Israel is a country extraordinary in so many ways that some of its most unusual features are often overlooked or, in the case of demography, misunderstood.
It does not help that Israel’s population prospects have come to sit at the centre of many of Israel’s national debates, whether about the size of the religious sector, the fate of the territories or the balance between Jews and Arabs. Too often what passes for analysis is little more than polemic from one side or another —and what makes Israel so unusual from a demographic perspective gets lost in the crossfire.
Ashkenazi Jews experienced a large and relatively early population explosion but by the end of the 19th century, Jewish family sizes in Europe and America were falling. Thus the Jews of Mandate Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, who were mostly Ashkenazim, had a relatively low fertility rate, typical of a socially and economically advanced population in the inter-war years.
In the early years of Israel’s independence after 1948, a vast number of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa were absorbed and they had, by contrast, large family sizes. However, as the Mizrachim assimilated into Israel society, their birth rate converged downwards, towards that of the Ashkenazi population. This is fairly normal for people rapidly adopting a Western lifestyle with high levels of female education.
By the 1990s Israeli Jewish women were having on average a little over 2.5 children, high relative to many advanced populations, but not astonishingly so. Over the last 15 or so years, however, when other advanced populations, particularly in the Mediterranean area, have seen fertility rates plummet, Israeli Jewish women have had larger families. Today the average Israeli Jewish woman has a little over three children.
Three children may not seem such a large number — and of course it is only an average, with many having more and many having less — but by international comparison it is astonishing. It is, for example, twice the level of Greece and more than twice the level of Italy, Germany or Spain. In the Poland of the 1930s, Jewish women had considerably smaller families than those of the Catholic Poles. Today, Israeli Jewish women have more than double the number of children of women in Poland. Some developed countries such as the UK, France and the USA have fertility rates near “replacement level” of 2.1 but in no developed country besides Israel does the level approach three.
Surprisingly, the family sizes of Israel’s neighbours, although high until recently, have also started to fall, and rapidly. Egyptian fertility rates were once much higher than those of Israel but are now about the same and falling. Lebanese women have fewer than two children.
As recently as the mid-1980s, Iranian women had almost four and a half children more than Israeli Jewish women. Today they have more than one child fewer. The proclivity of Israeli women to have babies makes them outliers, not only in the developed world but also, increasingly, in the region where they live.
Many would think that this is all to do with the birth rate of the strictly Orthodox. It is certainly true that Israeli Charedim have exceptionally large families, but so do those of a “national religious” persuasion. Secular Jews in Israel certainly have smaller family sizes, but even the most secular element has a fertility rate at or about replacement level.
This is in contrast not only to secular populations elsewhere but in particular to Jewish secular populations, particularly those in the United States, where the data suggests that family sizes are among the smallest for any group in the country.
Although Charedi families are large, there is some evidence from the work of Israeli demographers Arnon Soffer and Evgenia Bystrov that Charedi fertility rates are in fact declining, albeit from a very high level, while secular birth rates, are climbing, albeit slowly.
Although the strictly Orthodox sector is growing rapidly, it is still too small by itself to account for the large size of Israeli Jewish families. There is also evidence that fertility rates correlate not just with religious intensity but also with nationalism. Right-wing Israeli women, even secular ones, have large families. On the West Bank, where many but by no means all the Jewish population is religious, settlers as a whole have on average no fewer than five children, while West Bank Palestinians have now only three. Charedi women on the West Bank are estimated to have no fewer than 7.7 children on average, a whole child more than Charedi women within Israel proper.
As for the Arab population within the Green Line, here too there is an interesting story to tell. With the advent of the state of Israel, the country’s Arabs experienced an astonishingly high fertility rate and population growth.
Large family sizes are not unusual when populations come in a short period of time to experience the benefits of a modern welfare state and modern health care. Child mortality rates plummeted as Israeli Arabs came to benefit from the services which the Israeli state could offer, but family sizes did not plummet, at least not at first.
In the 1960s, Israeli Muslim women were still having no fewer than nine children. Normally, where exposed to the processes of development, such as education for women, birthrates fall fast. Indeed, in much of the rest of the Middle East, birthrates have dropped even before they have reached developed country status, with Morocco, for example, still experiencing very high levels of female illiteracy and yet having fertility rates now not much above replacement level. Again, Israel has been exceptional. Arab women in Israel have for decades enjoyed universal education and negligible levels of illiteracy, and yet they hung on surprising long to large family sizes.
Today, however, this has changed. Muslim Israeli women still have around three and a half children, a whole child less than they did ten years ago, while Arab Christian and Druze women have a fertility rate of a little above two, almost a whole child less than their Jewish peers.
While the Arab share of Israel’s population has grown, this growth appears to be coming to an end. As recently as a decade ago, Israeli Arabs were gaining share of the general population at around one percentage point every four or five years. On the basis of the 2013 data (which is not yet finalised) it appears that they are gaining population share at the rate of a percentage point every 20 years.
As recently as 15 years ago, Israeli Arabs accounted for 30 per cent of Israeli births. Today, they account for not much more than their near 21 per cent share of the population.
It is clear that, with very few more years along current trends, Israel will have reached a situation in which the Jewish and Arab sectors are in balance and large-scale aliya is no longer required in order to maintain the Jewish share of the population. Only around 70 per cent of 15-year-old Israelis are Jewish, compared with not much short of 80 per cent of one-year-olds.
Although the data is striking, it does not speak for itself. It does not answer the question why? Explanations for the high fertility rate of Israeli Jews range from “making up numbers after the Holocaust” (but then why are Jewish fertility rates low outside Israel?) to “intense religiosity” (but then why does the secular population have relatively large families?)
Some see it as the result of a positive, life-affirming outlook which, for whatever reason, does seem to characterise Israeli society. Certainly surveys of Israelis suggest that they are happy, although this need not necessarily translate into a desire to have large families. Perhaps it is their large families which make Israelis happy, but then the large families remain unexplained. It would seem to be a combination of factors which explain high levels of Israeli fertility, not least the on-going conflict and a fear of being “out-bred”.
Israeli demographer Arnon Soffer has expressed some scepticism at this view, placing much emphasis on the workings of the child benefit system, but in our conversation a year or so ago he did agree that, placed between Belgium and Holland, Israelis would probably have smaller families.
Just as the numbers do not explain themselves, nor do they make a political case one way or the other. Some on the Israeli left have argued that Israel must cede the West Bank, lest Arabs outnumber Jews.
For sure this appears less likely to happen with recent demographic developments, at least once the Gaza Strip is excluded from the equation (probably a significant motivating factor for the 2005 withdrawal).
Some on the Israeli right have suggested that these recent trends mean that Israel can sustain the status quo forever, yet demography was always only one of a number of factors (the others including security, diplomacy, economics and the existence of a “partner for peace”) which have needed to be weighed in the balance when considering Israel’s policy in Judea and Samaria.
Sociological arguments over why Israeli demography is so unusual will continue, and so will political arguments over what it ought to mean for policy. Putting these arguments to one side for the moment, it is worth simply understanding just how unusual Israeli family size is, whatever its causes and consequences.