Israel Table of Contents

At the end of October 1987, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the population of Israel was 4,389,600, of which 3,601,200 (82 percent) were Jews. About 27 percent of the world's Jews lived in Israel. About 605,765 (13.8 percent) of the population of Israel were Muslims, 100,960 (2.3 percent) were Christians, and about 74,623 (1.7 percent) were Druzes and others. At the end of 1986 the population was growing at a rate of 1.3 percent for Jews, 3.0 percent for Muslims, 1.5 percent for Christians, and 2.8 percent for Druzes and others.

In 1986 the median age of the Israeli population was 25.4. Differences among segments of the population, among Jews and Muslim Arabs in particular, were striking. The non-Jewish population was much younger; in 1986 its median age was 16.8, that of Jews was 27.6. The Jewish population was skewed toward the upper and lower extremes of age, as compared with the non-Jewish age distribution. This skewing resulted from large-scale Jewish immigration, especially the immigration that accompanied the formation of the state in 1948. Many of these immigrants were older individuals; moreover, most of the younger immigrants were single and did not marry and raise families until after their settlement. This circumstance accounts in part for the relatively small percentage of the Jewish population in the twenty to thirty-five-year-old age- group.

With regard to minorities, Muslim Arabs clearly predominated over Christians, Druzes, and others. In 1986 Muslims accounted for 77 percent of the non-Jewish Israeli population. Together with the Druzes, who resembled them closely in demographic terms, they had the highest rate of growth, with all the associated indicators (family size, fertility rate, etc.). Christian Arabs in 1986 were demographically more similar to Israeli Jews than to Muslims or Druzes.

The Jewish Israeli population differed also in country of origin; the population included African-Asian and European-American Jews, and native-born Israelis, or sabras. In the oldest age-groups, those of European-American provenance, called "Ashkenazim," predominated, reflecting the population of the pre-1948 era. By the early 1970s, the number of Israelis of African-Asian origin outnumbered European or American Jews. In Israel, immigrants from African and Asian countries were called either Orientals, from the Hebrew Edot Mizrah (communities of the East), or Sephardim, from an older and different usage. It was not until 1975 that the sabras outnumbered immigrants.

Understanding the importance of aliyah (pl., aliyot), as immigration to Israel is called in Hebrew, is crucial to understanding much about Israeli society, from its demography to its ethnic composition. Aliyah has historical, ideological, and political ramifications. Ideologically, aliyah was one of the central constituents of the Zionist goal of ingathering of the exiles. Historically and politically, aliyah accounted for most of the growth in the Jewish population before and just after the advent of the state. For example, between 1922 and 1948 the Jewish population in Palestine grew at an annual average rate of 9 percent. Of this growth, 75 percent was due to immigration. By contrast, in the same period, the Arab population grew at an average annual rate of 2.75 percent--almost all as a result of natural increase. Between 1948 and 1960, immigration still accounted for 69 percent of the annual average growth rate of 8.6 percent. A significant group entering Israel since 1965 has been Soviet Jews, of whom approximately 174,000 immigrated between 1965 and 1986. In the most recent period for which data existed in 1988, the period from 1983 through 1986, immigration contributed only a little more than 6 percent to a much diminished average annual growth rate of 1.5 percent.

The practical political aspects of declining aliyot are important in comparing the Jewish and non-Jewish population growth rates; one must also consider emigration of Jews from Israel, called yerida, a term with pejorative connotations in Hebrew. It is estimated that from 400,000 to 500,000 Israelis emigrated between 1948 and 1986. Emigration is a politically sensitive topic, and statistical estimates of its magnitude vary greatly. To take one possible index, the Central Bureau of Statistics noted that of the more than 466,000 Israeli residents who went abroad for any period of time in 1980, about 19,200 had not returned by the end of 1986. Continued emigration combined with falling immigration, together with unequal natural population growth rates of Jews and Arabs, mean that by the year 2010, assuming medium projections of Arab and Jewish fertility, the proportion of the Jewish population within Israel's pre-1967 borders would decrease to 75 percent. If the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were to be annexed, by 2010 Jews would become a clear minority in the state, comprising approximately 45 percent of the total population.

These demographic facts have affected population and family planning policies in Israel, but as of 1988 no consistent course of action had emerged. Until the mid-1960s, Israel followed a policy favoring large families, and family planning was not a priority. In the early 1970s, as a result of unrest among Oriental Jews, the Labor government under Golda Meir decided to support family planning as a way of reducing the size of Oriental Jewish families and narrowing the socioeconomic gap between them and Ashkenazim. Nevertheless, most family planning consisted, unsatisfactorily to most people concerned with the issue, of abortions performed under a liberal abortion law that was opposed bitterly by Orthodox Jews for religious reasons. (Orthodox Jews managed to restrict the criteria for performing abortions after Menachem Begin came to power in 1977.) Thus, because Jews feared being demographically overtaken by Arabs and because of potent opposition by Orthodox Jews, the development of a coherent family-planning policy was stymied. In the late 1980s, Israel's policies on family planning remained largely contradictory.

The dispersal of the population has been a matter of concern throughout the existence of the state. In 1986 the average population density in Israel was 199 persons per square kilometer, with densities much higher in the cities (close to 6,000 persons per square kilometer in the Tel Aviv District in 1986) and considerably lower in the very arid regions of the south. The population continues to be overwhelmingly urban. Almost 90 percent resides in urban localities, more than one-third of the total in the three largest cities (in order of population), Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Since 1948, despite calls throughout the 1960s to "Judaize" Galilee, the population has been shifting southward. Still, as of 1988, almost two-thirds of the population was concentrated on the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Ashdod.

In the mid-1950s, in an effort both to disperse the population from the coast and settle the large numbers of immigrants coming from Middle Eastern and North African countries, so-called development towns were planned and built over the next fifteen years. They were settled primarily by Oriental Jews, or Sephardim and through the years they have often been arenas of unrest and protest among ethnic groups. In 1986, about 77 percent of rural Jews lived in kibbutzim and moshavim; still, these two rather striking Israeli social institutions attracted a very small percentage (3.5 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively) of the total Jewish population.

The changing distribution of population was more pronounced among Arabs. Whereas 75 percent of the Arabs lived in rural localities in 1948, less than 30 percent did by 1983. This pattern was not entirely because of internal migration to urban areas, but rather resulted from the urbanization of larger Arab villages. For example, in 1950 the Arab locality of Et Taiyiba near Nabulus had 5,100 residents; by 1986 its population had risen to 19,000. Israeli Arabs were concentrated in central and western Galilee, around the city of Nazareth, and in the city of Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew), northeast of Tel Aviv. Arabs resided also in Acre (Akko in Hebrew), Lydda (Lod in Hebrew), Ramla, Haifa, and near Beersheba. They constituted the majority in East Jerusalem, annexed formally in July 1980.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 1986 about 51,200 Jews resided in the the West Bank occupied territories (called Judea and Samaria by Jewish Israelis), and an additional 2,100 resided in the Gaza Strip (these figures represented 1.4 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively, of the 1986 Jewish population of Israel). They lived in 122 localities in both areas, including 4 cities, 10 kibbutzim, 31 moshavim, and 77 "other rural localities." This last category included more than fifty localities of a kind called yishuv kehillati, a nonagricultural cooperative settlement, a form new to Israel. Such settlements were associated especially with Amana, the settlement arm of Gush Emunim, and developed in the mid-1970s especially to enhance Jewish presence in the West Bank. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 1985 about 7,094, and in 1986 approximately 5,160, Jews settled in the occupied territories. Some did so for religious and nationalistic reasons, but many more were motivated by the high costs of housing inside Israel, combined with economic incentives offered by the Likud governments of the late 1970s and early 1980s to those who settled in the West Bank.

The Central Bureau of Statistics estimated the 1986 Arab population of the West Bank to be 836,000, and that of Gaza to be 545,000, for a total population of close to 1.4 million. In 1986 the population increased at a rate of 2.5 percent for the West Bank and 3.4 percent for Gaza--among the highest annual rates attained during the Israeli occupation.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Israel.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress