As of the beginning of 2015 Israel’s population is 8,296,000 and its citizens are fortunate to have one of the highest life expectancies on earth — 82.1 years. The country is not only small in population but also small in size. Tour guides will often tell you that it is comparable to New Jersey or, for those who live outside the US, about a third smaller than Taiwan. Much of the population lives in the central region of the country close to the Mediterranean coast. However, the largest city is Jerusalem, in the Judean hills, with a population of 830,000.
Who are they all?
Ethnically, just under 75% of the population are Jews, 21% are Arabs and the rest mainly consists of Druze, Bedouins and descendants of Jews who are not considered Jewish themselves. In terms of religion the breakdown is subtly different. Muslims make up 18% of the population and Christians only 2%. The majority of the Christians in Israel are Arabs living in the North.
The Jewish population – not as simple as you think
Although 75% of the population are considered Jewish, the degree to which Judaism is practiced and observed varies a great deal. Israeli Jews are sometimes simply thought of as observant and non-observant and other times as ultra-orthodox and, well, the rest. Neither of these views is really adequate. A better, but still relatively simple way is to consider Israeli Jews in four groups or categories — ultra-orthodox, religious Zionists, traditional and secular. The ultra-orthodox (the ones most non-Jews stereotypically think of with black hats, etc.) are strictly observant of the ‘law’ and traditions and make up around 12% of the Jews in Israel. Due to the large families they have this once small minority is predicted to become the largest single group in Israel. Religious Zionists are those who participate in modern society, but maintain an orthodox observance of the law and traditions. Sometimes called national religious, this group is very much for the land of Israel. The third group, traditional, is not easily defined as it is made up of those who are partially observant. These are people who would not consider themselves orthodox (or religious), but neither would they say they are completely secular. Most Israeli Jews would fall into this category. Finally, at the end of the spectrum, are secular Jews who are essentially non-observant. Figures vary greatly, but around 20% could be considered as secular.
Ascending to Israel – immigration
In 2015 26,500 Jews (or those of Jewish heritage) exercised their ‘right of return’ and immigrated to Israel. In Hebrew this process of becoming a citizen and settling in Israel is called aliyah which literally means to ascend. Historically, the term aliyah is also applied to waves of immigration to Israel. The first Zionist ’aliyah’ began in 1882 long before there was a state of Israel. These first Jews returning to the biblical land were mainly from Eastern Europe (including Russia) and Yemen. The following waves of aliyah became more ideological and Zionist in nature and eventually led to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Other significant waves of aliyah in the twentieth century came about due to situations in other parts of the world such as the expulsion of Jews from Arab nations. There were even special missions to rescue thousands of Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia. The biggest wave of aliyah was in the 1990s following the collapse of the former Soviet Union when around one million Russian speaking Jews immigrated to Israel. Since the establishing of the state in 1948 Jews have made aliyah from over 70 different countries.
With people coming from so many different places it is not unusual to hear different languages on the streets of Israel — Russian, French, Spanish, Polish to name a few. There are even some places you can still hear the ancient biblical language of Aramaic. However, Israel’s official languages are Hebrew and Arabic, with Hebrew being spoken by the majority. The story of the Hebrew language being revived and developed for everyday use is an interesting one, but will have to wait for another day. As with many countries today, English is the most common unofficial language and is taught in schools from a young age. All road and street signs in Israel are in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
The start-up nation
One area English usage is prevalent is in science and technology both of which are strong sectors in the Israeli economy. In fact, the number of scientists, technicians and engineers per capita in Israel is the highest in the world. Israel also has the greatest density of startups anywhere in the world and Tel-Aviv was recently ranked second only to the Silicon Valley for the quality of its startups. Such is the impact of Israel’s culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that delegations from places such as China and Korea now come specifically to study and learn from its success.
Back to the past
Tourism is another significant industry in Israel. In 2014 there were over 3.2 million visitors contributing significantly to Israel’s economy. These visitors came from all over the world to see the land of the Bible. It seems that even looking at Israel today you cannot avoid touching its past.
The Economist, Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, YnetNews, CIA Factbook, Wikipedia, Israel Ministry of Tourism, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, UN Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs