When Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in the Swiss city of Basel on August 29, 1897, Herzl wrote in his diary on the eve of the congress: “The whole thing is one of those balancing feats which look just as natural after they are accomplished as they seemed improbable before they were undertaken.” Indeed, miracles become natural in Israel.
The Congress led to explosive growth within the Zionist movement. In Russia, the 23 Zionist societies before the Congress were joined by 350 new ones in its aftermath. In the U.S., the number of societies rose from 10 to 60.
Now, 120 years after that First Zionist Congress, Israel’s population stands at 8,680,000 and is increasing at 1.9 percent a year, according to figures released April 27, 2017 by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Over the past 12 months some 174,000 babies were born, 44,000 people died and 30,000 new immigrants arrived in the country. Thus immigrants made up only 15% of the State of Israel’s population increase in 2016.
In 1948 there were just 806,000 people in Israel, less than a tenth of the current number. At the time, the global Jewish population was 11.5 million, and just 6% were in Israel. There are now estimated to be 14.4 million Jewish people in the world; and 43% of them are now in Israel.
The 6,484,000 Jews in the country make up 74.4% of all residents, while the 1,800,000 Arabs account for 20.8% of Israel’s population, a percentage that has remained stable for almost 70 years. Non-Arab Christians and other ethnic groups like the Druze number 388,000 people, or 4.4% of the population.
Among today’s Jewish population, 75% were born in Israel, and over half are second-generation Israelis. In 1948, however, just 35% of the Jews living in Israel were born in pre-state Palestine.
Whereas in 1949 the life expectancy for women in Israel was 67.6 years and 64.9 for men, by the end of 2015 it was 84.5 for women and 80.9 for men. Just over half of the population, 54.3%, are between the ages of 19 and 64. The over-65 set makes up 11.1% of the population, and those 18 years old or less are 34.6%. At the end of 2015 there were 45,000 residents over the age of 90, the CBS noted. The miracle has become routine.
The amazing 1991 covert rescue of 14,325 Ethiopian Jews in an airlift lasting less than 48 hours stirred and inspired people for a few weeks. Subsequently, the difficult problems the newcomers faced (similar to those of the 900,000 Soviet immigrants) occupied the Jewish media. Now both have long been taken for granted. The miracle has become routine.
But if you had told the Jews of Ethiopia a generations ago that they would someday all fly to Israel in a giant silver bird, they could only conceive of this as a Messianic miracle.
If you had told Soviet Jews a generation ago that the Communist regime would collapse, the Soviet Empire disintegrate, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews would emigrate to Israel, they would have conceived it only as a Messianic dream.
Now both groups take the miracle for granted. Indeed, Israeli politics make it hard to see even the creation of the state of Israel as an important Jewish accomplishment, much less a miracle.
Peace with the Palestinians seems very, very improbable; yet in my new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites) I offer hope and faith, as Herzl offered it 120 years ago.
I do believe that by the end of the 21st century, when there is peace between Egypt, Israel and Syria as Prophet Isaiah, 19:23-25 predicts: “On that (distant) day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together.
On that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”); then most Jews will see and affirm this generation’s miracles.