Interview: Sergio DellaPergola
The Jewish people have been counting themselves since the days of the first biblical census. Professor Sergio DellaPergola, 63, has earned a reputation as one of the world’s leading authorities on Israeli and Jewish demography. Italian-born, he has lived in Israel for 40 years, serving today as chair of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Demography and Statistics. He is also a top scholar in the city’s Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.
Q. How did Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza affect the demographic picture?
A. The people who deny the demographic scenario opposed Israel leaving Gaza. But now that it has happened, anyone can take out their calculator and see the significance. The Arab population in areas controlled by Israel has diminished by 1.2 million. The number of Jews in this area is the same. If you go back to 2000, the Jewish majority over the entire area we are discussing, with Gaza, was 55 percent. Today, it has risen to 63 percent…. If you follow the birthrates and exit rates of Jews and Arabs in this land, accounting for differential rates of growth, there would be 56-percent Jewish majority in the year 2020—without counting Gaza but still including the West Bank. Essentially, the move from Gaza has bought us about 20 years of demographic oxygen or balance, which of course any future withdrawals would increase further.
Q. What are the main demographic forces at work in the balance between Arab and Jewish populations?
A. One is international migration in and out of the area. The other is family status, growth, the number of children born, what demographers used to refer to as fertility. Israel has grown hugely since the 1940’s due mainly to immigration. Today, we have approximately 7 million citizens in Israel: 5.3 million Jews, including those who live in the West Bank, joined by 300,000 relatives of Jews, mainly from Russia, who are not technically Jewish but are counted with the Jewish sector for all practical purposes. The remainder, 1.4 million Arabs, includes both Muslims and Christians.
Q. Has the aliya well dried up?
A. With the possible exception of Latin America, the vast majority of Jews [outside Israel] today live in relatively calm, democratic countries…. Of course, any dramatic upheavals in the West might change conditions. Very few forecasters saw the influx of one million Russian Jews even a few years before it started to happen in the 1990’s. But let’s look at facts. In recent years, Israel has been receiving [about] 20,000 newcomers a year. There is also a certain amount who leave the country each year, temporarily or permanently. Some point to increased aliya from the U.S., thanks to organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh; Canada; the U.K.; France. It may be happening, but the statistics so far do not yet point to a conclusive new trend.
Q. And the Arab side of the demographic coin?
A. There is no large emigration of Arabs, either from within Israel proper or even from the West Bank and Gaza. There were years in which emigration was much greater, but also some years during the Oslo process when immigration was also higher. Today, neither seems to be occurring in large measure.
Q. That brings us to the fertility issue, natural growth.
A. Jewish women in Israel have 2.5 or 2.6 children on the average. This is the highest family size of any developing society; almost double southern European and Mediterranean societies such as Greece, Italy or Spain. The Muslims in Israel, however, average 4.5 to 5.5, and as many as 6 per woman in Gaza. This differential has clear demographic consequences…. The balance between these two peoples is changing month by month, year by year, as the ratio of Jews to Arabs lessens, and this is the case whether you count all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as one demographic unit, or you see the State of Israel only within the so-called Green Line, excluding Gaza and the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Q. Have not other Muslim societies seen dramatically lower birthrates as educational and economic standards rose?
A. Many say that in the framework of modernization, fertility rates decline. Women become more educated, go to work. In Iran, the overall fertility rate has gone down, for example. There have been declines in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia. But let’s look at Iran. The authorities there, despite the shouting and the theology, are pursuing a pragmatic line of development that aims to strengthen the economy…. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has been absolutely unable or unwilling to do anything that would tend to diminish fertility rates, although one would think such steps would be urgent and necessary in a place like Gaza due to the dense, very poor and undeveloped conditions….
Q. Are we Jews obsessed with counting ourselves?
A. We are conscious of our identity, and that is a good thing. Culture and learning, responsibility, quality of values, all these are expressions of our very unique civilization. We see that population size, involving a strategic social balance, has been mentioned many times in the Bible. There is even a famous historical debate within Judaism as to whether censuses are permissible or not. To answer this question, we must also remember the Shoah…. Jewish survival, among other things, is related to critical mass. Taking all of these elements into account, I think our concern with numbers is understandable.
Q. What specific trends are making an impact on Jewish demography at this time?
A. Just a few decades ago, many scholars were convinced that contemporary civilization was moving toward secularization and a kind of neutral society where the presence of God was a fading phenomenon. An improved standard of living would equalize the masses, liberal Western culture would win out, and that would mean something like the “end of history.” This predicted scenario has paled rapidly, and values and a sense of the supernatural play a very significant role in civil life, including within modern Jewry. I observe two opposite trends. One is a continuing assimilation, especially in America, where unique cultural identity disappears and Jewish identity becomes subordinate to other kinds of identity, such as being a member of the commercial or consumer class of society and not much more. On the other hand, I see a return, quite visibly, of others to a sense of belonging within the Jewish polity. Therefore, a more polarized, more searching Jewish people is what we have today.
Q. Why is it that the estimates of Jews in East European countries are so much higher in those places than what demographers report? The American Jewish Yearbook, for example, cites Poland as having only 3,300 Jews, yet in Warsaw people cite figures as high as 50,000 and even 100,000 Jews.
A. This is a question, in my view, of definitions. I think the solution is quite simple. There is a core group, people who are clearly Jews by the normative criteria. Let us say this group does in fact number something like 3,300. But then there is a wider circle that includes children and other relatives of the Jews. Individuals will tell you, “I am Roman Catholic, or I am Muslim, but I have Jewish origins.” And the third and broadest definer is actually Israel’s Law of Return, which extends eligibility for immigration to Israel to Jews, children of Jews, grandchildren and spouses of Jews, whether these persons are Jewish or non-Jewish. In fact, then, the figures of 3,300 and 25,000 or 50,000 are not incompatible. The bottom line is that it’s not unusual to hear vastly differing numbers, but that is because people are referring to very different definitions.
Q. Can a demographer be equally fascinated by the individual stories behind the numbers?
A. Yes, indeed. When I was in England on sabbatical, of course everyone knew the famous soccer star David Beckham, who now plays in Spain. Well, he has a Jewish grandmother, apparently, so I imagine that would qualify him to become a player on Israel’s national team, should he choose to come on aliya. It makes for interesting food for thought.