Censuses were held in the ancient world and are held today in most countries of the modern world, but their goals then and today are totally different.

In the ancient world censuses were held for purposes of taxation, military conscription, and economic and class control of the social structure. The main purpose of these censuses was to strengthen the central government.

In modern, democratic countries censuses are held whose main purpose is to gather information that is vital for fulfilling the role and obligations of the country, to provide services to the population.

The basic principles that characterize the census data, as differentiated from other statistical estimates, are:

1.  Individualism - each resident is represented in the census.

2.  Universality - all the residents in the country are included in the census.

3.  Simultaneity - all the data relate to the same period of time ("census day").

4.  Periodicity - a constant frequency of censuses is maintained.


Censuses in the ancient world​

In the ancient world they already conducted population enumerations, called "almost-censuses" (Bachi, 1965). These enumerations did not uphold the ‘basic principles’ of the population census of the modern era, mainly because they did not constitute a universal enumeration of the entire population (usually, they did not include slaves, women or children). Enumerations of this type were conducted in ancient times in China, Egypt, Athens, Rome and among the Israelites in the time of Moses and David. Their purpose was taxation, army conscription, preparation of lists of voters, etc. 

The population enumerations conducted in biblical times can also be considered population censuses. In the Bible, we find references to enumerations that were conducted: 

  •  ​When the Israelites went to Egypt, they were 70 in number: "Thy fathers went down into Egypt     with threescore and ten persons" (Deuteronomy, X, 22).

  •  ​​When they left Egypt,600,000 men were counted: "And the children of Israel journeyed from    Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside    children." (Exodus XII, 37).

  • ​​ In a census conducted by Saul, he counted 300,000 recruits from Israel and 30,000 from Judah: "And when he numbered them in Bezek, the children of Israel were three hundred thousand,    and the men of Judah thirty thousand." (I. ​Samuel, XI, 8).​

  • ​​In a census conducted by David, he counted 800,000 people from Israel and 500,000 from Judah: "And Juab gave up the sum of the number of the people unto the king; and there were in Israel    eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred  thousand men." (II. Samuel, XXIV, 9).

Censuses of the 17th to 19th centuries

​In time the situation changed. The industrial revolution, the beginnings of modernization and the demographic revolution that occurred in Europe during the 17th, and especially the 18th century, resulted in the development of liberal concepts and ideas whose main focus was Man. It is no wonder that during that same period an interest developed in human populations, the similarities and differences between them, and the changes they undergo with time. Therefore, a need arose for collecting data on the population. 

Population censuses, in the modern meaning of the term, began being conducted only during the 18th Century, especially at its end (e.g., in Sweden in 1747, and since 1775 every five years till today; in the USA in England in France in 1801, and since then every ten years). 

The interest in subjects related to the population first awoke approximately 100 years previously. Only in 1612 did the term "Population" first come into common use in European countries. 

In fact, the beginning of the use of statistics is linked - perhaps more than anything " to population in general, and to population censuses in particular. The term "Statistik" was coined, probably, in Germany in 1748 by Gottfried Achenwall, who has often been called "The Father of Statistics"; and the word "Statistics" has been used for the theoretical analysis of the state of various countries (States, Status). The northern European countries, headed by Sweden, were the first to utilize parish registers for purposes of obtaining census data and establishing a national statistical system.

​Sweden has been managing consecutive national statistics since the mid-1800's".
The intensive preoccupation with population data, as well as the process of modernization of censuses, were accelerated after many countries adopted the idea of a "welfare state". The idea is based on the concept of a country as serving its population, and as obligated to provide it with various services. In order to do that, the country needs a great deal of data on the state of the population and the effectiveness of its services. These data must not only be as accurate and reliable as possible; they must also be geographically detailed, and must relate to specific populations, even when they are relatively small.

​Censuses in the Twentieth Century

In the '50's of the 20th century, 80% of the world's population was estimated by censuses. Today almost the entire world's population is enumerated once every decade by various types of censuses, and in some cases, once every five years (e.g., Australia, Canada, Japan and Sweden). International institutions, headed by the UN, play an important role in coordinating census dates in various countries, and in the exchange of information among them, regarding data as well as work methods and statistical methodologies. These organizations safeguard the uniformity of census definitions, in order to make possible international comparisons, which assist in understanding the demographic and social conditions in specific countries. 

Today censuses are an important source of information on the population of the country, and on the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the population at the national and local levels. The introduction of computers (in the '60's and especially in the '70's) as a tool to improve census procedures led to a revolution in the production of information from the census, and its distribution. Thanks to this revolution the findings of the census are, today more than ever, available to all those interested.

​Population censuses in Israel

​Censuses in the Land of Israel before the establishment of the State

1905 - The Ottoman authorities conducted a census in the entire Ottoman Empire, in the framework of which a census was also held in the Land of Israel, which did not include the whole country. One of the purposes of the census was to lay the foundations for a permanent Residents Register, according to that used by European countries.

1916 - 1919 - During these years a census was conducted in 50 Jewish and mixed localities - urban and rural. This was not a census that was conducted simultaneously in the whole country, but rather several local censuses, the first of which was held in . The reason for the long period of time the censuses took, was the situation which existed in the country at the time of the First World War. During the first stages of the census the Land of Israel was still under Turkish Rule. With the withdrawal of the Turks and the conquest of the country by the British during 1917-1918, the Israeli office of the World Zionist Organization, headed by Arthur Ruppin and Ya'acov Tahon, managed the completion of the series of local censuses.

1922 - In October, 1922 the government of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel conducted the first census. This was the first modern, official census conducted in the Land of Israel, and it included a few questions on the subjects of age, sex, marital status, religion and language. With regard to the Bedouin population, they were satisfied with estimates only.

1931 - In November, 1931 the British held an additional population census, which was the thorough census conducted in Mandatory Israel, from the aspect of organization, processing and analysis of data; which, in addition to the subjects covered in 1922, also collected data on citizenship, occupation, industry, literacy, and physical handicaps. The results of the census were published in two thick volumes, which were full of numbers on the religious, ethnic and economic composition of the population. The results of that census serve as a rich source of information on the population of the Land of Israel at that time.

In light of the dynamics of demographic and social change that have occurred in Israel since then, the data of the 1931 census very quickly became outdated. In the years after, the British tried three times to conduct population censuses at intervals of five years, but with no success: In 1936 riots broke out, in 1941 the Second World War was at its height, and in 1946 the political tensions in the Land of Israel reached their peak and the situation did not allow for conducting a census under appropriate conditions. The shortage of information lead to holding local censuses of the Jewish population. In Jerusalem a census was held in 1939 which was successful, despite the fact that it was boycotted by the ultra-Orthodox population. In Haifa a census was held in 1938; and in Zefat, Tiberius and the agricultural sector censuses were conducted during 1941-1942. These censuses were organized by the leadership of the Jewish population, and they followed two previous censuses that were organized by the World Zionist Organization (in 1916 and 1918) and a Tel Aviv census (in 1925).

​Previous censuses in the State of Israel

The 1948 census - the first census

The first population enumeration in the State of Israel was conducted in November, 1948, a short time after the establishment of the State, at the height of the War of Independence. The census was conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics, in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior. In this census a record of residents was compiled, whose main objective was the establishment of a Population Register, and preparing for the distribution identification certificates to the residents on the eve of elections to the first Knesset. The 1948 census created the basis for statistical data in the country. Since then, ongoing statistics on the population have been conducted by monthly updates of the data, compiled meticulously with the help of information obtained from listings of births and deaths, changes of address and entries and departures from the country, as well as tourism records.

The census was conducted in two stages. In the first stage enumerators visited the homes of residents before the census day (date of the census), and filled out the questionnaire that relates to basic demographic subjects, employment and knowledge of reading and writing, as well as spoken languages. In the second stage, on the day of the census, 8 November, 1948, a home curfew was imposed for 7 hours. The purpose of the curfew was to ensure that all residents would be in their homes during the visit of the enumerators and would be counted; and concurrently, to reduce the risk that they would be counted more than once, in two places. During the curfew the enumerators returned to the homes and checked the accuracy of the records from the first stage, added or subtracted the people that had been added or subtracted since the first visit, received a photograph from each resident, and presented them with a note that included their identification number, with the help of which they later received their official identification certificate.

​The censuses held since the '60's

After the 1948 census there were censuses held in 1961, 1972, 1983 and 1995. These censuses, as well, were conducted in two stages, although they were different in content from those of the first census, and without a home curfew. In the first stage, the enumerators filled out in the residents' homes the basic demographic data for all the residents. In the second stage, the enumerators only approached 20% of all households, and collected from them additional, more detailed data on social, economic and demographic subjects.

The second census in Israel was conducted in 1961, and was defined from the beginning of its planning stages as a "scientific" census (i.e., its declared purpose was to conduct a modern, statistical census); and therefore this was, in fact, the first statistical census held in Israel. At the time, it was among the most advanced censuses conducted in the developed world, both in its methods and in its findings. It was also the first census that made broad use of data from the Residents Register, to improve the coverage of the population. This use was repeated and expanded in all censuses held since then.

The 1961 census was conducted in two stages. In the first stage, the entire population was asked questions on demographic subjects; after that, in the second stage, 20% of all households were given extended questionnaires, with questions on social and economic subjects. This census was among the first in the world to also be used for distribution of an extended questionnaire to a sample of 20% of the population.

The 1972 census was conducted in an identical manner to that of 1961.

In the 1972 census computers were used in two stages: in the preparatory stage, in which data from the Residents Register were printed in advance on the questionnaires; and in the data processing stage, in which the statistical publications of the census were produced by computerized means.

In the 1983 census a change was made in the method of collecting data from the residents. As in previous censuses, this one was conducted in two stages.

In the first stage, two types of questionnaires were distributed to the residents for them to fill out by themselves: a short questionnaire, which included a small number of basic demographic questions, and was distributed to 80% of all households; and an expanded questionnaire, which was distributed to the remaining 20% of all households. The expanded questionnaire included, in addition to basic demographic questions, a range of detailed questions on social, economic and demographic subjects.

In the second stage, the enumerators returned to residents' homes and collected the questionnaires. At this stage they also completed, with the help of the residents - where necessary - the unanswered questions in the questionnaires.

This system made it possible to focus on surveying all households at the first stage (the stage of questionnaire distribution) and concentrate on problems relating to the completion and quality of filling out the questionnaires in the second stage (the stage of questionnaire collection). The addition of a short questionnaire for filling out alone (in previous censuses only the expanded questionnaires were filled in by residents alone) reduced, to a great extent, the burden on the enumerators, and enabled them to focus on correcting errors and completing the missing data.

The change that was made in the enumeration stage drastically reduced the extent of the "non-responses " (unanswered questions) in the expanded questionnaires, and thus also improved the coverage and quality of the information obtained, compared with previous censuses.

The 1995 Population and Housing Census was the fifth census held in Israel. This census was conducted in a similar manner to that of the 1983 census, but in this census technological improvements were inserted, especially in the field of computerization of the field operation, the computerized mapping system, and in the receipt of findings by an optical reader system. With regard to the last two points,Israel is considered to be one of the leading countries in the world. These changes contributed to improving the population coverage (full enumeration of the entire population and the households belonging to the census population), made the work of those in the field easier and made it possible to obtain accurate, quality information.

​As noted, the questionnaires in all the censuses included questions on demographic subjects, which the whole population answered; and questions on socio-economic subjects, which only a sample of the population answered. The contents and phrasing of the questions changed from one census to the next, according to the changes and developments that occurred during the years. However, a core set of questions that appear in all the censuses was retained, in order to make it possible to make comparisons over time.