Israel’s Jewish Population: notes on a scandal

Arabic Darbuka Market. GettyImages

‘People came to Israel from all sorts of places. Some of them came from the world of Viennese concerts and have this kind of mindset and others – have the mindset of the places where darbuka is played’. This is what Yoaz Hendel, an Israeli member of Knesset from the ‘Blue and White’ party said to his interviewer. What does this mean? Yoaz Hendel clarified in the next sentence: ‘Part of living in a Jewish democratic state is being part of a certain (one) culture. This is not just about music, but about the organizational culture and the culture of governance which we should stick to’.

This sounded a lot like a comment on the desirability of the common denominator for people originating from different places. However, it was a little too metaphoric to be taken in this light-hearted manner. It also included some contrasting and an insinuation at polarity of cultures. Identity politics can be unforgiving. And so it was. Hendel’s statement was interpreted as racist.

Miri Regev, the Israeli minister of culture from Likud, took Hendel’s statement as an unacceptable suggestion that there is a ‘low culture’ represented by darbuka and a ‘high culture’ represented by the Viennese concerts. She explained it all at Likud’s rally in Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem. A darbuka artist was invited to perform at the rally – to make it crystal clear what Regev wanted to say to Hendel and the world, in case there was any doubt still. In the meantime, Hendel himself admitted that he preferred darbuka to classical music, but that was not nearly as interesting as the first thing he said, and so it was not noticed all that much. Shame – I thought, but never mind – there is more than one way to benefit from Hendel’s comments. For example: to ask ‘just how is Israeli Jewish society looking today in terms of its cultural origins?’ and to answer it in earnest.

It is this question that I am going to tackle now using the data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). In the CBS, I must say, they do not use terms like ‘darbuka’ and ‘Viennese concerts’ to classify people. Perhaps they should, if they want to be in the news more often… Instead they use geographical terms, and so I will follow them, reluctantly…

Let us begin. 6.6 million Jews lived in Israel in 2018. Three in four (77% to be precise) were born in Israel and a little less than one in four (23%) were born outside Israel. Arguably, locally born Israelis are no longer clearly attributable to East or West, they are from Israel. So, the first major insight from these very straightforward-looking statistics is that Israeli Jews today are a natives’ society. This makes Israel almost identical to Canada, and more ‘native’ than Australia, where 29% are foreign-born. Israel is still less native than the United States of America, where 14% are foreign-born, but not by far. And it is not just the company of the textbook ‘immigrant countries’, like Canada, Australia and the USA, that Israel fits into well. Many European countries have diversified to the point where they are no longer distinguishable from the traditional ‘immigration countries’ when it comes to the proportion of the foreign-born people in their populations. In France, the United Kingdom and Austria, for example, the proportions of foreign-born population are in the range of 12%-19%. The reality of Israel being a country of natives cannot be novel; 77% is not a figure that can just arise in the course of several years, all of the sudden. In fact, Israeli Jewish society became a natives’ society in the late 1970s. Yet, the reputation of Israel as an immigrants’ country is very stubborn abroad, among Jews in the Diaspora and non-Jews alike. It is as erroneous as the perception of Israel as a small country – a topic on which I wrote previously.

We can trace the origin of some Israeli Jews, if we must. When the ‘origin’ is understood as a country of birth for those born outside Israel and a father’s country of birth for those born in Israel then the picture is as follows: (1) 23% of Jewish Israelis can trace their origin to one of the countries in Asia and Africa. The largest subgroups in this group are Jews originating from the countries of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), Iraq, Iran and Yemen; (2) 30% of Jews originate from the countries of Europe, America and Oceania. Here, the largest subgroup by far is people originating from the former Soviet Union, 14%; (3) 47% are no longer attributable to any origin – not only they are Israel-born but their fathers are Israel-born as well and Israel’s statistical authority draws a line under the concept of origin at this point. And this allows for the second major insight to hatch: Israeli Jews today are a society of – using the Israeli turn of speech – ‘natives-natives’ (those whom the Israeli statistical officialdom no longer bothers to classify) and Jews of the Middle Eastern and North African origin. Together these two groups make 70% of all Jews in Israel. If we assume that the ‘natives-natives’ are split approximately equally between those with roots in Asia/Africa and those with roots in Europe/America (a very reasonable assumption to make, by the way), then the conclusion would be that in Jewish Israel the representation of the Sephardi/Mizrahi and Ashkenazi components is about fifty-fifty.

This would be a neat way to conclude the story, yet something is missing. It is a proper understanding of what the ‘European’ component of Israel actually represents. The very Western element of it, to which Hendel alluded in his ‘Viennese concert’, is rather small. If we remove from the large origin category of Europe/America/Oceania all Israelis with an origin in the former Soviet Union, its political satellites in Eastern Europe and Greece, the remaining group (including countries like Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the entire Latin America) will constitute 9% of all Israeli Jews. Thus, Israel’s ‘Europe’ is Eastern Europe, and a very large part of that is what is civilizationally known as Russia. It is useful to remember that Norman Davies, a well-known historian of Eastern Europe, had to ponder about the status of Russia vis-à-vis Europe in his ‘Europe: A History’: was it, in fact, European or was it not? In the end, he classified Russia as Europe, but the fact that he had to pause and discuss it first is in itself rather telling.

Why is this important? Hendel’s comments will be forgotten quickly enough, but they provoked this essay rather than caused it. The Israeli society, and any society for that matter, ought to understand itself adequately – this, I would maintain, is a guarantee of its functionality at the times of peace and war equally. Which war? Open a random book in social sciences to find out. This is what I did last week. I visited the ‘Akademon’ book store at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The first book that looked at me there was “The Arabic language in the Zionist regime – a story of a colonial mask” by the previously-unknown to me Esmail Nashif. The introduction to the book, incidentally, published in Hebrew by the Van Leer Institute, promises a story of the Arabic language under the ‘Zionist regime’ and then clarifies: “This research utilizes a concept of a ‘colonialist regime’. The first use concerns the social and historical reality of a state or a political formation of European origin conquering a state or a society outside Europe.” The bitter Zionist reader would marvel at how well Nashif’s book is doing, despite everything: it has been translated into Hebrew, published by a prestigious institution and offered for sale exactly where it can educate. The enlightened Zionist reader, with a picture of Israel’s demography in front of her/him, would be able to ask: ‘A state of European origin? Which European origin? Who is European in Israel exactly?’. Both readers would have a point.

About the Author
The author is a demographer and a statistician, born in the USSR - a world that no longer exists - and educated in Israel and Britain. The author holds a PhD in Social Statistics and Demography. To date he has served in senior analytical roles in the Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel) and RAND Europe (Cambridge, UK). He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (London, UK). He has published widely on Jewish , Israeli and European demography and social statistics. The author's favourite topics are demographic and social puzzles involving Jews and people that surround them-why do Jews live so long? why do Muslim Arabs in Israel have so many children? why do women-globally- live longer than men? Is there a link between the classic old-fashioned antisemitism and today's antizionism? These are just a few examples of questions that motivated some of his work and on which he has written extensively.
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