Israel’s Demographic Miracle

Israel’s Demographic Miracle

David P. Goldman Spring 2013
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“The word ‘miracle’ in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural,” Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik once wrote. “Miracle describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement.” Whether the term applies to Israel’s demographics is a question for higher authority, but the Jewish State’s population characteristics stand out as unique in the developed world.

Israel’s fertility rate of three children per Jewish woman is higher than that of any other country in the developed world, and the only fertility rate substantially above replacement. Only the United States among the world’s industrial nations has a fertility rate around the replacement level of 2.1; Europe and East Asia are headed for eventual population decline with fertility of just 1.5 children per woman. Israeli women, by contrast, have three children on average; non-Haredi Jewish women have an average of 2.6.

Just as remarkable is that fertility in most of the Muslim world has fallen below Israel’s, while the fertility of Israeli Arabs and Arabs in Judea and Samaria has converged on the Jewish fertility rate in Israel. At present fertility rates there is no risk that a non-Jewish majority will emerge between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Not only has the so-called population time bomb disappeared in Israel; in large parts of the Muslim world, fertility has fallen below the Jewish fertility rate in Israel.

Whether the proportion of Arabs in Judea and Samaria as well as in Israel itself is growing may be the most politicized demographic question in the world.

The late Yasser Arafat can take credit for the worst demographic forecast of the twentieth century. “The womb of the Arab woman,” the late Palestinian strongman averred, “is my strongest weapon.” By this he meant that the Arabs of Israel and the occupied territories would outbreed and overwhelm the Jews. A generation of Israeli politicians believed him, fearing that a “ticking demographic time bomb” threatened the integrity of the Jewish state. In 2001, for example, The Christian Science Monitor noted a report to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which said:

In the whole area west of the Jordan—including Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza—Jews last year represented 50.5 percent of the population; the Arabs, 49.5 percent. Testifying before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Prof. Arnon Sofer of Haifa University projected that with their higher birthrate, Arabs would constitute 58 percent of this population by the year 2020 and Jews, 42 percent. Without final borders and a clear separation between states, he said Israel faces an existential crisis.

The supposed demographic threat loomed behind the late Yitzhak Rabin’s celebrated Rose Garden handshake with Arafat in 1994. It motivated then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to offer the Palestinians half of Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank in return for a peace agreement in 2007. In October of that year Olmert warned the Knesset of “a demographic battle, drowned in blood and tears,” if Israel did not achieve peace through concessions of land. A month later Olmert predicted “the end of the State of Israel” by demographic exhaustion. “Mr. Olmert,” reported the BBC in November, “said it was not the first time he had articulated his fears about the demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish state from a faster growing Palestinian population. He made similar comments in 2003 to justify the failed strategy of unilateral withdrawals from Israeli-occupied land which holds large Palestinian populations.” Israeli concessions in the first decade of the twenty-first century were motivated by fear that Arab fecundity would swamp Israel’s Jewish population.

Yet the Israeli Jewish fertility rate has risen to three children per female while the Arab fertility rate has fallen to the point where the two trend lines have converged and perhaps even crossed. A 2006 study by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies claims that the West Bank and Gaza population in 2004 was only 2.5 million, rather than the 3.8 million claimed by the Palestinian authorities. Presumably the numbers were inflated to increase foreign aid and exaggerate the importance of the Palestinian population.

Most of the phantom population, the report argues, comes from births that never occurred:

[The Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics] projected that the number of births in the Territories would total almost 908,000 for the seven-year period from 1997 to 2003. Yet, the actual number of births documented by the PA Ministry of Health for the same period was significantly lower at 699,000, or 238,000 fewer births than had been forecast by the PCBS. … The size of the discrepancy accelerated over time. Whereas the PCBS predicted there would be over 143,000 births in 2003, the PA Ministry of Health reported only 102,000 births, which pointed to a PCBS forecast 40% beyond actual results.

Palestinian fertility on the West Bank has already fallen to the Israeli fertility rate of three children per woman, if we believe the Palestine Ministry of Health numbers rather than the highly suspect Central Bureau of Statistics data. In 1963, Israeli Arab women had eight or nine children; today they have three, about the same as Israeli Jews. Education explains most of the fertility decline among Arabs, and it is likely that Arab fertility behind the Green Line as well as in Judea and Samaria will continue to fall.

More recent data also show that the Israeli Jewish birth rate has risen faster than predicted. Jewish births rose from 96,000 in the year 2000 to 125,000 in 2010, while Arab births fell slightly over the same period—from about 40,781 to 40,750, according to a new study by Yaakov Faitelson at the Institute for Zionist Strategies. The proportion of Jewish pupils in Israel’s elementary schools is increasing, Faitelson reports:

The percentage of students in the Arab educational system out of all Israel’s total first grade student body will decrease from 29.1% in 2007 to only 24.3% in 2016 and 22.5% in 2020. At the same time the percentage of students in the Jewish educational system out of the total first grade student body will reach 75.7% by 2016 and 77.5% by 2020.

While Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority contributes disproportionately to Jewish population growth, most of the increase in Jewish births comes from the secular and non-Orthodox religious categories, which average 2.6 children per woman. Faitelson notes that the ultra-Orthodox fertility rate fell over the past decade, while the fertility of the general Jewish population rose.

An Israeli fertility rate of nearly 3 births per woman exceeds the industrial nations’ norm by such a wide margin that Israel—assuming that fertility remains unchanged—will have a larger population than Poland by 2085. Poland’s median age, moreover, will be 57, an outcome impossible for the Polish state to manage (because the majority of Poles in that case would be elderly dependents), while Israel’s median age will be only 32. Even more remarkable is that Israel will have more young people than Italy or Spain and as many as Germany by the end of the century if fertility remains unchanged. A century and a half after the Holocaust, that is, the Jewish State will have more military-age men, and will be able to field a larger land army, than Germany.

Secular sociologist Eric Kaufmann complains of the “Haredization” of Jewish life—a shift towards ultra-Orthodoxy— but the numbers tell a different story. In Israel, the so-called secular (a designation that in actuality covers a wide spectrum of religious belief and practice) account for Israel’s uniquely high fertility rate. In fact, the line between “secular” and “religious” is blurred in the Jewish state. Fifty-six percent of Israelis light Sabbath candles every Friday evening (and a further 22 percent light them sometimes), according to Daniel J. Elazar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in the most comprehensive survey of Israel’s religious practice. Fifty-five percent believe that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai. And 69 percent observe Jewish dietary laws at home. Synagogue attendance is low, at only 22%, but the comparison between synagogue attendance in Israel and Church attendance in the U.S. may be misleading. About half of the three-hour Saturday morning service is devoted to reading and study of the Pentateuch and some extracts from the prophets, providing a lesson both in Bible and Hebrew language lesson for the Jewish people in exile. Israeli schoolchildren use the language of the Bible on the playground, and take mandatory Bible study throughout primary and secondary school.

Elazar observes:

Israel’s Jews are not divided into two groups but into four: ultra-orthodox, religious Zionists, traditional Jews, and secular. Some 8 percent are ultra-Orthodox. These are the strangely (to Western eyes) garbed, black hatted Jews who are featured in all the pictures, despite the fact that they represent only 8 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Another 17 percent are religious Zionists who normally are lost to view in the studies and the statistics because they are generally lumped with everyone else. The religious Zionists are similar to the modern or centrist Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, partaking of most or all aspects of modern civilization, except that they maintain Orthodox observance of Jewish religious law and tradition. The third group consists of the vast majority of Israeli Jews, some 55 percent, who define themselves as “traditional.” …They cover the whole range of belief and observance from people of fundamentalist belief and looser practice to people who have interpreted Judaism in the most modern manner but retain some of its customs and ceremonies.

It might be added that inhabiting the Promised Land is one of Judaism’s central commandments. There was a deep religious sensibility among the secular Zionists who set out to rebuild the Land of Israel. David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, rejected all religious beliefs, yet he personally gave Bible lessons to Israeli students and fought to secure a central role for the Bible in the school curriculum. Devotion to the State of Israel distinguishes nominally secular Israelis from really secular American Jews, whose fertility divides by denomination quite as clearly, as can be seen in the following statistics from Anthony Gordon and Richard Horowitz in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey.

American Jewish Fertility by Religious Current

Religious Sect Average No. of Children per Woman
Ultra-Orthodox 6.72
Modern Orthodox 3.39
Conservative 1.74
Reform 1.36
Secular 1.29

That Israel’s exceptional fertility stems from religious commitment rather than ethnicity is suggested by the enormous contrast between orthodox and secular Jewish birth rates in the United States. Nowhere is the fertility gap between religious and non-religious more extreme than among American Jews. As a group, American Jews show the lowest fertility of any ethnic group in the country. That is a matter of great anguish for Jewish community leaders. According to sociologist Steven Cohen, “We are now in the midst of a non-Orthodox Jewish population meltdown… Among Jews in their 50s, for every 100 Orthodox adults, we have 192 Orthodox children. And for the non-Orthodox, for every 100 adults, we have merely 55 such children.” Reform and secular Jews average one child per family; the Modern (university-educated) Orthodox typically raise three to four children, and the ultra-Orthodox seven or eight.”

The American data suggest an explanation of fertility similar to what is encountered in Israel: the stronger the Jewish commitment, the more likely Jews are to have children. Living in Eretz Yisrael is one of the strongest manifestations of Jewish commitment, such that Israeli Jews within a broad spectrum of religious observance have as many children as the most religiously engaged American Jews. As unique as the Jews are among the world’s people, their fertility in the State of Israel is also unique among the nations, and cause for optimism about the future of Am Yisrael.

David P. Goldman is the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) (Regnery 2011), a PJ Media columnist, and a former essayist at Asia Times Online.

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