Hebrew U Demographer - The Jewish People In 2050: 2 Very Different Scenarios

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At the start of Jewish New Year 5776, the Jewish people number about 14.3 million people, according to a definition similar to the one accepted by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Being a Jew today means first and foremost the willingness to express a self-identification with the Jewish people, including everything in the range between very religious and anti-religious, excluding people of a different religion.

Out of all these, there are about 6.3 million Jews living in the State of Israel (in addition to some 360,000 relatives who are not registered as Jews in the Interior Ministry) and about 8 million who live in the Diaspora: 5.7 million in the United States and 2.3 million in all other countries (mainly France, Canada, Britain, Russia, Argentina, Germany, Australia and Brazil).

A forecast for 2050 provides a high-probability scenario of about 20 million Jews in Israel and in the world, compared to a low-probability scenario of 14 million. According to a mid-probability scenario of 17 million, in 2050 the Jewish people will be able to return to its proportions before the Holocaust.

So how do you predict a people's future?

In an era of instability not only in the Middle East, but also in the European Union and in other areas in the world, predicting the developments in the next decades is difficult and weak. It's particularly hard to imagine the future of the Jewish people in the State of Israel and in the Diaspora. The prophecy, as we know, has been given to fools, to the blind and to minors.

The diaspora jewry is aging

In an era of instability not only in the Middle East, but also in the European Union and in other areas in the world, predicting the developments in the next decades is difficult and weak. It's particularly hard to imagine the future of the Jewish people in the State of Israel and in the Diaspora. The prophecy, as we know, has been given to fools, to the blind and to minors.

Demographic predictions, however, are like a ball game, when the result of the first half is already known, and all that is left is to determine the final result, which is usually not independent of what happened in the first half. Therefore, demographic predictions are pretty accurate in our time.

The infrastructure of the prediction includes the expected birthrate in the coming years, the health and mortality level, the frequency of immigration between different countries (including to and from the State of Israel), and the amount of people joining Judaism - or openly disconnecting from it.

The birth and mortality rates change slowly in the long run and with the mediation of the current known composition of ages, so their future levels won’t be too surprising, International immigration is harder to predict, as it depends on abruptly changing circumstances which originate in the close surroundings, as well as in farther places across the globe. Assimilation is a sweeping phenomenon in Western countries, while conversion depends on the decisions of rabbis who tend to be strict.

The future of the Jewish people does not only depend on its internal circumstances, but decisively on global events which seem less under control recently, including wars and terror, economic fluctuations, weather changes, wide-scale immigration and above all - the stability or breakup of countries (like what happened in the former Soviet Union).

Reasonable scenarios for the future stand between a high end and a low end of what is possible in general, while ignoring catastrophic events which still happen from time to time in our region - and in the world.

Optimistic scenario: Jewish population grows

An optimistic scenario for the Jewish people relies on stability, security and peace, and a thriving economy in the State of Israel and in the countries where the main Jewish communities reside.

Peace and economic development can strengthen residents' satisfaction and optimism, and the proven result will be a high and stable birthrate. Israel's rise in the quality of living scale among the most developed countries may increase the State's attractiveness and draw immigration in larger numbers than in the past few years, in addition to a moderation in the number of emigrants from Israel to other countries. The result will be a faster population growth in Israel and a moderation in the reduction in the Diaspora.

In addition to these positive conditions, the Jewish population in Israel (including the non-Jewish relatives which may formally join Judaism in the meantime) is expected to grow to 8.5 million in 2030 and to 12.5 million in 2050. With the addition of 2.5 million Arabs in 2030 and 3.5 million in 2050, the population of the State of Israel will reach 11 million in 2030 and 16 million in 2050 (excluding the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza).

An optimistic scenario regarding the Diaspora Jewry will lead to an increase in the low productivity as a result of the improvement in self-confidence, the drop in assimilation, the growing willingness to openly declare one's personal Jewish identity, and the joining of lost tribes, including the Sephardic Bnei Anousim from the Inquisition era.

The total number of Jews in the Diaspora will be stable or experience a moderate drop, mainly because of the aging profile of many of the Jewish communities, and because of the ongoing negative emigration balance of the Diaspora in favor of Israel.

The number of Jews outside Israel is expected to remain about 8 million in 2030 and slightly drop to 7.5 million in 2050. In conclusion, with the inclusion of relatives who are not registered as Jews in Israel, the Jewish people may reach a total of 16.5 million in 2030 and 20 million in 2050.

Pessimistic scenario: Birthrate drops, emigration up

In a pessimistic scenario, it all turns around: There is no security in Israel, the violent conflict is still in its midst, there is an erosion in the economy, investments, employment and income - the birthrate drops, and immigration is reduced while emigration increases.

The growth of the Jewish population is low, and the number of Jews in Israel reaches 7.5 million in 2030 and 9 million in 2050. Together with Israel's Arabs, who are also growing more slowly, Israel's population reaches about 9.5 million in 2030 and about 12 million in 2050.

The Diaspora Jews are also affected by poor security conditions, the increase in assimilation and anti-Semitism, a low birthrate and record levels of aging. Their number is reduced to 6.5 million in 2030 and 5 million in 2050. And so, according to the pessimistic scenario, the entire Jewish population includes 14 million people in 2030, and that number remains steady in 2050 as well.

Haredim will make up 1/3 of the population

The real scenario is more likely to be found somewhere between the two extremes. It's also important to remember that different sectors within the general population grow at a different rate, and that the makeup of the entire society changes accordingly.

In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox population is expected to grow gradually - up to one-third of all Jews - and so is, although at a lower level, the percentage of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel.

In the optimistic scenario, these sectors have largely and successfully integrated into the economic life and are taking responsibility for their families' welfare. In the pessimistic scenario, these sectors are disconnected from the mainstream of society, filled with bitterness and are a source of instability. A higher survival of haredi communities is also apparent abroad.

The growing numbers pose a great challenge in terms of infrastructure and quality of the environment, but successfully dealing with it is not impossible if we look at Singapore, where the population density is much bigger compared to Israel, or at Arizona, a US state with a very similar environment to Israel's Negev desert.

Above all, it’s crucial that whoever has to do so in the political system will properly prepare for the predicted demographic future in 2050, as 2050 will arrive one day.

Sergio DellaPergola, a demography expert, is a professor emeritus at The Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, which he chaired for seven years and where he currently holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations. In 2013, he was awarded the Michael Landau Prize for his studies on migration and demography.

Tali Farkash contributed to this article.

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