Almost half of the world's Jewish population live in Israel today. 75 years ago, it was only 6 percent. This is how it happened.
Dr Jonathan Boyd
24 April 2023
Dr Jonathan Boyd
24 April 2023
Few Jews today remember 14 May 1948. You have to be at least eighty to have any recall really, and considerably older for those recollections to be anything other than the memories of children. The day of the establishment of the State of Israel is rapidly approaching the moment when it passes from memory to history.
Walking through the streets of Israel today, it’s difficult to conceive of what the country was like on the eve of its independence. It had a Jewish population of just 630,000 at the time – about the same as the total population of Luxembourg today – and Jews comprised a third of the whole: there were about two Muslims to every Jew, alongside a small population of Christians. Today, it has a Jewish population of over 7 million, they comprise about 75 per cent of all Israeli citizens, and excluding the Palestinian populations of the West Bank and Gaza, Jews outnumber Muslims by about seven to two.
Israel’s place in the Jewish world has changed dramatically too. In May 1948, the Jewish population of Israel constituted just 6 per cent of all Jews worldwide, and was dwarfed by the communities in the Americas, which comprised half of the whole, and Europe which, even after the Holocaust, still made up about a third. Today 46 per cent of all Jews live in Israel, it is the single largest Jewish population centre worldwide, and that proportion rises every year.
The story of that growth actually begins well before 1948. The population living to the west of the River Jordan grew dramatically in the 150 years before the establishment of the State – climbing from 275,000 in 1800 to around 2 million by the time of the UN partition plan in November 1947. All religious groups grew there between those years – Jews, Muslims and Christians – but Jews more than others, albeit from a much lower base (7,000 in 1800, compared to 246,000 Muslims and 22,000 Christians). But greater changes occurred during the British Mandate (1922-48), when the Jewish population increased eightfold whilst the Christian and Muslim populations merely doubled, and the proportion of Jews in the country climbed from 11 to 32 per cent.
Yet even that change pales into insignificance next to the changes that occurred between 1948 and 1950. Between 625,000 and 750,000 Arabs were displaced by the 1948-49 war – most left areas under Israeli control for the West Bank or Gaza Strip, while the remainder largely settled in Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon – and it is these migrants who formed the basis of the Palestinian refugee population. At the same time, the new State of Israel opened its doors to a huge wave of new migrants – about half of them survivors of Nazi regimes, and the other half from parts of the Middle East or North Africa, where Jewish communities saw their economic and security situations collapse in the face of hostility from the Muslim majorities. Indeed, more Jewish migrants entered the new State of Israel between 1948 and 1950 than in any other equivalent period since. When the dust began to settle in 1950, there were 1.2 million Jews and 910,000 Muslims living in the territory to the West of the River Jordan, and for the first time since the first century of the Common Era, Jews comprised a majority in the area, albeit a slim one of about 55%. Within the armistice lines drawn after the 1948-49 war, which excluded the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, the proportion of Jews among the whole was much higher, reaching a peak of about 90% by the late 1950s, when the Jewish population had climbed to almost 2 million.
That growth, and a significant proportion of Jewish population growth thereafter, was driven by migration. Several waves occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – none on the scale seen in those first few years of the State, but all large enough to help drive the Jewish population up to close to 3.3 million by the late 1970s. Migration from the Soviet Union opened up briefly in the 1970s, and a wave of migration from the West occurred in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Jewish migration from the UK also peaked during this period – the four years between 1969 and 1972 each saw in excess of 1,000 British Jews making aliyah, something that has not be seen now for forty years.
The 1980s was a quieter period for migration, with one major exception: the arrival of 12,600 Ethiopian Jews between 1983 and 1985, followed by an even larger wave of close to 30,000 between 1989 and 1992. But the 1980s was marked by two factors that adversely affected immigration rates: the tightening of emigration rights for Soviet Jews, and an economic crisis in Israel which saw inflation hovering around 400 per cent in the early part of the decade. The result was that immigration dropped to its lowest levels since before the State; indeed, annual emigration counts trumped immigration several times that decade.
But the collapse of communism changed that. When the doors of the Soviet Union finally opened up, Soviet Jews fled in huge numbers, particularly in 1990 and 1991 when 375,000 arrived and overall immigration levels approached the heights reached in 1948-51. Whilst it fell after that, over a million Jews from the FSU arrived in Israel between 1990 and 2000, helping to enlarge the Jewish population of the country to 5 million by the turn of the century. Nothing so dramatic has occurred since, but there have been some notable spikes recently, from Argentina in 2002 in response to the economic crisis there, from France in 2014-17 following a series of terrorist atrocities against Jewish targets, and most significantly from Russia and Ukraine in 2022 in reaction to the war.
Of course, demographic change isn’t driven solely by migration. It is also affected by natural change – the balance between births and deaths; indeed, this has been the more significant factor driving Israeli population growth since the 1960s. That said, Jewish fertility levels in Israel fell gradually over time from about four children per woman in 1950 to just over 2.5 in the 1990s, but have risen since, and are now the highest in the world among developed countries, at a level of about 3.1. By contrast, Muslim levels climbed substantially with the establishment of the State, fluctuating between about 8.0 and 10.0 from the 1950s to mid-1970s, before falling dramatically thereafter, and are now very similar to the levels found among Jews. Nevertheless, because of differences in the overall age composition of Jews and Muslims, Muslims still have higher birth rates and lower death rates than Jews, and thus higher rates of natural increase. Yet fertility levels among Jews are being driven up by the growing haredi population in Israel, which currently comprises about 17 per cent of all Jews in the country and is projected to reach one-third by 2050.
What of the future? Today, Israel has a total population of 9.7 million, but it is projected to climb to about 15 million by the middle of this century, and potentially reach 20 million in the 2060s. The Jewish population of the country, which currently stands at about 7 million, is projected to double in size – at least – by 2065. The Israeli Arab population is also expected to grow, yet remain at around its current proportionate level of about one in five of the whole over that period. The haredi population is projected to reach the same level as the Israeli Arab population by the mid-2040s, and then start to exceed it.
The challenges facing such a rapidly growing population in such a small geographical area are clear. The simple need for more infrastructure and space – for housing, schools, hospitals, public transportation, agriculture – is self-evident. But in a neighbourhood in which the political, social, cultural and religious tensions are so volatile, population trends need to be monitored very closely – unanticipated events could knock projected trends off track, creating a very different future to the one currently predicted. Indeed, Jewish history has a habit of teaching us to expect the unexpected.
But today, as Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, there is much to celebrate about what has been achieved. Demographically, the total population has increased almost fivefold and the Jewish population over tenfold since 1947. The country has served as a haven for millions of Jews, and through the sheer force of its numbers, as a cultural beacon to the entire Jewish world. It has become profoundly precious to Jews everywhere, whether they recognise that or not – most Jews alive today have grown up with Israel as a reality rather than a dream, and its very existence has dramatically affected Jewish people’s sense of self in immeasurable ways. Indeed, the existence and development of the modern State of Israel could reasonably be claimed to be one of the greatest achievements of the entirety of Jewish history. The main challenge for the future is to keep it so.
Jonathan has been Executive Director of JPR since 2010, having previously held research and policy positions at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in...Read more