Israel has got a reputation of a ‘small country’. Understandably so: it has a small size territory. That territory-based imagery, however, interferes with proper understanding of Israel’s place in the world, as a social and political entity. Israel is not small when seen through the lens of population size, rather than territory. And population size matters no less, arguably more, than the size of the territory. Populations are engines of creativity, innovation and wealth. Population size, in modern times as much as in the past, determines the size of markets that businesses can target, and it also determines the number of producers of goods, services and ideas. Population size accounts for the size and importance of ‘the culture’ in the broadest possible sense, on the global scene: the number of speakers of a certain language; the number of producers and consumers of art, literature and politics in that language; the number of the followers of a certain religion and a system of values. Lest us forget: population size, in a very straightforward manner, determines the number of people who can be mustered to defend that culture and the country and polity it resides in, i.e. the size of the army. To sum up, cultural prominence and political power are a function of population size too.
Why to talk about it today? For a very good reason. Just recently Israel reached another population jubilee. Entirely unnoticed, at the height of the parliamentary election campaign in March 2019, Israeli population crossed the 9 million mark. The official population estimates, produced by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), lag a little behind the actual events. This is natural, it takes times to receive and process data on all births, deaths, and immigrants to and from Israel – in short, all types of population movements, or ‘flows’, as the statisticians call them, that build the population. The latest population accounts for the end of February 2019, published by the CBS in its ‘Monthly Bulletin of Statistics’, set the total population of Israel at 8,995,200 people. Given that, on average, about 14,000 people have been added to the Israeli population every month in the course of 2017-2018, the next population figure, for the end of March 2019, is expected to be slightly in excess of 9,000,000.
And how is it that ‘Israel is not small’? What is a ‘small’ and ‘big’ population size anyhow in the global family of nations? Let us embed Israel into Europe – possibly, its closest cultural and economic match – and see. The population of 9 million makes Israel bigger than Austria, Switzerland, Ireland and a whole bunch of Scandinavian countries. Has anyone thought of them as ‘small’? An illustration showing the European population sizes around 2019 conveys this point graphically. When Israel is compared to 44 countries of Western and Eastern Europe, its population size fits in the proverbial ’good place in the middle’, with 27 countries being smaller and 17 countries bigger than Israel.
Russia, Germany, United Kingdom and France are the major European and world players, and they are also the population ‘giants’: their respective populations are all in excess of 60 million people. This size, however, is not a European norm. Quite a few European countries, about one third of them in fact, each have 5-11 million people, and Israel fits well into this medium-size country club. In the European hierarchy of population sizes, it is ‘flanked’ by Sweden, Belarus and Hungary at the top, and Austria, Serbia and Switzerland at the bottom. At the same time, Israel is very far from the smallest European countries, such as Luxembourg, Iceland or Malta – those with the population size of under one million. Next time you are asked to think of a ‘small country’, in population terms, Ireland and Finland – countries that usually do not feature as ‘small’ in popular mind – would make a better example than Israel.
Further, Israel’s future in the European populations club is that of a rapid increase in importance. Most populations of the former members of the communist bloc, both the former Soviet countries (eg Latvia and Lithuania) and the larger group of the former Soviet satellites (eg Hungary and Romania), are decreasing in size. This is expected to continue for a while, at least till the mid-21st century. The situation in the European South, namely Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, is similar. Populations of Western Europe shows signs of moderate growth, and they are expected to grow at 0.2%-0.6% per year in the next thirty years or so. Israel’s current and projected growth rates are in excess of 1.5% per year, an unmatched level in this context. This means only one thing: in the next 20 years or so Israel will leave its current neighbourhood of population sizes and move into the category appearing deceptively distant at present: that of countries with populations numbering 11-30 million people. The medium variant of the population projection for Israel for year 2040, published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, indicates there will be over 13 million Israelis at that time. Thus, by 2040, Israel would leave behind not just Belarus and Hungary, its nearest numerically superior neighbours today, but also Greece and, quite possibly, Sweden and Belgium as well. Israel is not so small then and getting bigger not only in absolute but in relative terms as well– a surprisingly novel demographic and political point to comprehend.