Israel’s changing demographics and the future

There are some interesting trends in Israel’s demography that have gone largely unnoticed despite the potential impact they may have on the country’s future. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics and a report on settlement population derived from the CBS by Yaakov Katz on present an interesting picture of Israel’s present.

Did you know, for example that the proportion of Israel’s population that is Jewish has been declining since 1960?

In the 1950s and early 60s, Jews comprised nearly 90% of the population. Today, the figure is 74.3%. What makes this figure particularly startling is that the influx of roughly one million Jews from the former Soviet Union has, at best, only staved off a larger decline. This trend has also continued despite the oft-publicized Haredi birthrate (which increased their proportion of the population from 10% to 12% since 2009).

Meanwhile, the Muslim population has increased from less than 10% to 18%.

The good news is that Israel’s overall population has grown from 806,000 in 1948 to nearly 9 million today. This is especially remarkable given that British officials repeatedly said throughout the mandate period that the population at the time was straining the “absorptive capacity” of the land, an excuse they used to restrict Jewish immigration.

Those who argue that immigration will spare Israel the demographic dilemma it would face if it annexed the West Bank must be dispirited by the numbers, even from countries where anti-Semitism is spiking. Rather than emigrate en masse, for example, the number of French newcomers was only 2,660 in 2018, down 25% from the year before. The high water mark for immigration (after the initial influx in 1949) was 1990 when nearly 200,000 people arrived. Last year the figure was 30,300 – and 60% of them were not halachically Jewish.

The Jewish population of Judea and Samaria has also undergone interesting changes. The most dramatic is the sheer number of settlers, which today is nearly 450,000. That is more than double the number at the time Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state in 97% of the West Bank. When Menachem Begin offered them autonomy only about 10,000 Jews lived in the territories.

When Barak made his offer in 2000, the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in settlement blocs that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed would be annexed to Israel. Today, only 58% do. At that time, a large percentage of the settlements had fewer than 500 people. Today, despite media images of handfuls of Jews on hilltops, only 26% are that size.

If Israel withdrew from only these settlements in a future peace agreement, it would uproot 34 communities with a population of nearly 10,000. Think about the turmoil surrounding the disengagement when 17 communities with roughly the same number of people were evacuated.

But wait, 23 of these small settlements, plus 4 others, may not be abandoned because they are in the Jordan Valley, which Netanyahu has insisted remain under Israeli control.

Today, six settlements in the West Bank have more than 10,000 inhabitants; Modi’in Illit alone has nearly 75,000. These are within the consensus blocs and would never be evacuated. Altogether 37 communities are within these blocs.

So let’s assume Israel were to withdraw from the small settlements and keep the blocs. That would leave another 60 settlements that each have more than 500 people to evacuate. Several of those, including Kiryat Arba, have more than 5,000. If you subtract the 10,000 Jews who live in the smallest settlements and the roughly 250,000 in the blocs, that still would require the dismantling of the homes of nearly 200,000 people.

Contemplate that number for a minute and, while you’re doing it, consider that many of these settlers are unlikely to go as quietly as their counterparts in Gaza.

Too hard to imagine uprooting that many Jews?

Well, consider the alternative of annexing all the settlements. I have only spoken about the number of settlements, not their location. While it was once possible to contort all the Palestinian communities into a contiguous state (forgetting the problem of Gaza), that would not be possible if the settlements were not restricted to the blocs.

Aha, but isn’t this great news for the proponents of “Greater Israel”?

They want to preempt the creation of a Palestinian state at a minimum and, ideally, annex the entire West Bank. Alas, they must confront the Jewish state/democracy dilemma. Many see no problem. They use their own data, which conflicts with that of Israel’s most well-known demographers, to minimize the Palestinian population. They see the Jewish birthrate exceeding that of the Arabs, which it currently does, supplemented by a great influx of immigrants (from where they will come is a mystery) to ensure a Jewish majority.

They rest much of their argument on the proposition that the Palestinians will never constitute a majority of Greater Israel and therefore will not endanger its Jewish and democratic character. Adding the CIA estimate for the Palestinian population (2.8 million) to the current Israeli Arab population (1.9 million) would double their proportion of the citizenry to 40%. Even accepting the lower estimates of those who believe the CIA figures are inflated would result in a population that is at least 30% Arab.

Assuming the Arabs remain a minority – and other demographers believe they will not – the Greater Israel advocates still must confront two questions: what impact will a larger minority have on the political process (the Arab list was the third largest party in the last Knesset with the Arab population at just 21% of the total) and how quiescent will hundreds of thousands of new Israeli citizens be given their desire for independence?

Oh, by the way, Katz calculates that if the population continues to grow at the same rate as it has for the last five years, in a little over 20 years more than one million Jews will live in the West Bank.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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