I’m finally doing it. I’m getting my Jewish, aka Israeli, citizenship. Sometime this year (i.e. 5782 or as soon as Covid lets me) I will take a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight to Israel, disembark, kiss the ground, go into the terminal and register as an Israeli citizen.
Once there I will spend 2 weeks laying down some roots in Israel: a bank account, a mailing address, and picking a community to start settling in. I’ll then have to fly back to Canada to continue my job and family commitments, but an important symbolic shift will have taken place. Though I’ll still spend most of my time in Canada, I’ll think of it as “visiting” and Israel as “home”. Over time I’ll complete my gradual aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) and stay in Israel full time. But, to me, the all-important first step is claiming my citizenship and officially joining the greatest national redemption project in history.
I put “Jewish citizenship” in the title of this post rather than “Israeli citizenship” to make a point. I believe the future of the Jewish People is in Israel. Despite all the vexation that ensues whenever Jews stand up, our miraculous national rebirth continues apace. Jews are gradually transforming from a permanently wandering diaspora of minorities in foreign lands to a sovereign, majority people in their ancestral homeland. This “Ingathering of the Exiles” was the original goal and vision of Zionism more than a century ago (and is nicely articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence).
Below is a graph showing the growing percent of Jews worldwide who live in Israel vs the Diaspora. The line is remarkably straight, except for the exponential growth after Israel’s founding in 1948 (a combination of immigration to Israel and the decimation of European Jews in the Holocaust) and a bump in the 1990s when one million Russian Jews moved to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union.
According to the latest stats, 45.3% of all Jews now live in Israel, growing steadily from the 6% at Israel’s founding. Israel is now the world’s largest Jewish community and is adding about 0.5% of the world’s Jews to its population each year. If that rate holds constant, by 2030 the majority of Jews will live in Israel. By the end of the century the Ingathering will be complete. But will it really take another 80 years? I think a rapid acceleration is coming.
Consider the three main processes that determine the relative sizes of Israel’s and the Diaspora’s Jewish communities. These are:
- Immigration vs Emigration
- Natural Population Growth vs Decline
- Changes in Jewish Identification
In each case, as I explain below, Israel has a distinct long term advantage.
Immigration vs Emigration
Israel currently enjoys net annual Jewish immigration (“aliyah”) of about 15K-20K, which accounts for about 20% of Israel’s Jewish population growth each year. While positive, it is historically low and has plenty of room to expand. Consider that aliyah is totally open and uncontrolled, thanks to the Law of Return. If Diaspora Jews decide en masse to move to Israel the country is obligated to, and has shown it can, absorb them at a rapid pace. The chart below shows aliyah numbers per year. A sustained rate of 100K “olim” per year should be easily manageable, with even 200K being much easier now than when that many Russian Jews arrived in 1990.
But will they come? Aliyah, like most human migration, is primarily driven by economic opportunities and safety concerns, though Zionist ideology plays some part. The major waves of aliyah in the past came from countries much poorer than Israel or places where Jews faced persecution. The places where Jews have remained are primarily wealthy liberal democracies, where living standards and personal safety are high. In both these realms, though, Israel is closing the gaps with the wealthiest countries.
Economically, Israel is catching up. In nominal GDP per capita, Israel is already ahead of the UK and close to Canada. Many professions in Israel earn similar salaries to their US counterparts, which are oftentimes substantially better than those in the UK or Canada. Israel has a thriving high-tech sector that is attracting record amounts of venture capital ($11.9B in first half of 2021). It has the highest number of unicorns per capita in the world and is now progressing from “Start-up Nation”, to “Scale-up Nation”. Israel’s diplomatic achievements are opening up new trade opportunities not just with China and India, but with the Arab world and Africa. Through natural gas discoveries, Israel has also become energy independent and is starting a sovereign wealth fund. All this bodes well for continuing to close the wealth gap with Western countries.
The safety gap is also arguably narrowing. It is well known that Israel has to contend with active terrorist threats and missile attacks. For example, this May’s conflict with Gaza saw Hamas and Islamic Jihad fire over 4000 missiles at Israel’s population centers. While terrifying (as intended) the loss of life was small with only 10 Israelis killed and 3 foreigners thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system and other homeland defence measures. Despite the shocking headlines the actual impact of these incidents is very small and decreasing.
In fact, if you look at life expectancy, which rolls up all the threats to life into one simple metric, Israel is very safe. Israel ranks 12th in the world for Life Expectancy, ahead of Sweden (13), Canada (16) and way ahead of the United States (46). All perils considered, you are safer living in Israel than all those countries.
Now consider life for Jews in the Diaspora. In Europe, years of rising antisemitism have led to an increasing sense of insecurity. In a 2018 survey, the EU found that 34% of Jews avoided visiting Jewish sites due to fear for their safety and 38% said they had considered emigrating in the last 5 years because they did not feel safe in their home country.
Meanwhile in the US, this year’s FBI’s hate crimes report showed that Jews continue to be the most targeted religion accounting for over 60% of incidents (but only 2.5% of the population). As an ethnic group, Jews are 3 times more likely to be the target of a hate crime than African Americans and 13 times more than Hispanic Americans. These are hitting record levels with the ADL reporting that 2020 had the third highest number of antisemitic incidents since it started tracking data in 1979. While loss of life is still very rare for Diaspora Jews, armed guards at synagogues and day schools have become de rigueur.
So while the wealthy, liberal democracies have been able to retain their Jews with a safe and prosperous environment, that advantage will erode as Israel provides an increasingly wealthy and safe alternative. And if those populations start moving to Israel in significant numbers, they will propel economic growth still higher, causing the process to accelerate.
Natural Population Growth vs Decline
While immigration is the greatest wildcard, natural population growth in Israel is the steady driver making Israel’s growing share of the Jewish world inevitable. Israel has the highest total fertility rate of developed countries, with Israeli Jews giving birth to 3.09 children per woman in 2019. By comparison the US Jewish fertility rate is below average for the US population at 1.9 children per adult (in largely monogamous populations “per woman” and “per adult” statistics are comparable). This difference means that Israel’s Jewish population is not only growing faster but it is also younger. See the charts below for the age profiles of Israel and three other Diaspora Jewish communities.
The aging Diaspora communities are already likely shrinking due to the difference in deaths vs births. This process will accelerate as the Baby Boomers reach old age.
The age differential also creates another dynamic in Israel’s favor. With a very youthful population, Israel offers a much more dynamic and exciting environment beckoning young Jews. Time Out, a UK leisure magazine, just ranked Tel Aviv the world’s funnest city. Young Diaspora Jews who want to be connected to their Jewish identity (i.e. those with the greatest potential to keep the Diaspora going) will increasingly feel the pull of life in Israel. This process too has a potential to accelerate with a first wave drawing in subsequent larger waves.
Changes in Jewish Identification
While the vast majority of Jews are Jewish by ancestry, Jewish identity is also a matter of choice. People born as Jews can later in life decide to adopt another faith or no longer identify as Jews. Conversely, people not born as Jews can decide to convert to Judaism and thereafter be counted as Jews. These personal choices affect the size of the Jewish population globally. The dynamics behind these choices are starkly different between the Diaspora and Israel.
In Israel, where the vast majority are Jewish, someone born Jewish has little temptation to abandon their identity. In fact, there is a great deal more pressure on those who are not Jewish to convert to Judaism and thus join the majority. As this 2016 Pew study shows, there is almost no movement away from a Jewish identity in Israel, and a small number of new converts. Similarly, intermarriage in Israel is very, very rare, with the same study suggesting only 2% of Israeli Jews have a non-Jewish spouse.
In the Diaspora, by contrast, there are strong latent pressures on Jews to assimilate into the non-Jewish majority, and conversely very little pressure on non-Jews to join. Assimilation is a natural consequence of Jews vigorously participating in the economic, political and cultural life of their country of residence coupled with a steady decline in religious practice across society. For secular Diaspora Jews, there is no particular advantage to constantly asserting their identity and staying segregated from the broader population. These results ultimately play out in the critical life choices around choosing a mate and the education parents pass on to their children.
According to the most recent Pew study, intermarriage by young Jews in the US, at 61% of marriages since 2010, is by far the norm. This rate has risen rapidly from the 18% observed in couples married before 1980. While intermarriage could be an opportunity to expand the Jewish circle and population, by welcoming in new joiners, the fact that the same study notes that 82% of children of intermarried couples marry a non-Jewish spouse suggests dilution of Jewish identity and affiliation is a far more likely outcome. This is not surprising given Judaism’s historical attitude to conversion. Unlike Christianity or Islam, Judaism prohibits proselytizing and even discourages conversions (as a convert myself, I know this first hand).
I will say there is some controversy around the view that intermarriage and assimilation will lead to the rapid decline of the Diaspora Jewish community. Last year’s Pew survey delivered reassuring news that the US Jewish population grew since 2013. Prof. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University writes that this refutes the gloomy forecasts, while Prof. Sergio dellaPergola of the Hebrew University chalks it up to changes in survey methods. But, anecdotally, looking at the next generation of my broader Jewish family, the coming dissolution of Jewish identity looks like at least a halving.
So this process too seems to be on the verge of an acceleration – not from of growth in Israel, but from decline in the Diaspora, which makes Israel all the more central.
Next Year in Jerusalem?
Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, concludes his 1896 book Der Judenstaat with these worlds:
“The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”
This Zionist vision has been miraculously unfolding as Herzl imagined it over the 130 years since he wrote those words. Israel is already the biggest Jewish community in the world and growing fast. Jews live and die as free people, and pursue ambitious projects of importance to themselves and the world. The bulk of Jewish life, energy and potential is increasingly concentrated in Israel, and this trend seems likely to accelerate whether by mass immigration (as I hope) or by mass assimilation (seemingly unstoppable), or both, as I described above.
What is certain is that the future of the Jewish People is in Israel, and that’s why I’m so excited to finally be counted among her citizens.