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The Intricacies of Israeli Demographics

Updated: 6 days ago



Israel is a land that has against all odds, transformed challenges into triumphs. Despite social tensions, internal crises and an uninterrupted series of wars, the Israelis have built a common national conscience between hundreds of thousands of exiled immigrants from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. They assured food safety by reclaiming the deserts and the malaria-afflicted swamps and through continuous innovations in the agritech industry transformed a land where just 20% of the soil is arable into a significant exporter of fresh produce. Israel became a democratic country, a hub for innovation, and a nation that, despite its incongruences, remains a complete outlier in the Middle East. But ultimately it is not external but internal threats that could successfully throw a wrench in the works of this well-oiled machine as a new challenge will put Israel to the test in the following years: demography.
Of Israel's population of 9.8 million, Jews constitute 73.5%, Israeli Arabs a further 21%, and the remaining 5.5% primarily comprises of non-Jewish foreign workers, mainly from Africa and Southeast Asia. However, if one considers the aggregate population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jews become slightly less than half of the population. This trend has been ongoing for decades and up until the early 2000, Jews had been the relative majority in the area, forming 55% of Historic Palestine's grand total population in the year 2000 (1).

The decline is notably influenced by the trajectory of Jewish migration to Israel in Aliyah. There is a discernible decrease in the overall influx, with sporadic increases primarily attributed to impactful events that amplify feelings of insecurity among Jewish communities in other nations. Notably, the surge in French Jewish emigration can be attributed to incidents such as terrorist attacks and recent cases of widespread anti-Semitism in the region. Similarly, a growing number of Russian and Ukrainian Jews have been seeking refuge in Israel amidst the ongoing conflict, finding it a sanctuary from the dangers of war.

Another factor is the historic difference in fertility rates between the Jewish and Arab populations. For decades, demographers have warned that the higher fertility of its Arab citizens would have threatened the existence of Israel as a "Jewish State." Important figures in the Palestine Liberation Organization praised this trend, and Yasser Arafat stated: "The womb of the Arab woman will be our strongest weapon against the Zionists."

Israel had been continuously facing the following trilemma for those two reasons until the most recent years. It can not have at the same time a solid Jewish majority, all the lands it conquered in 1967, and a full democracy that doesn't discriminate against its Arab citizens.


The Recent Changes

However, something entirely unexpected by demographers happened: "For the first time in Israel's history, 2020 saw the fertility rate of Jewish women surpass that of their Arab counterparts"(2).

Fertility rates in Israel by group, religion and year:

Year
Jewish women
Arab women
 
 
 
 
Total
Muslims
Christians
Druze
1995
3
418.00%
4.69
2.69
3.5
2005
3
372.00%
4.03
2.19
2.59
2010
3
351.00%
3.75
2.17
2.47
2015
3
313.00%
3.32
2.04
2.19
2019
3.09
298.00%
3.16
1.76
2.02

Data from Israel Democracy Institutes


The Israel Democracy Institute associates the shift in fertility rates the average number of children born to women of childbearing age) among the Israeli Arab population with the increasing integration of the Arabic component within the broader Israeli populace. Data show how Arab's wages and quality of life have increased in the past twenty years. Moreover, the percentage of Arab undergraduates studying in Israeli academic institutions rose from 10% (22,268) in the 2009–2010 academic year to 18.3% (43,454) in 2019–2020, and between 2001 and 2018 Arab women's employment rate of almost doubled, climbing from 19.8% to 38.2%.

The rise in education levels among Arab-Israeli women and increased occupational engagement can be construed as outcomes of what historians call the "second phase of the demographic transition." As investments per child, primarily in education, escalate, and the opportunity cost for women not participating in the workforce rises, there is a concurrent decrease in the total fertility rate within the population.
Hence, we can conclude that in the future, Israel will see steady population growth, thanks to its total fertility rate of 3.01 children born / woman and that the balance between the Jewish and Arab populations won't change since we have seen a convergence between the two populations' statistics. Moreover, we can claim that the more the Israeli government intervenes to raise Arab Israeli quality of life and close the still-existing gap between them and Jewish citizens, the more this trend of convergence will be reinforced.


The Great Demographic Divergence

While the past twenty years have seen a steady convergence in the fertility rate for Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis, a new trend has become increasingly significant for our analysis. Fertility rates inside the Jewish population are diverging, with the most religious sub-groups of the people displaying much higher fertility rates, as clearly portrayed in the graph:


It can be deduced that Israeli women who exhibit a higher level of religiosity and lower secular tendencies are more inclined to have a larger number of offspring. Moreover, the increase in the fertility rate for Jewish Israelis is mainly due to the rise in the fertility of Haredi women.

It can be inferred that even if the number of Jews will increase over time, the secular component will decrease in relative terms, with the more religious gradually substituting the seculars as the bulk of the population. This holds significant implications, particularly considering Israel's historical roots as a nation founded by secular, socialist Jews who perceived Judaism more as a globally threatened ethnicity rather than a religion. A decline in the proportion of Israelis with secular heritage in the population introduces a fundamental shift between the architects of the state of Israel and its future inhabitants.

Such a transformation has the potential to redefine the essence of Judaism and consequently reshape the role of Israel as the singular Jewish-majority nation. Hence, we can establish how a population-substitution that could change the core values of the country comes not from its Palestinian-ancestry component but from within the Jewish one.


Prayers vs Productivity

With a stunning fertility rate of 6.6 and a yearly growth rate of 4% (2022 data), the Haredim population continues to grow at an extraordinary rate. In 2022, the Haredi population numbered approximately 1,280,000, up from 750,000 in 2009 and constituting 13.3% of Israel's total population. According to forecasts by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), its relative size is expected to reach 16% in 2030, and it will number two million people by 2033.

Moreover, their size becomes more relevant if one considers just the younger generations. Even though Haredim are just 13% of the population, their offspring make up 19% of Israeli children under the age of 14, and 24% of those under the age of four (data from 2022).
The Haredi (or Ultra-Orthodox) Jews believe in a complete detachment from the "Worldly Society"; they shun the use of the internet and telecommunication as well as the military service and nonreligious school curricula. Only 8.5% of Haredi students attended higher education in 2022, compared with 33.5% of other Jews and 18.3% of Arab pupils.

These figures pose an extreme threat to a nation that has cultivated its economic standing as one of the foremost hubs of innovation and technology worldwide. According to the 2023 report from the Israel Innovation Authority, the high-tech sector plays a pivotal role in the country's economy, contributing to 18% of its GDP. It has emerged as the fastest-growing sector over the last decade, witnessing a doubling of total exports with productivity 90% higher than the national average and experiencing rapid workforce expansion.

The evident takeaway is straightforward: any underperformance in Israel's high-tech sector would have profound repercussions on the entire national economy.


Conclusion

Almost a quarter of Israeli children under the age of four now come from an ultra-orthodox family and will be exposed to a cultural background that doesn't necessarily value the concept of a secular state, education, scientific research, and innovativeness, all pillars of the foundations of Israel.

While Arab Israelis are slowly "closing the gap" with the rest of the Israeli population (with increasing education and employment levels), the Jewish Haredim will most likely be an outlier, ultimately changing the society as whole due to their extremely high fertility rate.

As ominously stated by Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute: "If 10% of Israelis live the way the ultra-Orthodox live, the state can handle that. But if it's 25%, that's a great economic and even social challenge. The state will collect less taxes and needs that money to pay for health, infrastructure, and security." 

As reported by the Shoresh Institute, 92% of the total income tax is contributed by just a fifth of the population, up from 83% in 2000. This significant segment comprises highly educated and skilled Israelis, among whom many are opting to emigrate. Notably, in 2014, there were 2.8 Israelis with academic degrees leaving for each one returning. By 2018, this ratio had escalated to 4.1.

Not only is Israel losing its core taxpayers (both through demographic substitution and emigration), but most of its future generations will not have the same predisposition towards the high-tech industry of the generations that built the silicon wadi. Moreover, Israel risks facing a future with a complete asymmetry between its core taxpayers of secular or moderately religious people, and a growing conservative and hyper-religious population that will acquire ever-growing political power and influence through its exceptional demography.

Israel has prospered against all odds, facing continuous adversities: wars, draughts, economic crisis, hyperinflation; but all those adversities faced the people of Israel as a collective, and the Israelis found their strength in the contradistinctive communal identity they are characterized by.  But will they now be able to fight an internal enemy that divides rather than unites them?


Sources

DellaPergola, S. (2003). Demographic Trends in Israel and Palestine: Prospects and Policy Implications. The American Jewish Year Book, 103, 3–68. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23605541.pdf?refreqid=fastly-default%3A5e2226b4c61d817004baed34e92680f7&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&origin=&initiator=&acceptTC=1


Staff, T. (n.d.). Israel’s birthrate trended downward in 2020, statistics bureau says. The Times of Israel.



In Israel, birth rates are converging between Jews and Muslims. (n.d.). The Economist. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2022/08/18/in-israel-birth-rates-are-converging-between-jews-and-muslims


As Israel turns 75, its biggest threats now come from within. (n.d.). The Economist. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2023/04/27/as-israel-turns-75-its-biggest-threats-now-come-from-within


Statistical Report on Arab Society in Israel :2021. (2022). https://en.idi.org.il/articles/38540


Staff, T. (n.d.). Arab Israelis have less income, die younger than Jewish peers, data shows. The Times of Israel.


Fertility of Jewish and Other Women in Israel, by Level of Religiosity 1979–2020. (n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2024, from 


How the haredi Orthodox are changing Israel. (2021, March 10). Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 


The State of High-Tech. (n.d.). 


Insights from Shoresh Institution findings. (n.d.). Shoresh.institute. Retrieved January 17, 2024, https://shoresh.institute/insights.html


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