Ten years of living in Israel by the numbers

Of 155 countries listed in the 2017 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Israel ranked 11th overall.

Eran Ropilidis holding a pre-1948 statistical report from the Central Bureau of Statistics archive. (photo credit: PAUL ALSTER)
Eran Ropilidis holding a pre-1948 statistical report from the Central Bureau of Statistics archive.
(photo credit: PAUL ALSTER)
This summer, on July 20, 2017, marked 10 years since my family and I upped sticks from rural, meandering northern England (yes, we even had a river flowing at the end of our garden) to begin our new life in the blazing heat and often equally blazing tempers of the State of Israel.
The two ways of life could hardly be more different. Our reasons for moving, like those of so many others who make such a pivotal decision, are numerous and varied. I won’t bore you with them; suffice it to say that my Israeli-born wife and I believed that, on balance, our children would have a better life here than there.
But what interested me as I celebrated a decade in this “tough neighborhood” (as our prime minister often refers to it) was whether or not the impressions I have gained of the changes in day-to-day living over the last 10 years ‒ both good and less good ‒ are actually correct and borne out by official statistics. An invitation to visit the nation’s esteemed Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem ‒ the nerve center of a myriad of facts and figures relating to Israeli life ‒ just a day before my auspicious anniversary could not have been better timed.
Eran Ropalidis, director of Dissemination & Media Relations at the CBS, greeted me warmly and invited me into his office. This august body employs around 1,000 people across its offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Ropalidis himself has been with the organization for two years, having previously worked for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
From the start of our discussion, he was keen to clarify that the CBS is apolitical and independent of any government influence, although it is “affiliated with the Prime Minister’s Office” ‒ something that became a point of discussion later on. Ropalidis admitted that there has been occasional controversy about the methods of compiling data, most recently on whether those living over the “Green Line,” the 1967 border, should be included in some data calculations and not in others. Given the politics behind this territory, for some this will always be a major bone of contention.
I was shown around the organization’s offices, which include an impressive archive stretching back to the British Mandate when impressive tomes holding a plethora of detail on generations past, then as now, were meticulously kept. It’s a genuine treasure trove of information charting the changing face of this ancient land in the modern world and the people therein.
I regaled the amiable 36-year-old Jerusalemite with my idea of testing the personal judgments I’ve reached during my time in Israel against the statistical data compiled by the CBS. “Can we see where the conversation takes us?” I suggested. He answered in the affirmative.
Apart from the wish to live in a place where I was not a member of a minority community and wanting to rid myself of the sometimes uncomfortable impulse to hide my heritage for fear it might prove either counterproductive or the starting point for an unwanted debate about the validity of the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own, the draw of a better healthcare system, an outdoor lifestyle, a relatively safe environment for raising children and a desire to contribute in some way to the still burgeoning Israeli dream were a few of the key factors that sealed my personal decision to move to the Middle East.
I was not drawn by any religious conviction, a factor that drives so many that make aliya ‒ some 25,000 people last year, alone. In times of personal hardship, and of terrorism, such religious belief, for those who truly accept the idea of God’s will, is surely a comfort and source of strength. For me, and those secular Jews who move here, it is a feeling of wanting to belong to a Jewish community, to be closer to your Jewish heritage that is, for many, a major factor in the decision.
So, 10 years on, my impression that Israel is becoming a society more heavily influenced by Jewish religious doctrine and the influence of a growing number of religious minorities ‒ in many cases ultra-Orthodox Jews ‒ on the political process was worth testing against the statistics. There is little doubt that the Haredim or ultra-Orthodox, in particular, continue to have large families ‒ often living in relative poverty ‒ and represent a growing percentage of the country’s total Jewish population. The impression gained is that by sheer weight of numbers they are likely to become an increasingly irresistible force.
The number of ultra-Orthodox children enrolled in state schools last year in Jerusalem, for example, according to the CBS, was about 16.5% higher than 10 years earlier, while the number of children classified as coming from secular or non-observant families remained static over the 10-year period.
“On December 31, 2015, the population of Israel numbered about 8.5 million inhabitants,” states the “Israel in Figures 2016” report produced by the CBS. It classified 79.2% of the population as “Jews and others,” the others including 0.5% “non-Arab Christians,” and 5% “not classified by religion.” The remaining 20.8% are Arabs. Of the Arab minority, nearly 84.7% are Muslim Arabs, 7.4% are Arab Christians and 7.8% are Druze ‒ although there are some Druze I know who would balk at the suggestion that they are classified as Arabs.
Since its establishment in May 1948, the total population of the State of Israel has multiplied tenfold and, as of 2017, rose to 8.68 million people. The population grew 1.9% from May 2016 to May 2017. Jerusalem remains Israel’s largest city with a population of 865,700. In 1948, three years after the Holocaust, just 6% of world Jewry lived in Israel. Now, of the 14.3 million people classified as Jewish around the world, that figure has risen to 43%.
Thirteen of the 120 Knesset seats are currently held by members of Haredi parties; Shas with seven and United Torah Judaism with six. Because of the Israeli electoral system, however, it feels to many that they have disproportionate power due to the current coalition needing their votes in order to have a working majority.
A glance back 10 years to the Knesset of 2007, in which the government was headed by the now disgraced former prime minister Ehud Olmert, reveals that there were 18 Haredi members of that Knesset, including Eli Yishai of Shas, who was deputy prime minister. So, maybe my impression that the religious are more powerful now is statistically incorrect.
Alternatively, it could be argued that the present groups of Haredi Knesset members have negotiated themselves more key ministries ‒ Health, Religious Services, and the Interior Ministry ‒ than their predecessors, and that, in fact, they have acquired more power and influence on daily life.
And that’s without going into the influence of the non-Haredi Bayit Yehudi ministers such as Naftali Bennett and others, whose religious conviction is arguably playing no less a role in the changing landscape of our society through their control of the Education Ministry, in particular, and their significant numerical presence in the disputed West Bank.
In May of this year, the CBS published a stunning forecast for the composition of Israeli society in the year 2065. It suggested the Arab population will fall to 19%, but that given current trends, the Haredi population is anticipated to reach 32% of the total population, effectively meaning that one in every two Jewish children born in Israel at the time will be Haredi.
With a majority of Haredim studying in yeshiva and not being active in the workplace, not paying taxes and not being part of the armed forces, the potential for a major societal crisis seems obvious ‒ unless there is a major change in attitude of the ultra- Orthodox community and, indeed, of the government and society as a whole.
“These scenarios were built based on past trends by using statistical models, consultations with experts on the subject and accompanying an advisory committee set up specifically for the purpose by the Public Council for Statistics,” the CBS stated in its notes appearing with the survey.
“At the CBS, we try not to give explanations,” Ropalidis tells The Jerusalem Report. “We present the figures and you can take them and interpret them however you want. We prefer not to offer explanations and reasons for things. As a statistical organization, we give you the data, and you figure out the reasons and explanations.
“But if you look at the economic indicators, for example, you can see that we are very... well, strange. Inflation is low, and the unemployment rate is also low. These very often are opposite. All the indicators are good that we are in growth.”
A year after arriving in Israel my financial projections and medium-term plans, along with those of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people around the world were blown apart by the economic collapse of 2008. As international property values plummeted, currencies collapsed and unemployment soared, Israel became something of an economic miracle. This country experienced growth as other economies shrank and, as property prices in countries such as the US and the UK, in particular, fell through the floor, real estate in Israel went through a mind-boggling price boom.
There is little doubt that the basic cost of living in Israel has risen dramatically during the last decade and that, in particular, property prices are causing great hardship for large numbers of people. For them, the prospect of owning their own home in a country where prices have, in many areas, at least doubled in the last 10 years, are increasingly remote, especially because most banks require a minimum deposit on a purchase of around 30%. With a modest three or four-room apartment in many ordinary areas of Israel costing around $400,000, that would mean a buyer would have to put down $120,000 in cash as a deposit to get a mortgage. Such a sum, in the Israel of 2017, is beyond the wildest dreams of a huge section of the population.
I noted that, according to a number of recent reports on the subject, the poorest third of the Israeli population now spends a massive 50% of their income on accommodation. Could this be a future powder keg for Israeli society as people struggle to see a way to escape from poverty and possibly become desperate?
“Israel has experienced dramatic house prices rises in the past eight years (with the exception of 2011), despite domestic political uncertainty, security threats and the global financial meltdown,” noted the Global Property Guide, quoting CBS figures. “In fact, house prices have risen by 102% (69% inflation-adjusted) from 2006 to 2015.
“The main reason for the continued rise in house prices is the supply shortage, due to low construction volumes. Other factors contributing to the house price boom have included the central bank’s expansionary monetary policies and the lack of alternative investment options.”
While home prices have rocketed, average wages have risen little in comparison, meaning that, in real terms, the average Israeli now spends a much greater proportion of their income on sustaining their home. This, in turn, would appear to indicate that with less funds for other necessities such as food etc., the overall standard of living for many people has fallen over the last decade. For ex-pats like myself, many of whom receive a salary or have savings in foreign currencies such as British pounds and US dollars that have devalued sharply against the Israeli shekel ‒ the day I arrived here there were 8.8 shekels to the pound, now there are 4.6 ‒ you don’t need to be Milton Friedman to understand the impact changes have on family finances.
Israel is undoubtedly an expensive place to live, given the high costs of houses, cars, electrical goods and clothing, coupled with relatively low wages and high taxation. And yet, when surveyed, despite all the many challenges daily life presents them, most people seem happy with their lot. Israelis are ranked eighth in the world, with an average life expectancy of 82.4 years, just above Sweden and France (Japan is tops, by the way, with 83.7). Canada is 12th, the UK 20th and the US 31st.
Of 155 countries listed in the 2017 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Israel ranked 11th overall. The US was 14th, the UK 19th and France came in 31st. So, despite a collective talent for complaint and self-criticism arguably unequaled by any other nation on the planet, Israelis, privately, appear much happier with their lot than many people might expect.
Ropalidis and I scanned through a variety of CBS-compiled data, including the disappointingly high figures on road traffic accidents, and the record-breaking more than 3.5 million incoming tourists, including a growing number from China and the Far East. The increase in tourists visiting Israel appears partly due to the growth of airlines, mainly low-cost carriers, which have made international travel far more competitive and affordable over the last decade ‒ in large part due to the Israeli government’s “open skies” policy that has greatly increased competition and choice in the market.
I steered the conversation back to the claim that the CBS is completely independent of the government.
“First of all, people believe in our democracy, and those who have gotten to know us closely are aware that we work together with the Public Advisory Council and under internationally accepted standards,” explained Ropalidis. “We are very professional and are proud of our image as professionals in this field. We have separate human resources and separate accounting departments, so we really do stand alone.”
Call me an old skeptic, but I still wasn’t completely convinced. “So, you can absolutely assure me,” I insisted, “that in the event of a statistic that might not reflect well on a particular politician, even the prime minister, for example, those statistics will be published, regardless of whether or not the PMO feels it might reflect badly on the prime minister?”
The engaging director of Dissemination & Media Relations amiably stood his ground.
“Here’s an example for you,” he said, “of why it is not a problem and can often actually be of benefit [to release disappointing statistics]. Take the police, for example. If we, the CBS, publish statistics about them ‒ not statistics compiled by the police themselves ‒ they feel comfortable with this. A statistic showing an increase in a certain kind of crime can give them a basis to suggest they need the government to give them more resources.
“On economic data, there is an international methodology used by the OECD and the UN, so it is not something that we decided to do a certain way. We fill in questionnaires for these organizations all the time and we have a lot of international visitors coming to Israel to check on our work.”
I’ve touched on the rising birth rate among the religious Jewish community, but one of the most stunning statistics presented by the CBS is the major societal change in Israel’s Arab community when it comes to family and children.
“As for the population figures here,” highlighted Ropalidis, “you see a decline in the size of the average Arab family from around six or seven children [in the 1950s]. The Israeli figure has risen slightly [over the same period]. Last year, 2016, was the first time ever that the average number of births of children in Jewish and Arab Israeli families was equal ‒ 3.13 per household.”
Now that’s a demographic whose implications really do make you think.
Through “Crime and Justice,” “Culture, Entertainment and Sports,” “Household and Families,” “National Accounts,” “Agriculture,” “Manufacturing, Commerce and Services,” “Transportation,” “Science and Technology” and much more, the CBS has stats on it all. If you want to delve around and see for yourself how the figures stack up, their transitional English-language website can be found at: http://www.cbs.gov.il/ reader/cw_usr_view_Folder?ID=141.
As for me, after 10 years, on balance, when I look at the many daunting security and economic challenges now facing the UK and Europe, for example, I feel I made the right decision. I hope I’ll feel the same another 10 years down the line about a country that still has so many challenges of its own. But, at the end of the day, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that for good, bad or indifferent, it is, at least, my country.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist.
Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com