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Jewish population on rise in Israel, falling elsewhere

Sandy Smith's picture

As Jews worldwide celebrate the beginning of the year 5771, more of them, in both absolute numbers and percentage of the whole, are doing so in Israel, according to an analysis of population data by a Hebrew University of Jerusalem demographer.

New population figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics put the country's population at the beginning of the new year at 7,645,000. Of that figure, 75.5%, or nearly 5.8 million Israelis, are Jews.

That figure represents both the largest Jewish population of any country in the world and the plurality of Jews worldwide. Furthermore, that number continues to rise, while the Jewish population in the Diaspora continues to decline.

Two factors contribute to this trend, says Sergio DellaPergola, the Shlomo Argov Professor of Israel-Diaspora Relations at HUJ. One is the high birthrate among ultra-Orthodox Jews, a major contributor to Israel's overall high Jewish birthrate of 2.9 children per family. By contrast, the Jewish birthrate in the Diaspora is slightly below the replacement level of 2.1 per family common in the developed world.

Another is increasing immigration to Israel. “Although the number of immigrants is relatively low compared to earlier years in the 62-year history of the state, it is still higher than in the previous year and shows the influence of the problematic economic situation in the world and the uncomfortable feeling due to trends towards anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feelings," he said.

Growing Jewish population in Israel could complicate peace process

While the rise in both the total number of Jews in Israel and the country's share of the world Jewish population shows that Israel continues to fulfill its mission of serving as a homeland for the Jewish people, it could also increase the likelihood that the recently restarted peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could falter over two contentious issues: settlements and the right of return.

A growing Israeli population will need room to live, and while there is still land for development within Israel's historic borders, many ultra-Orthodox activists wish to settle in the area around Jerusalem, the city both Israel and a would-be Palestinian state claim as their capital. A moratorium on construction of new settlements in the West Bank expires this month, and its continuation is considered key to keeping peace talks on track.

Israelis also worry, with much justification, that if Palestinians were allowed to return to territory they fled at partition in 1948, their even higher birthrates would eventually undermine the Jewish character of the Israeli state and society, once again putting Jews at risk of discrimination and persecution. A growing Jewish population in Israel buys time against that eventuality, but it also increases sentiment against a right of return in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish homeland.

After Israel, the country with the second greatest Jewish population is the United States, with 5.3 million Jews. France ranks third, with 485,000, Canada fourth, with 375,000, and the United Kingdom fifth, with 292,000. In the last year, Israel's Jewish population grew by 1.7% while that of the Diaspora declined 0.2%. Israel is now home to 43% of the world's Jews.

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