Aliyah was comprised of Jews from areas in distress, including the remnants of European Jewry, and Jews from Islamic countries and the former Soviet Union, who together make up about 85 percent of all immigrants to Israel. These Jews were mostly pushed out of their home countries by harsh political, economic, or social conditions. The remainder, a relatively small 15 percent, arrived in Israel from Western Europe, North America and Oceania, and were motivated primarily by Zionist and religious considerations.
These trends greatly diminished, and in some cases emptied out the Jewish communities in countries hostile to Israel and to Jews, and in countries with un-democratic regimes and unstable political climates. Thus, the majority of Diaspora Jews today live in developed and advanced countries, where they enjoy full equality and belong to the highest socio-economic strata.
Noted that part of the addition to Israel’s population from Aliyah is offset by out-migration of Jews from Israel (including immigrants who return to their countries of origin or move to a third country, and native-born Israelis). Since the establishment of the country, some 700,000 Israeli Jews have left Israel. Despite that some of them have since passed away, there are still over half a million Israelis living abroad. The challenge from Israel’s perspective is not only associated with the size of this group but also that many of those who leave Israel possess high levels of educational achievement and professional skills.
Table 1. Migration to and from Israel, 1948-2018
|Immigration to Israel||3 million|
|From distressed countries||85%|
|From advanced countries||15%|
|Emigration from Israel||685,000|
Source: CBS, Statistical Abstracts; Monthly Bulletin of Statistics (numbers rounded)
Israel – Diaspora
In 1948, three years after the Holocaust, there were 11 million Jews in the world. By early 2018, that number had risen to 14.6 million.2 This increase was not divided evenly between the two parts of world Jewry – Israel and the Diaspora. One explanation for this non-uniform growth is Aliyah to Israel, which was considerably higher than the level of emigration from Israel. Fertility is another factor; today, on average, Jewish women in Israel produce three children whereas Jewish women in the Diaspora produce an average of 1.5 children. Another factor that helps explain the decrease in size of Diaspora Jewry is assimilation, whether by official conversion or simply identifying with another religion.
At Israel’s founding, its Jewish population accounted for 6 percent of world Jewry. Israel’s share rose to 20 percent by 1970, 37 percent by 2000, and today comprises 45 percent of the world’s Jews. In other words, the majority of the world’s Jews still live outside of Israel. However, if current demographic trends of Israeli and diaspora Jews continue, we project that Israel will be home to over half of world Jewry by 2030 (Table 2).
It is notable that until around 1995, the American Jewish community was the largest single community in the world. Since then, five decades after its founding, Israel holds this title. Israel is not yet home to most of the world’s Jews but, as noted above, it is expected to be so by its 80th anniversary celebration.
Table 2. World Jewish Population by Geographic Area – 1948-2030
|Total (N, in Million) 100%||(11.2) 100%||(12.5) 100%||(13.2) 100%||(15.5) 100%|
DellaPergola, S., Rebhun, U., Tolts, M. “Prospecting the Jewish Future: Population Projections, 2000-2080”. American Jewish Year Book, 2000, pp. 103-146; DellaPergola, S. “World Jewish Population, 2018”. American Jewish Year Book 2018. A Dashefsk and I. Sheskin (eds.). Dordrecht: Springer (forthcoming).
Jews and Non-Jews in Israel
Since its founding, Israel’s total population has grown from 806,000 to 8.84 million. The growth rate of the Jewish and non-Jewish populations differed, but not to a degree that significantly affected the ratio between the two populations. Thus, Israel’s Jewish majority stood at 82 percent in 1948 and today stands at 79 percent.3 The Jewish population includes non-Jewish immigrants eligible under the Law of Return (classified as “with no religion”), who even if not halachically Jewish, have undergone a “sociological conversion,”4 as well as residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The components of change in the Jewish population (including for “those with no religion”) include the international migration balance and natural growth. Conversely, the non-Jewish population of Israel is affected only through natural growth. According to projections conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics (“a medium scenario”), in the foreseeable future, by 2030, the ratio of Jews to non-Jews within the “Green Line” will remain fairly stable (77 percent Jews, and 23 percent non-Jews).5 In other words, the demographic patterns of the two populations ensure a solid Jewish majority.
However, when taking into account the Palestinian population of the West Bank, the ratio of Jews to non-Jews changes significantly. According to a 2017 census conducted by the Palestinian Authority, the territory it defined as the “West Bank” was home to 2.9 million individuals. After removing East Jerusalem residents from these statistics, as they were already counted in Israel’s population statistics, we reach a number of 2.5 million Palestinians residing in the West Bank. Taken together with the non-Jewish (Arab) residents within Israel (1.8 million), the number of non-Jews in the territory of Israel and the West Bank combined reaches 4.3 million, or 38.5 percent of the total population of this area.6
Table 3. Jews and Non-Jews in Israel and the West Bank
|State of Israel||Israel + West Bank|
|Total||(11.2) 100%||(12.5) 100%|
|(numbers)||(8.6 million)||(11.1 million)|
Source: Sergio DellaPergola. 2017. “World Jewish Population, 2017”. American Jewish Year Book, 2017, pp. 297-377
Israel’s thinking and planning on demographic policy requires a new approach in order to attract a large number of Diaspora Jews from developed and advanced countries. At the same time, in order to reduce emigration from Israel and its influence, Israel must make special efforts to ensure the successful absorption of immigrants, which will reduce the rate of those returning to their countries of origin. It must further increase economic opportunities and improve the quality of life in Israel for those at risk of leaving the country and find appropriate incentives for Israelis living abroad to encourage them to return. Successfully coping with these challenges, in any case, will accelerate Israel’s becoming the largest Jewish community in the world. However, Israel will still face the challenge of ensuring it remains Jewish and democratic under conditions of controlling over the areas within its sovereign borders together with the West Bank.
1 Sergio DellaPergola. 2018. World Jewish Population “2018”. American Jewish Year Book 2018. A. Dashefsy and I. Shaeskin (eds.). Dordrecht: Springer (forthcoming).
3 CBS, Statistical Abstracts, various years.
4 For the term “sociological conversion”, see (in Hebrew): Cohen, Asher, Non-Jewish Jews in Israel: Jewish Israeli Identity and the Challenge of Jewish National Expansion. Jerusalem and Ramat-Gan: Shalom Hartman Institute, Bar-Ilan University, Keter Publishing, 2006. “Those without religion” make up 4.5% of Israel’s total population.
5 CBS, Statistical Abstract, 2016.
6 Occasionally, we hear criticism whereby the statistics of Palestinians residing in the West Bank are purposefully inflated. These critics claim that these statistics include Palestinians residing abroad, as well as deceased individuals who have not yet been removed from the population registry. We have no reason to support this claim; especially given the fact that the Palestinian Authority itself slightly corrected (reduced) the original census results. We further note that if someone chooses to reduce the number of Palestinians in the West Bank by half a million, the ratio of Jews to non-Jews in the area of Israel and the West Bank together will be 64% to 36%, respectively.