Last Wednesday evening, I attended a powerful Yom Hazikaron ceremony and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at my synagogue. But, as I listened to evocative Israeli songs and the poignancy of their lyrics, I wondered to myself what it is that makes Israel so special? Because when I review the basic demographic statistics about Israel in their global context, the answer is clear. Very little.
Israel has a population of about 8.8 million today, making it about the 100th largest national population across the world. It is home to just 0.1 per cent of the world’s population — ie 99.9 per cent of people live somewhere else. Its population is growing, at a current rate of 1.6 per cent per annum, higher than the global average, but nothing remarkable. Israelis have a higher than average fertility rate of 3.0, well above replacement level of 2.1, but 67 other countries have higher rates. And Israelis have a median age of 30 — younger than average, but 113 countries have younger levels. In short, looking at most of the global demographic variables, Israel doesn’t really stand out at all.
And yet, viewed through Jewish statistical lenses — historical and contemporary — Israel today is utterly extraordinary. A hundred and fifty years ago, in 1878, a census took place in the Ottoman Empire. It found 15,011 “Jewish citizens” living in the area roughly equating to the State of Israel today, plus an estimated 5,000-10,000 foreign-born Jews. Remarkably, Jewish year books from the turn of the century, all of which include national Jewish population statistics, do not even contain counts for that part of the world. They are rather subsumed under the category “Turkey” or “Turkey in Asia.” In theory at least, they could have been extracted, but this was either too complex a task, or, more likely, the Jewish population of the area was simply not deemed significant enough to isolate.
Today, such a view is unthinkable. At 6.6 million, Israel has the largest Jewish population in the world, and while most Jews continue to live in the diaspora, the trajectory is clear. One hundred years ago, just 0.6 per cent of all Jews worldwide lived in Israel. The proportion rose to 6 per cent in 1948, 20 per cent in 1970, and 31 per cent in 1990. Today, it is about 43 per cent
Indeed, almost a third of all Jews in the world today live in just two Israeli cities: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Just over 100 years ago, about 35,000 Jews lived in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv was sand.
Equally importantly, Israel is a majority Jewish society. About 75 per cent of its citizens today are Jewish. The equivalent proportions for the US and UK are 1.7 and 0.5 per cent respectively. A century ago, the proportion in Palestine was 12 per cent, but the simple idea of a nation state with a Jewish majority was still largely unimaginable. Today, we almost take it for granted.
And one general demographic statistic stops me in my tracks. Today, Israel has the twelfth highest life expectancy rate in the world, at 82.4 years. That would be a phenomenal achievement for any 70-year-old nation state but, given what was happening to European Jews in the decade prior to Israel’s establishment, it is astonishing.
The statistical transformation is clear. But Israel has also transformed Jewish life psychologically. We argue a lot about the rights and wrongs of Israeli governmental policy, but it is worth stopping for a moment to appreciate the simple fact that, today, an Israeli government exists that can make policy.
The shift from Jewish powerlessness to power is an extraordinary historical development, and has helped Jews to grow in self-confidence, both in Israel and beyond. The change happened particularly in the post- Six-Day War period, when Israel’s remarkable military, diplomatic and cultural achievements helped Jews to stand tall everywhere.
Indeed, ironically, it is possible that those Jews who seem to condemn Israel at almost every opportunity today only have the courage to do so because Israel’s existence has helped to transform collective Jewish self-confidence everywhere. And, conversely, those Jews who struggle to accept criticism of Israel under almost any circumstances may, paradoxically, lack the robust sense of Jewish self-confidence that Israel affords us, and which we need to bring the long years of conflict to an end.
I wonder sometimes if Israel’s future depends on us getting that balance right — acknowledging how Israel has transformed Jewish self-confidence across the world, while simultaneously finding that same self-confidence to ensure that it continues to do so.
Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)