Fifth national census On eve of millenium, a new Israel begins counting heads — and cars

At sunset tomorrow, Nov. 4, just as the Sabbath draws to an end, the Jewish state will hold still for a family portrait.

Jews, Arabs, new immigrants and veterans will smile into the statistical camera as Israel undertakes the fifth national census since its founding.

The census will reach into Bedouin tents as well as into institutions, including hospitals, prisons, mental homes and shelters for battered women.

It will probably take at least a year before the number-crunchers give shape to the raw data. When they are done, a clear image will begin to emerge of Israeli society on the eve of the new millennium.

The picture is expected to show a society that has undergone more far-reaching changes in the past decade than in any period since the early years of the state.

The arrival in recent years of more than 500,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the prosperity that has overtaken the country have made Israel a far different place from what it was even at the time of the last census in 1983. If early censuses reflected a spartan society, this one will be asking respondents how many cars they own.

No census taker will knock on doors tomorrow but sunset will mark the census cutoff point. Any baby born after that moment will not be counted. The determination of sunset as a cutoff point rather than midnight as in other countries is a reflection of Jewish tradition, which regards sunset as the end of the day.

The census results will serve as a basis for the nation's economic and physical planning, determining the amount of government subsidies to local authorities. The results will also have political import.

"It's going to be very interesting to see how many Israeli Arabs there are," says Professor Elisha Efrat, a geographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Does Galilee now have a Jewish majority? I think that, despite what is being said, it doesn't. The census will show us. It will also be interesting to see just how many Arabs there are in eastern Jerusalem.

"The Jews say there are 140,000 Arabs, and the Arabs say there are 160,000. How many Israelis are living in settlements? The official figures are something like 120,000. The settlers say 140,000. The real figure may be something else altogether."

Although census statistics are periodically updated by partial surveys and projections, their reliability grows weaker with the passage of time. The current census was to have been held two years ago — a decade after the previous one — but was held up because of a court dispute.

This year's census will not include the Arab population of the territories but it will include Jewish settlers there. Non-citizens who have lived in the country for one year will be included. Foreign diplomats, however, will not be. Nor will Israelis living abroad for more than one year.

The census forms will this time be more politically correct than in the past. For the first time, homosexual couples will be regarded as a single household. For the first time, not only the father — but also the mother — will be asked country of origin.

The head of the household will not necessarily be the father this time but the person who fills out the first entry on the family census form. Others in the family will be asked to designate their relationship to that first signatory. For the first time, not only the father but also the mother will be asked their country of origin.

An army of 7,200 census takers distributed forms to 1.5 million households between Oct. 19 and 27. Tomorrow they begin the collection operation, which will last about three weeks.

The basic form deals with only five questions: name, address, gender, age and country of origin.

Twenty percent of the public, selected on a random basis, have been asked to fill out a long form containing 32 questions about income, employment, education, marital status, ownership of certain items (cars, computers, solar heaters, VCRs) and questions about the type of residence they are living in.

"It is important that the public understand that the information they put on the census form is absolutely confidential," says Daniel Ben-Natan, an ex-Canadian who holds a degree in management and is director of the census. "It is not shared with the Shin Bet, the income-tax authorities, the Interior Ministry or anyone. We are bound by law to total secrecy."

The forms must be filled out in Hebrew or Arabic but there are explanatory leaflets in some 20 languages, including Russian and English, to guide new immigrants. If respondents have difficulty with the language, the census takers will provide assistance when they collect the forms.

The Israeli census of 1995 will be high-tech. The filled-in questionnaires will be fed into an Optical Data Entry (ODE) machine. "The machine is better than we are at deciphering handwriting," says Ben-Natan. "It will also do away with the percentage of errors involved when someone types the information into the computer. It is the most advanced technology of the day."

The census takers will also be provided with computerized maps to guide them on their rounds.

Yet for all the high technology, the census nearly didn't get off the ground. Many in the ultra-religious community said they would boycott the poll when some rabbis called on their followers to avoid the survey as a means of protesting the government's peace process with the Palestinians. But in Jerusalem, some rabbis ruled that filling out the forms do not violate halachah (Jewish law).

Still, thousands of people on the right may protest the census. Right-wing activists have put 400,000 fliers in mailboxes urging opponents of the peace process to fill out the survey, but to not hand in the forms until a government is elected that opposes the peace process.