Six ways Israel is counting its blessings on Independence Day

by | May 20, 2016 | Other News

TEL AVIV (JTA)—When Israel entered its 1948 War of Independence, the coastal city of Rishon Lezion was a hardscrabble farming settlement with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

As waves of immigrants inundated Israel in its founding years, many were settled in temporary camps on Rishon Lezion’s sandy outskirts. The arrivals braved rainy winters in tents and subsisted on the national food rationing program, which limited Israeli consumption of eggs and meat.

Not seven decades later, Rishon Lezion is Israel’s fourth largest city, a bustling hub of nearly 250,000 freckled with malls.

Its rise mirrors the meteoric growth experienced by Israeli society in the 68 years since the nation’s founding. Though Israel faces social, cultural, religious and military challenges, it has burgeoned economically, technologically and militarily. As the nation recently celebrated its Independence Day, here are six statistics that show how.

• Israel’s population has grown tenfold since 1948.

Israel was founded with a population of 806,000. Today there are 8.5 million Israelis, about 75 percent of them Jews.

In 1948, just over a third of Israelis were native born, or “sabras.” The rest were immigrants either from war-torn Europe or the Middle East and North Africa. Today, three-quarters of Israelis are native born.

But immigration, or aliyah, continues to swell the numbers: 30,000 immigrants arrived in Israel in 2015, including almost 8,000 from France, 7,000 from Ukraine and about 3,800 from the United States and Canada. In total, some 2.5 percent of Israel’s population—approximately 200,000 people—are from the U.S.

Israel’s cities have grown apace. West Jerusalem, in 1948, had less than 100,000 residents. Now the city’s eastern and western halves include more than 800,000 residents. Sixteen Israeli cities boast more than 100,000 residents, and eight have more than 200,000.

• A higher percentage of Israelis than Americans own cellphones.

In Israel’s first decades, phone access was a luxury. Through the 1970s, new immigrants sometimes waited years to get a landline in their apartment. In the meantime, they lined up at the local pay phone with a handful of tokens.

Now, 96 percent of Israelis own cellphones, more than the 90 percent in the U.S. A swarm of Israeli phone companies compete for customers’ shekels, while Israeli technological innovation has made cellphones more powerful.

Since 1948, Israel’s economy has grown even faster than its population. The country’s GDP in its founding year was $6.6 billion in today’s dollars. Now Israel produces about 44 times as much—nearly $300 billion a year. In 2010, the country joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of the world’s most affluent countries.

Standards of living have also risen. Israel’s GDP per capita today is approximately $35,000—6.7 times what it was in 1948, adjusted for inflation. Nine years after the state’s founding, just one-tenth of Israelis had an air conditioner for the country’s sweltering summer. Now, thankfully, almost nine in 10 Israelis have the machines at home. The country boasts nearly 3 million cars, compared to 34,000 in 1948.

• Israel’s Air Force grew from nothing to be the region’s most powerful.

When Israel’s provisional government declared independence, a militia, the Haganah, was in place to defend it. But the new state had a total of zero combat aircraft. The first shipment of 25 planes came a few weeks after Independence Day from Czechoslovakia.

The Israel Air Force has since established itself as the best in the Middle East. At 680 combat aircraft, it isn’t the region’s largest fleet, but technological prowess, training and Israel’s stability make it the most formidable.

Israel receives more than $3 billion of U.S. military aid every year, allowing it to maintain its advantage. The countries are now negotiating a new defense assistance package reportedly shaping up to be the largest ever.

• Israel’s yeshiva student population is 300 times bigger than in 1948.

When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted full-time yeshiva students from Israel’s military draft, the pass applied to just 400 haredi Orthodox young men studying Torah all day. But Israel’s yeshivas have been fruitful and multiplied. Today, more than 120,000 yeshiva students skip the army, according to the religious pluralism advocacy group Hiddush.

Haredi Jews make up 9 percent of Jewish-Israeli society, and their numbers are growing. According to a March study by the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of them have more than three children, while half of secular Jews have two or fewer.

The draft exemption has been a heated political issue in Israel for years, with many Israelis calling on the government to “equalize the burden” of military service. The centrist Yesh Atid party became Israel’s second largest in 2013 by promising draft reform. Its legislation passed in 2014, but was defanged last year after Israel’s most recent election, which swept haredi parties back into power and sent Yesh Atid into the opposition.

• The number of women in the Knesset has tripled.

Women fought alongside men in Israel’s prestate battles and the War of Independence. But when the first Knesset convened in 1949, just 11 of the body’s 120 members were women—less than 10 percent. One of them was Golda Meyerson, who would leave her mark on the world as Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister.

While no woman has followed Meir to Israel’s top post, more women than ever are members of Knesset. Women, who make up a majority of Israel’s population, are still underrepresented. But the body now includes a record 32 women, more than a quarter of Israeli lawmakers. That’s compared to the 19 percent of the U.S. Congress that’s female.

• Ben Gurion Airport welcomes 16 million travelers a year.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has festered, Israeli fears of international boycott have risen. But you wouldn’t know it from Israel’s main link to the outside world, Ben Gurion Airport. Fifteen million travelers passed through the hub in 2015, up from 10 million in 2010.

Tourism did drop 3 percent from 2014 to 2015, which Israel’s Tourism Ministry attributed to the 2014 Gaza War. But the war also showed the importance to Israelis of international travel. Some of the war’s tensest days came in late July, when many flights to Israel were canceled due to missile threats, severing some links between Israel and the world.

by Ben Sales