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Demography of contemporary Jerusalem: part one

June 21, 2011

I’ve spent a few days reading statistics tables and that sort of thing; now I’m writing up my initial understanding. Obviously as I move forward I’ll come across additional data and probably additional insights, but here’s the first draft. Or rather, here’s the conceptual introduction to the first draft. I’ll post the second half, with the data itself and my understanding of what it means, tomorrow or the next day (hopefully).

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Demography of Contemporary Jerusalem: First Partial Draft

At the end of 2009 there were 773,600 people living in Jerusalem. 497,000 were Jews and 276,600 were Arabs. In 1967, when Israel took control of the entire city, there had probably been 266,300, 197,700 of them Jews and 68,600 Arabs. It’s a growing city, and the Arab population is growing faster than the Jewish one.

Then it begins getting complicated. Some of the complication is because of the “lies-damned lies-statistics” phenomenon, the universal tendency to use data to support an agenda. There are also specific reasons to be wary with statistics about Jerusalem. For starters, what (or where) is Jerusalem, and what’s not? Who are the Jews, and according to what definition? Who are the Arabs, and according to what definition? What understanding of history informs the garnering of data and formulation of questions? When studying demographic data from London, say, or New York or Shanghai, there’s no reason to focus particularly on 1800, 1914, 1922, 1948, 1967, 1993 and 2003. When dealing with Jerusalem, each of those dates has significance, if you accept a particular narrative about the city – or not, if you’ve got reason to prefer a different periodization.

The late 18th century was one of the demographic nadirs in Jerusalem’s long story. For all its illustrious past, it was a marginal town in an unimportant region of a declining empire. Then, in 1799 Napoleon marched nearby, never reaching Jerusalem but launching modern European penetration in the Levant. Mehmet Ali, an Albanian reformer from Egypt, shook things up in the 1830s, and soon thereafter the European powers began arriving in town with missionaries, diplomats, and building funds. The growth of modern Jerusalem had begun.

The arrival of modern statistical record-taking would have to wait a while yet. The decline of central government which was serving the European penetration meant there was no-one around to take systematic note of anything. As the city grew beyond the walls, it would also become ever less clear who was inside town and who out. The Germans colonists trying to live as farmers out of sight of the Old City in the 1870s, for example, probably didn’t regard themselves as living in Jerusalem; their children in 1900, living off trade and tourism but still in the same homes, almost certainly did. At any moment from the British arrival in 1917 until this very day, defining the municipal line of Jerusalem is a profoundly political act, for the inevitable decision about who’s in and who’s not, who gets counted and who doesn’t.

So far as I’ve been able to determine, there are no reliable population figures for Jerusalem before the first British census of 1922. Sometime in the 19th century the Jews became the majority group in town, for the first time since the Roman destruction, but if this happened in 1837, 1895, or any date in between, depends mostly on whom you’d like to believe. Significant differences arise because many of the Jews were not registered as Ottoman subjects, being Europeans, an option not open to local Arabs. This advantageous foreign status became a distinct disadvantage after the outbreak of war in 1914, and the number of Jews dropped.

The British records pertain to Jerusalem as they defined it, but they seem to have counted all the locals. They were as adept at political shenanigans as anyone – for example, they used citizenship to disenfranchise many of the city’s Jews and thus prevented the political headache of allowing a Jewish mayor – but subsequent demographers accept their data. The Israelis followed suit: comfortable with political machinations when necessary, the data they collected seems reliable.

How to tell? The official Israeli data comes from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), which is accepted as a professional outfit by the OECD. My main source for the following analysis is the annual reports of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a think-tank which has been focusing on Jerusalem since 1978. Its Statistical Yearbooks appear with the imprint of the Jerusalem Municipality, so they’re effectively the official data. Since 2004 the data is published online.

The yearbooks are not exhaustive. They don’t cover all topics, not even all topics likely to be of interest. House demolitions, for example, aren’t there, nor zoning data nor various aspects of infrastructure. For what they do contain, however, they seem reliable for being consistent, comparative, detailed and broad. Partisan and ideologically driven data can sometimes be identified by its narrow or contrived focus, lack of relevant comparisons, and unclear categories. Not so the yearbooks: they offer consistent, and thus comparable, data going back decades; they include comparisons with similar data from Tel Aviv and Haifa, or from the entire country; and they look at their themes from multiple perspectives.  Data always comes in tables, many of which can be downloaded in Excel files so that readers can process the data on their own; in many cases there are also diagrams. Tables are more useful for number crunchers; diagrams serve general users better because they offer visual comparisons and long terms trends. Ultimately, for most purposes it’s the trends which are more interesting than the particulars, since they’re what make the evolving story.

Each segment comes with specific explanations, some quite technical but important for professional users, while others cut through conceptual problems, such as the demographic significance of people who are neither Jews nor Arabs. Until the early 1990s there were only a few hundred of them; after the mass-migration from the former Soviet Union, there were thousands of them, but culturally they were part of the Jewish community. This in 1998 that category was moved from the Arab to the Jewish column of the tables.

The following survey is my understanding of the annual yearbooks and some reflections. As I move forward in my research, I expect to come across additional relevant data which may change my understanding somewhat, but probably not dramatically.

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