Karen Glaser

Let's hear it for Israel's soaring fertility rate

The children of Israel are going forth and multiplying, across all sectors of society

July 13, 2023 11:32

A text from my daughter Leah, written while tanning her torso on the Tel Aviv seashore: “It’s the invasion of the cherubs at Charles Clore beach, Mum, everywhere you look there’s a gorgeous, chubby baby crawling in the sand. You’d love it.”

I certainly would. Babies are just my favourite thing. One reason I love summer within these temperate shores is because the nation’s tots are out, their pearly limbs on delectable display.

Yes, I am that middle-aged woman who stops and coos at every passing pram and pushchair.

It was probably written in the womb. When Leah came into the world, my career mum went part-time so I could continue to work full-time, but mostly, I suspect, so she could spend precious days with the family’s first grandchild. Dad was every bit as besotted. The image of him gazing in wonder at his brand new granddaughter as she slept in her Moses basket will stay with me for ever.

Of course, for me, the baby years often feel like yesterday but the truth is the newborn in the Moses basket has just turned 22. What’s more, Leah is already talking about bringing her own babies into the world. Not immediately, but my daughter has shared that she would like three children and to have her first before she hits 30.

Exciting plans, for which I can thank Israel. Since she graduated from Edinburgh University, Leah has been living in Tel Aviv and has fallen hard for the Manhattan of the Middle East. She is smitten by its buzzy bars, busy bazaars and sizzling beaches, by the dynamic art and culture scenes in the Jewish state’s 24-hour city.

She is thoroughly convinced by its live-fast- because-you-might-die-young mindset.
Nothing exemplifies this mindset better than the fact that Israeli women now have more babies than their peers in any other developed nation.

In 2020, when the latest statistics were released, the overall rate was 3.01 children per Israeli woman, compared to around 1.6 in Britain. In Japan and Italy it is lower still: 1.3 in both. And don’t I know it. I had to lobby my Italian ex to have our beloved second child, Leah’s brother, who is now 15. In middle-class Italy, one-child families have been the norm since I lived there after my own graduation in the Nineties.

So, what is Israel doing right? I say “right” because the fascinating truth about Israel’s soaring population growth is that it cuts across all educational levels and all levels of religiosity.

Put another way, it is unsurprising that Charedi women living in Israel have, on average, seven children. But it is surprising that secular Jews, like my dyed-in-the-wool atheist daughter, now typically have three, and that the average age for an Israeli woman to have her first is 28.3.

Everywhere else on the planet, educated women have fewer babies than their less educated sisters and have them later.

Also interesting is that in 2018, the fertility rate of Jewish women living in Israel and in settlements on the West Bank just eclipsed that of Arab Israeli women: 3.05 compared to 3.04 births.

This is all excellent news for Israel.

First, because it will ensure that the most Jewish place on Earth remains so. Second, because when they grow up, the children of educated mums invariably also go to university, which means, in turn, that they are likely to work in the knowledge industries, in education and in health, to pay the taxes and create the wealth that nations need to prosper.

By contrast, Japan and Italy are in deep trouble. Their fertility rates have dropped well below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.

JC readers hardly need to be told that the Jewish injunction to have children runs deep, or that throughout history we have always created child-centred communities. The very first commandment in the Torah is to “be fruitful and multiply”. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides declared that “anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he built an entire world”.

The mass murder of Europe’s Jews in the middle of the last century gave the Sephardi scholar’s words an intense urgency. There was a great desire among Jews to replace the children the Shoah had stolen. And in Israel, a country that exists because teenagers have fought and died for it, there is nothing theoretical about the phrase “tomorrow is today”.

“There’s this feeling among my Israeli friends here that you need to get a wiggle on,” says Leah, “that there’s no point in hanging around, and that includes starting a family.”

If this means some Glaser cherubs will be crawling in the sands of Charles Clore beach sooner rather than later, I’m in.

July 13, 2023 11:32

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive