Part of the aim of your gap year in Israel is to help you understand the country’s demographics. It is a small country but has a population of over 8.7 million making it roughly the 100th most populated country in the world. It won’t take you long to realise that the country is made up of all sorts, Jews, Arabs, Christians, and a huge number of subcategories.
At present around 75% of the country is Jewish, 21% are Arab and the remaining people are defined as “others”, including people of Jewish ancestry but deemed non-Jewish by religious law, and other non-Jews.
Last year a government report was released that predicted that the country’s population will double over the next 40 years. This means that there will be roughly 18 million residents. The biggest change that is expected is in the Haredi population. At present they represent around 9% of the country but this is expected to more than triple, to around 29%. It also means that they will overtake Arabs as the largest minority.
If these figures are correct, it will mean that Israel will have the highest population density in the Western world, even more densely populated than the West Bank and Gaza Strip taken together are today.
These figures have led to some people warning of impending disaster, but others have said that Israel still has plenty of space to expand outside of the central Tel Aviv-Jerusalem region. At present there are large areas of Israel that are sparsely populated, but with the correct government strategies this can be rectified over time. There are already signs of this happening such as a recent development plan focused on poor rural towns.
Israel wouldn’t be the first country to have to adapt to a rapidly increasing population. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are already more populated than Israel is predicated to be and they are both successful states.
The reason for the massive population growth is mainly due to the country’s very high birth rate, easily one of the highest in the developed world. The birth rate has only dropped in the Arab population, it is now an average of 3.13 children, the same as secular Jews. However, the Haredi birth rate has been steadily increasing in recent years and it now stands at around 6.9 children per woman.
This suggests that a huge part of the population in the future will be Haredi and has led to calls for more investment in Haredi education and workforce integration. Recent years have seen a huge number of Haredim move into the mainstream workforce and this trend is likely to grow over the coming years.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Israel is a wonderful mixture of people and it is this mixture that gives the country its character. Just spend a few minutes in one of the central bus stations and you will see this very quickly. The continued growth and changing demographics are sure to give rise to challenges, but with a bit of planning and imagination, these challenges can help the country thrive.