Launch of JCA special report on Australian census


Census Report Launch Event (from left to right): Shari Lowe, Planning Manager, Alain Hasson, JCA Acting Chief Executive Officer, David Graham, Research Author, and Leanne Piggott, Jewish Communal Planning Chair.

You are chatting with a new acquaintance. In getting to know this person it is quite likely you would ask them, “…and what job do you do for a living?”. Now imagine asking that question of Australia’s entire Jewish population, all at once. What answer are you most likely to hear? To give you a clue, it’s probably not the one you are thinking of right now. The point is that to answer such a question we tend to rely on our preconceived ideas about the social world we inhabit, but these idea often don’t match reality that closely. (If you can’t bear the suspense all is revealed at the end.)

Now imagine trying to plan Jewish communal welfare or Jewish schooling or community security or the location of a new synagogue, by relying solely on your preconceived ideas about how many Jews there are, their ages, location, health, income, education and yes, occupation. Investing what are often considerable sums of money simply on a hunch, or even several hunches, is a risky approach at best. Far better to have informed decision making, at least as your starting point. This demonstrates one of the main benefits of the census: it tells us the answers.

I have often described the census, and the religion question in particular, as a gift to the Jewish community. Its sheer breadth is unparalleled by any single survey or other data gathering exercise and it is simply not possible to obtain the kind of data a census delivers in any other way. Indeed, that is why $500 million dollars was invested in carrying it out in 2016.

So, I for one, was concerned during the run up to the 2016 Census when negative media reports started to appear about privacy concerns, and I was aghast when on the evening of 9th August 2016, ‘Census night’, the entire online platform crashed and was taken offline for over 40 hours, the result of a ‘denial of service’ attack. And I was not the only one worrying. The Australian Bureau of Statistics subsequently ordered an independent review to be carried out by the great and the good before the release of data. The following year that review found that “the 2016 Census data is fit-for-purpose and can be used with confidence”.

Unfortunately, it turned out things weren’t quite so simple, at least for us. When the first census results were released they showed the Jewish population had contracted by 6.5%. Now that may not sound like much, but Australia’s Jewish community is special. It has, or rather had, been growing more or less continually for over 100 years. Not only that, there had been no prior indication of an impending Jewish demographic nosedive. On the contrary, some modest growth was expected based on 2011 Census data projections.

What had happened? To cut a long story short, we found the ‘decline’ wasn’t real, but rather, the result of two issues unique to 2016. First, the religion question had been tweaked giving greater prominence to the category ‘No religion’ and second, while the response overall to the 2016 Census was high, it seems that many Jews felt more uncomfortable than usual about reporting ‘Jewish’, presumably due to the relatively tense atmosphere in which the 2016 Census took place.

Since many different Jewish communal organisations rely on census data for planning purposes, the more accurate they are the better, and that is why JCA views census analysis as a critical component of its funding strategy. In the past, the main challenge has been that the religion question in the census is voluntary; it’s a sensitive topic after all. But having adjusted for that, we also had to address the likely effect of the 2016 question change and the heightened concerns around privacy.

After accounting for these factors, we found that the Jewish population, far from declining, had in fact grown, albeit more slowly than in the past. The main driver of that growth continued to be Jewish migration to Australia. For the first time, more Jewish people spoke Hebrew at home than Russian, a reflection of the growing importance of Israel as a source of Jewish migrants. However, compared with the number of Jews coming from South Africa in recent years, it is unlikely Israeli migration will deliver the kind of strong demographic growth the community has enjoyed since the early 1980s. Indeed, despite comprising the largest group of new arrivals since 2011, migration from Israel was already in decline by 2016.

The result of these trends is that with each passing census we see we are becoming less and less foreign, and more and more Australian. For the first time in 40 years, Australia’s Jewish population cannot rely on overseas migration to sustain it demographically. It is difficult to underestimate the importance of this simple demographic fact to the Jewish community’s long-term future.

And finally, what was the most common Jewish occupation in Australia in 2016? The answer: Sales Assistant (N=1,991). I bet you thought it was Accountant (N=1,560).

To read more about the 2016 Census visit JCA’s publication’s page (jca.org.au/publication/).