Sergio Della Pergola is one of the world’s leading demographers and a specialist in world Jewry. A former chairman and professor of population studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he now holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations at the university.
Della Pergola, 57, is also a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an independent think tank in Jerusalem. He has published numerous books and hundreds of papers on such things as Jewish identification and population projections in the diaspora and Israel.
Jewish Week: What do you foresee happening with the Israeli-Palestinian situation in 15 years?
Della Pergola: We can speak about social trends and projections of trends, but politics is much harder to predict. We can produce different scenarios, but it is hard to say which is most likely to occur. A two-state solution with the Palestinians is the best option, but I am uncertain about what will be. Among the considerations is what will happen to Jews worldwide and to the Middle East and Israel in particular. This very much depends on a preliminary question: what will be the global balance of power? Will the U.S. be willing to intervene outside its home, or will the global configuration be different with a rising China and a diminishing U.S.? Will there be more of a balance of power between the West and the East?
What will happen to the birthrate among Jews in Israel?
I have been working on population projections and it is a known fact that haredim [fervently Orthodox] have a higher birthrate. This is not because they are primitive or don’t manage family planning. Today they are a modern population with access to technology. Family planning for them occurs not at a level of two kids per household but seven or eight. Among the women quite a number do work and so they are integrated into the general society. And 100 percent of them have cellular phones. Computers have grown and even the number of people with a TV set has grown. All of this is counterintuitive when you think that this segment of Israeli society is cut off from the rest of society.
How many have television sets?
In the range of 40 percent — which is extremely low internationally. And 80 percent of the kids have access to a computer. Therefore, we are talking of a group of people who have knowledge of what happens in the outside world and who heavily rely on the state budget. They realize that the more they grow, the less the state and other sources will be able to help them, and so they are becoming more independent economically. Their fertility rate has gone down. We would expect a decline of from six or seven children to five or six — a decline of 15 percent over the next 20 years or so.
What is happening to the Jewish population of Jerusalem? There are those who say that only the fervently Orthodox are staying and that the others are leaving.
That’s not so. The stereotypical image is that all youth go to Tel Aviv and that Jerusalem is a haredi town. But more than half of those who are leaving Jerusalem are haredim. They are leaving because of housing. They all wish for housing that is more convenient and larger, and so as in any place in the world they move from the city to the suburbs. Both haredim and those in the top socioeconomic class move 15 to 20 miles from Jerusalem.
What about the future of Jerusalem?
The negative migration balance I described is not a guess. To be reversed, you need to have attractive jobs and housing for the middle class and those who can pay.
What do you see happening to the Conservative and Reform movements?
Growth has been visible but marginal. My sense is that the breakthrough has not yet happened and that the two movements by acting together are perceived as one. They should act independently, and especially the Conservative movement, which is more centrally positioned on the religious map, might gain significant support. But to the extent that the movements are perceived as fundamentally American, they are seen as something that is culturally not Israeli.
There is now a push by Israeli President Shimon Peres to develop the Negev and the Galilee. Do you see that succeeding in the next 15 years?
Peres is a man of vision. The question is whether Israeli politics will be able to move from daily fights and interests — where they can hardly see anything in the long term because they are so concerned with surviving until tomorrow. I believe that by developing those areas the number of new immigrants from the West might increase significantly.
There are some Israelis, including a former minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who believe Israel would be better off redrawing its borders to eliminate large blocks of Israeli Arabs. Do you see that happening in 15 years?
Lieberman is considered a man of the extreme right but the idea came out of the Labor Party. The logic is clear. You transfer political sovereignty over 300 or 400 miles of Israeli land with a large Arab population, and keep instead an equivalent portion of the West Bank with a large Jewish population. The society on both sides of the border would be significantly more homogeneous by religion or ethnicity and there would be a smaller minority of Palestinians in the State of Israel. Without that, Israel would no longer be a Jewish state but a bi-national state, and the Arab land would continue to have a large Jewish minority.
So do you believe there is much chance of it happening?
I suspect that such a change can happen if it is imposed from above — such as from the United States — rather than through direct negotiation. Or perhaps if some other international organization says that because the sides were unable to make peace, it would be imposed. Maybe that would be effective, but it needs complex decision-making on both sides that is not yet mature. But time works against Israel.
What do you think might be the biggest change in the next 15 years?
Changes have been quite conservative in terms of religious and political ideologies. The economy changed quite spectacularly and the question is how it can be further expanded to support a larger population and sustain a higher standard of living. If there is a peace agreement, the Middle East will be different. There would be more open and joint projects and the area would flourish and become one of the thriving centers of the world.
What do you foresee for the role of women
in the next 15 years?
I would expect women to take a stronger role in politics as they do in the economy and in the universities, where their numbers are growing. We have women as the president of the parliament, president of the supreme court and as foreign minister. It shows what women can do. But they are not yet fully represented in the political system. Yet in education, the number of women with higher degrees is higher than men. So I believe their numbers have to increase also.
Where do you see the greater concentration
of people in Israel in the next 15 years?
Greater Tel Aviv will still be the greatest concentration. There are nearly three million people there now. It’s like a big North American metropolitan area. Then there is the question of transportation and infrastructure, which is insufficient in this country. It is slowly being improved — but very slowly. We still do not have a full highway from the northernmost points on the Lebanese border to the southernmost on the Red Sea. The railway system has grown mostly north and south of Tel Aviv. Until it changes, we will continue to have a big Tel Aviv and a distant periphery in a country the size of New Jersey. It’s absurd.
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