A declining Jewish population poses new and difficult questions for the country
To coincide with Israel’s 73rd independence day, some surprising new data on the country’s demographics has emerged. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s Jewish population has dropped below 74% for the first time since its founding is significant in 1948. As of this year, Israel’s population stands at 9.3 million, but only 6,870,000 of those citizens are Jews, compared to 1,956,000 Arabs and 456,000 other.
This announcement has exacerbated an already fraught debate over Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Founded in the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel’s declaration of independence boldly proclaimed Israel the Nation State of the Jewish People, with Hebrew as its language and an open invitation extended to Jews of the diaspora.
But as the country’s demography has shifted, so too has the conversation about what a modern Israel should look like. In 2018, this tension came to a head after the passage of the controversial Nationality Bill that was passed into law by the Knesset in 2018. Spearheaded by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the bill re-affirmed Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, confirming it as the national home of the Jewish people with Hebrew as its official language.
Three years on, the law continues to dominate public discourse and divide the public. Apologies extended to the Druse, a minority group in Israel, were largely rejected and Israeli Arabs remain concerned over issues like housing rights and the status of their language. Arabs, for their part, also feel threatened demographically primarily because, for the last four years, the Jewish birth rate has been higher (3.16) than their Arab counterparts (3.11).
The ongoing debate has come to symbolise the clash between those for whom Jewish identity is sacred, and those who view the law as a marker of dangerous nationalism. In other words, those who see the very existence of Jewish life in a Jewish state as a triumph of the persecuted people, and those who fiercely argue that Israel is a state of all its inhabitants.
More broadly, it exposes a lingering rift over Zionism — Israelis who consider Zionism the Jewish people’s saviour, and those who challenge the right of a Jewish state to exist, and for whom Zionism is racist.
Ultimately, however, this debate is not about the Jewish religion, it is about Jewish identity. Israel is a secular society but its people, atheists and orthodox alike, hold a powerful bond to Jewish culture, history and roots. The large majority, be they Moroccans, Iraqis, Romanians, Yemenites, Kurds, Russians or Poles, celebrate the Jewish holidays, circumcise their sons, mark their bar Mitzvah, and light the Sabbath candles.
The Jewish identity is an intrinsic part of Israeli life, intertwined with a long history of persecution and freedom — it is this common undercurrent that bonds and unites the Israeli people.
The ideological, and legal battles are set to continue for years to come. The challenge for Netanyahu — and whoever follows him — will be to defend Israel as a Jewish state that defends and celebrates Jewish identity, but also protects the rights of all minorities, including non-Jews. In light of these shifting demographic trends, the question has become all the more pressing.