Israel's Demography Has a Unique History

(January 2014) Israel’s demographic patterns and trends are unique, reflecting the complex political, cultural, and religious future of the region. This article examines three aspects of this young, small country: rapid population increase in only 65 years, high fertility compared to other developed countries, and shifting demographic patterns of the country’s ethnic and religious groups.

Demographic Outlier

Israel is a demographic outlier when it comes to population growth as a developed country. In 1948, Israel had only 806,000 people, but experienced a 10-fold population increase by 2013, largely due to immigration of Jews from other countries.1 According to the most recent data, Israel’s population, estimated at 8.1 million in mid-2013, accounts for little more than 3 percent of the population within the UN-defined Western Asia region, where it is grouped with Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Syria. Iran, located in the UN South Asia region, had a population of 76.5 million in mid-2013.

Today, fertility is the main driver for population growth in Israel—women bear 3 children each on average, a rate that is high by European standards. As a result, Israel now has a young, albeit aging, population: Twenty-eight percent of Israelis are under the age of 15, and 10 percent are older than 65, compared with European proportions of 16 percent and 16 percent, respectively. With a relatively high fertility rate and a somewhat young age structure, as well as a slightly positive migratory balance, Israel’s rate of demographic increase is estimated at 1.9 percent per year.

For most other indicators, however, Israel conforms to developed countries: It has low infant, under-5, and maternal mortality rates and high life expectancy at birth (at 82 years for both sexes, it is the highest in the UN Western Asia region). With health indicators among the top 10 countries in the world, Israel’s population features high levels of educational attainment and rising income.

Unlike most countries undergoing a demographic transition (from high to low birth and death rates), in recent years upward socioeconomic mobility has been linked to a relatively higher number of children. Israel has a substantial minority of very religious families with fertility levels at least double the national average. It is unlikely that Israel’s fertility will decline soon to levels below replacement (2.1 children per woman), as has been the case in most industrialized countries today.2 As a result, the population of Israel is expected to reach 9.9 million by 2025 and 13.9 million by 2050. In 2050, the UN Western Asia region will have a population of 405 million (with Israel representing 3 percent of the population of that region) and Iran should have just under 100 million people.

Israel has complex cultural, political, and religious identities. The diversity of the demographic landscape within Israel is clear when looking beyond aggregate national figures. At the beginning of 2012, Israel’s total population (without foreign workers and refugees) was 7.8 million. Of these, 5.9 million (75 percent) were Jewish; another 325,000 (4 percent) were non-Jewish family members of Jewish Israeli citizens, who by the provisions of the 1950 Law of Return have the right to live in Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship; and 1.6 million were Arabs (21 percent) (see table). A large majority of the Arab population were Muslim, with a minority Christian, Druze, and other religious groups. Foreign workers and refugees were estimated at 300,000 (4 percent of the total population of 8.1 million).3 The table illustrates the complexity of Israel’s demographic situation. It presents the enlarged Jewish population and the Arab population of the Palestinian Authority estimated at 3.8 million, of which 2.2 million are in the West Bank, and 1.6 million in Gaza.4

Population of Israel and Palestinian Territorial Divisions, 2012

Area Jews and Family Members Arabs Foreign Workers and Refugees Total
Total 6,226,000 5,449,000 300,000 11,975,000
Israel 6,226,000 1,611,000 300,000 8,137,000
  Pre-1967 Border 5,672,000 1,298,000 300,000 7,270,000
  East Jerusalem 207,000 290,000 497,000
  Golan Heights 21,000 23,000 44,000
  West Bank 326,000 326,000
Palestinian Authority 3,838,000 3,838,000
  West Bank 2,238,000 2,238,000
  Gaza 1,600,000 1,600,000

Notes: All figures are rounded. The population of Israel includes all residents in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, as well as the Jewish population but not the Arab population of the Palestinian Territory (West Bank and Gaza). “Jews and Family Members” include persons recorded as Jews in Israel’s population register, also defined as core Jews, plus 325,000 non-Jews who immigrated in force of the Law of Return and their descendants. The population of the Palestinian Authority presented here does not include East Jerusalem, already included in Israel’s population. “Refugees” were allocated to Israel within pre-1967 borders, that is, boundaries before the 6 Day War of June 5-10.

Source: Adjusted from Sergio DellaPergola, “The Great Israeli Predicament: Why Demography Should Be Taken Seriously,” presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Feb. 14, 2013.

Continuing Differences in Population Growth Between the Jewish and Arab Populations

A challenge for the country is the continuing differential rates of population growth between the Jewish and the Arab populations. Within the Jewish population of Israel, the Israeli haredim (a highly traditional group of Orthodox Jews) make up about 10 percent of the overall Jewish population of Israel, and they are growing at a particularly rapid pace as a result of their high fertility rates: about 7 births per woman compared to 2.3 births for the secular and moderately religious Jewish women. These high fertility rates have resulted in a very young Haredi population (the Israeli haredim account for over 20 percent of the Jewish population under the age of 20).5 In turn, this young Haredi population (with a median age of 16) ensures the continued and rapid growth of a group that might form over 30 percent of Israel’s Jewish population by year 2050.6

The Muslim population in Israel is also growing, from 0.6 million in 1990 to the current 1.6 million, and is projected to continue to rise to about 2.1 million in 2030, although fertility among Muslims may decrease.7 Nonetheless, the share of the Muslim population within the overall population in Israel is projected to increase. In 2011, Muslims had the lowest average age of women giving birth for the first time, at just over 23 years. The average age at first birth in the overall population was just over 27 years. Since Muslim women begin having children earlier in life, they also have the highest fertility rate when compared to Jews, non-Arab Christians, Druze, and women not classified by a religion. The Muslim total fertility rate (TFR) was 3.5 in 2011, compared to the Jewish TFR of 3.0, the Christian TFR of 2.2, the Druze TFR of 2.3, and the unclassified religion TFR of 1.8.8

Regional demographic patterns and trends are important as Israel and its neighbors attempt to chart their future, and will add complexity to these population dynamics.

Sergio DellaPergola is a demographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. John F. May is a demographer and PRB Visiting Scholar. Allyson C. Lynch is a PRB intern.


  1. Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, “Israel in Statistics 1948-2007,” Statistilite 93 (Jerusalem: Central Bureau of Statistics, 1993); and Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, “Population and Demography,” accessed at,  on Sept. 12, 2013. According to DellaPergola, within the larger Jewish Diaspora, the world’s Jewish population was estimated at 13.7 million at the beginning of 2012—5.9 million in Israel, 5.4 million in the United States, and the remaining 2.4 million scattered in the many countries of the Diaspora, essentially in Europe. Sergio DellaPergola, Jewish Demographic Policies: Population Trends and Options in Israel and in the Diaspora (Jerusalem: The Jewish People Policy Institute, 2011); Sergio DellaPergola, “How Many Jews in the United States? The Demographic Perspective,” Contemporary Jewry 33, nos. 1-2 (2013): 15-42; and Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population, 2012,” in American Jewish Year Book 2012, ed. A. Dashefsky and I. Sheskin (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013): 213-83.
  2. Sergio DellaPergola, Fertility Prospects in Israel: Ever Below Replacement Level? (New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2011).
  3. Sergio DellaPergola, “The Great Israeli Predicament: Why Demography Should Be Taken Seriously,” presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Feb. 14, 2013.
  4. Estimates of the Palestinian Authority are higher, especially for the West Bank; Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, “Population Indicators,” accessed at, on Sept. 12, 2013.
  5. Aaron David Miller, “Demographic Destiny,” Foreign Policy, March 13, 2013, accessed at,  on June 26, 2013.
  6. DellaPergola, The Great Israeli Predicament: Why Demography Should Be Taken Seriously.
  7. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, The Future of the Global Muslim Population, Projections for 2010-2030 (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2011), accessed at, on Jan 9, 2014.
  8. Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, “Population and Demography.”