The demography of Jerusalem

If current trends continue, the ratio of Jews and non-Jews will level off around mid-century, and thereafter Jews in Jerusalem will be the minority.

AN AERIAL view of the Temple Mount and east Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN AERIAL view of the Temple Mount and east Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recent proposals surrounding the redrawing of Jerusalem’s borders, including the Greater Jerusalem Bill and other legislative initiatives, should take into account multiple considerations, including security, economics and religion.
Another major factor is the size and composition of the city’s population, namely its demography.
Shortly before Israel’s founding there were some 164,000 inhabitants in Jerusalem. Following the division of the city in the 1948 War of Independence, a little less than half that number remained on the western side under Israeli rule. By 1960, the population of west Jerusalem had doubled. After reunification in 1967, and Israel’s annexation of several West Bank Palestinian villages that had not previously been part of Jordanian east Jerusalem, the city’s population was approximately a quarter of a million people. The number of residents continued to grow to about half a million by the mid-1980s, and to 850,000 in 2015.
In the midst of this population growth, the balance between Jews and non-Jews has changed dramatically.
When the city was divided almost the entire populace of the western side was Jewish. With reunification, the non-Jews from eastern Jerusalem were added and reduced the proportion of Jews to three quarters. Since then, the non-Jewish population has grown at a faster pace than the Jewish population. Accordingly, at the beginning of 2015, Jews accounted for only 63% of the city’s population.
Between 2008 and 2013, natural increase added 86,000 Jews to the city’s population. Yet, more than half of this growth was canceled out because of a negative balance of internal migration with other cities and towns across the country, as well as some emigration abroad. Overall, during these years, 39,000 inhabitants were added to the Jewish population of Jerusalem. The non-Jewish populace grew by 48,000 (mostly due to natural growth, but family reunification was also a factor).
If current trends continue, the ratio of Jews and non-Jews will level off around mid-century, and thereafter Jews in Jerusalem will be the minority.
Some claim that geography is more important than demography and there should be no intervention in the evolution of the population – even at the price of losing the Jewish majority. They should be reminded that the residency status of the Arab population of eastern Jerusalem grants them the right to vote and run for city council seats as well as mayor.
Thus far, most have not exercised this right. Nevertheless, a change in approach, or a decision by the Palestinian leadership to participate in municipal elections, could bring a change to the face of the city council or even the mayor’s office.
Others, who want to ensure a Jewish majority in Jerusalem, have contemplated two major independent but complementary policy moves. One is to diminish the negative balance of internal migration through the creation of more jobs and increasing the housing supply – particularly for educated young graduates of the city’s many academic institutions. With this, every possible measure must be taken to also improve the quality of life in the non-Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and to deepen their integration into the city’s social, economic and cultural fabric. Mechanisms for avoiding tensions around the holy sites would certainly have to be implemented. Conditions such as these would reinforce the positive image and reality of Jerusalem as a safe, developed and pleasant place to live.
A second policy option involves changing Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries: diminution, for example, along the current route of the separation barrier and perhaps even further moving it westward to exclude more Arab neighborhoods from the city; or extending the boundaries by annexing several currently autonomous Jewish municipalities that are within the Green Line.
Of course, any unilateral act that removes some 100,000 Arab residents from the auspices of Jerusalem and places them, in the absence of a peace agreement, in a new independent municipality under Israeli sovereignty, should be undertaken in a scrupulously careful and thoughtful manner.
Maintaining jobs and welfare rights will be critical, as will the ability to keep ties with relatives who will continue to live within Jerusalem proper.
A shrinking of the current municipal boundaries that at once would strengthen the Jewish majority of Jerusalem and would likely also improve the daily life and living conditions of the non-Jewish population beyond the wall, would undoubtedly receive the support of most Israelis as well as that of Diaspora Jewry.
The author is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a demographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.