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Population trends in Jerusalem, first installment

July 11, 2011

I’ve been looking into the matter of how many people live in Jerusalem and what it all might mean. It turns out to be a complex but (to my mind) fascinating subject, with various interesting implications. Here’s the first installment of a draft chapter; the second will come soon.

Demography of Contemporary Jerusalem: First Partial Draft

At the end of 2009 there were 773,000 people living in Jerusalem. 64.3% were Jews and 35.7% were Arabs (source: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Online Statistical Yearbook, 2011,here: table III/1).

Any recounting of Jerusalem’s story will inevitably be confounded by conflicting narratives and opposing political needs. Prior to the 20th century, even the relatively dry matter of demography is murky. Archeological remains indicate that the city destroyed by the Romans was larger than it ever was again until the early 20th Century. But who lived there a century or three into the Muslim reign? Mostly Muslims? Mostly Christians? Who knows? How many people lived there in the 15th century? In the 18th? The European ability to build large churches in the 19th century without displacing anyone testifies to the tiny population of the day; there are essentially no spare inches to build within the walls today. Sometime in the 19th century the Jews became a majority, but was this in 1837? 1895? In between? There is no universally accepted answer.

In 1922 the British made the first-ever systematic census. They found 62,500 residents, of whom 54.3% were Jews and 45.7% Arabs. In 1946, the last year with reliable data before the war of 1947-48, there were 164,400 people, 60.3% of whom were Jews and 39.7% Arabs. The populace had more than tripled in a quarter of a century.  Some of this was the result of immigration, some the attraction of the seat of government. The British were the first ever rulers of the city who needed administrative definitions to determine the perimeters of the town. Previously it had always been obvious: either the city had physical walls, or it had natural edges. With the advent of motorized travel it became necessary to determine if a settlement on a nearby hill was part of town (Jewish Talpiot, say, or Arab Sheikh Badr), or if it was out of town and not to be counted in the demographic jostling (Jewish Bayit Vagan or Arab Malcha). In other words, the British numbers of 1922 were objectively clear; the British numbers of 1946 reflected administrative manipulation.  After 1967 such manipulation would become a crucial part of the story.

The war of 1948 was bad for Jerusalem, not only because of the hostile border through it. Battered by siege and war during the hostilities, and surrounded by hostile territory on three sides and with no religious or tourist value after the war, as many as 30,000 of the city’s 100,000 Jews left, many for the Tel Aviv metropolis. (Source: Maya Choshen in Achimeir & Bar-Siman-Tov, eds, Forty Years in Jerusalem 1967-2007, Hebrew, page 17. Online version here)[1]. The situation in the Jordanian East was even worse. Many Arabs had lived in what was now the Israeli part of town, and almost all had left or been ejected. (About 1,300 remained).  The Jordanian occupiers purposefully discriminated against Jerusalem in favor of Amman, and its population stagnated (source: Rubinstein in Achimeir & Bar-Siman-Tov, ibid, p. 471-73).[2] After 1950 the Israelis invested considerably in their half, but the Jordanians mostly didn’t, except in symbolic matters such as restoring the golden dome on Omar’s Mosque.

After the Six Day War Israel controlled the entire city. There were 197,700 Jews –and how many Arabs? In what had already been Israeli territory there were a few thousand. Since Israel intended to annex the eastern part of the city it had to define new city limits [this story will be told elsewhere]; within these new lines there were now 68,600 Arabs. Most of them lived in some 30 villages north, east and south of town, and did not regard themselves as living in Jerusalem.

From the summer of 1967 Israel’s policy was to preserve a demographic ratio of 3-1 between Jerusalem’s Jews and its Arabs.  This has failed, and by 2020 the ratio may approach 3-2 (source: Della Pergolla in Achimeir & Bar-Siman-Tov, ibid, page 43ff).[3] The story of these developments offer many insights into the reality of life in Jerusalem under Israeli rule, and the different dynamics that inform them.

Birthrates: In the chart below[4] the tan line represents the Arab birthrate (per 1,000 people), and the Jewish one is in lilac. The Jewish birthrate has remained remarkably stable, although the groups giving birth have changed. The large families of Mizrachi Jews are a thing of the past, while the Haredi birthrate has risen. The Arab birthrate fell steeply in the first 20 years of Israeli rule, then rose during the 1st Intifada, in what may have been a communal political decision.

In 2007-8 the gap between the birthrates narrowed further[5] (online source here).

Mortality rates[6] (deaths per 1000).


In 1967 there was a high rate of infant mortality among the Arabs of East Jerusalem, which has been decreasing ever since because of their exposure to Israeli medicine; this exposure has also reduced the mortality rates among the adult Arab population, to the extent that it is now lower even than amongst the population of all Israel’s Arab citizens: there are more hospitals in urban Jerusalem than in some rural Arab areas in the Galilee and the Negev. The mortality rate among Jerusalem’s Jews is also trending ever lower, but because the median age of Jews in Jerusalem is higher than of Arabs, the mortality rate among Jews is also higher.

A higher Arab birthrate and a lower mortality rate, both the direct result of the improvement of living under Israeli rule, go quite a way towards explaining why the Arab population is growing faster than the Jewish one. The next factors, however, are more interesting.

[1] Maya Choshen, “Trends of Change in Jerusalem’s population”, in Ora Achimeir & Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, eds, Forty Years in Jerusalem, 1967-2007 (Hebrew), Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Jerusalem, 2008, page 17.

[2] Danny Rubenstein, “Unification of the City and Unanswered Questions” (Hebrew) in Achimeir & Bar-Siman-Tov, ibid, pp.471-ff.

[3] Sergio Della Pergolla, “Demography, Planning and Policy, 2000-2020”, in Achimeir & Bar-Siman-Tov, ibid, p43ff.

[4] Choshen in Achimeir & Bar-Siman-Tov, p.13.

[5] Maya Choshen, Michal Korach, Jerusalem: “Facts and Trends, 2009/2010”, Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Jerusalem, 2010, p.14.

[6] Choshen in Achimeir & Bar-Siman-Tov, ibid, p15

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe in Australia permalink
    July 12, 2011 2:33 am

    Yaakov, can you clarify what happened to the Jewish population expelled from what became the Jordanian part of Jerusalem in 1948? Did they mostly resettle elsewhere in Jerusalem or move elsewhere? And how many were there?

    • July 12, 2011 10:40 am


      There were about 1,300 civilians, and a smaller number of men described as fighters. The men went into Jordanian captivity and were repatriated the following year. The civilians were deported into West Jerusalem, where most of them settled in Katamon, an Arab neighborhhood whose populace had been evicted. Till this day there are some institutions (synagogues, yeshivas) in Katamon which hail from the transfer, and here and there you can still find some old folks who remember the event. Mostly, however, Katamon has since moved into gentrification (starting in the 1980s).

      • July 12, 2011 3:09 pm

        Also, I forgot to mention the Jews evicted from Neve Yakov, which at the time was a small settlement north of Jerusalem. I don’t know how many there were, but they moved into Israel. There had also been Jews in Sheikh Jarrah (Simon the Just, it was called in Hebrew), but I think theyhad been evicted even earlier.

  2. July 12, 2011 4:13 am

    How is it possible that the Jewish and Arab shares of the population add up to 100% — to a tenth of a percentage point, even? Don’t the European priests, Filipino care workers, and so on make up more than one-thousandth of the population? Or is it a trick of definitions?

    • July 12, 2011 10:54 am

      You’re right of course, RK. There are only a few hundred European (or American) Christians living in Jerusalem, along with a handful of Korean theologians and other such unlikelies, and they’re statistically insignificant (and hard to count unless in a full-fledged census, such as happens only once every ten years).

      The Fillipino care workers must be more numerous. Foreign workers and refugees tend to congregate in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem.

      In any case, until 1995 the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) counted such people but categorized them in the group of “Arabs and Others”. When large numbers of non-Jews began arriving in 1989-1990 along with the very large numbers of Jews from the Soviet Union, the definition was changed, and since 1995 it’s Arabs, and Jews-and-others. This reflects the reality in which most of those “others” have become culturally Jewish; they speak Hebrew, they serve in the army, etc.

      To a real extent, this is true also of the foreign workers and refugees. They don’t learn Arabic, they learn Hebrew, and assimilate into the broader Jewish-Israeli society. Even the Muslim Darfuris, for example, which really makes it complicated after a while…

  3. David E. Sigeti permalink
    July 13, 2011 6:26 pm

    Yaacov, just a detail. According to the figures you cite, the population of Jerusalem more than *doubled* in the years between 1922 and 1946 — it did not triple.


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