“The more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied.” (Exodus 1:12)
Many were the achievements justly celebrated on Israel’s 70th anniversary last month: the country’s prowess in matters military, its world-famous technological knowhow, its record of economic growth and stability, the rich variety of its cultural offerings, the vibrancy of its religious life, the indomitable spirit of its people.
Yet still another achievement, perhaps the most impressive but one that’s mostly unknown, needs to be added to the list: Israel’s stunning demographic success. In this essay, I hope to repair the deficiency.
To do so, it helps first to move briefly backward in time to 1998, the year of the country’s 50th anniversary. Then, too, Israel had many accomplishments to be proud of, but its future prospects seemed far less promising. Especially bleak was the population forecast.
All over the world in those years, Jewish birthrates, consistent with trends in relatively educated and affluent societies, were on a downward slope, and Israel was no exception. Moreover, in Israel there seemed no realistic prospect of a substantial influx of new immigrants. The recent great wave from post-Soviet Eastern Europe in the early and mid-90s had effectively exhausted itself, and Jews in affluent Western lands showed no intention of emigrating to Israel in significant numbers.
Meanwhile, birthrates of Arabs across the Middle East, including in Israel and the Israel-controlled territories of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, were vastly higher than Jewish birthrates and showed no signs of diminishing.
These facts alone constituted grounds for serious worry that the Jewish majority in Israel would become so thin and attenuated as to pose a threat to the security and perhaps even the survival of the Jewish state. Thus, it was hardly a coincidence that these years also saw an intensification of ostensibly well-meaning calls on Israel to seek peace at almost any price with its Arab neighbors, evacuate the territories taken in the 1967 war, including if necessary eastern Jerusalem, and safeguard its majority within Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders before things got even worse.
And then things did get worse. In September 2000, interpreting repeated Israeli concessions to him as signs of weakness, Yasir Arafat launched the second intifada, ushering in one of the most sweeping and protracted terrorist campaigns ever directed against a civilian population. For the next four years, Israelis were subjected to almost daily murderous attacks. Economic activity declined sharply; diplomatic pressures mounted; and many professed to see only darker clouds on the horizon. Alarmed friends of Israel, prominently including former President Bill Clinton, urged American Jews to exert pressure on their Israeli cousins to reach a deal with the Palestinians before the already dire population statistics, exacerbated by rising numbers of Jews who would surely leave the sinking Israeli ship, turned demographic emergency into demographic catastrophe.
And yet, none of these forecasts was borne out. Israelis fought back and eventually defeated the second intifada both militarily and politically. The economy recovered and entered a stage of sustained growth. Simultaneously, defying all predictions, Israeli Jews started to have many more children, bringing about a complete reversal of demographic trends. Today, the Jewish birthrate has soared so high that it outpaces that of Arabs both in Israel and on the West Bank, and even in most Arab and Muslim countries.
How did this seemingly impossible turn of events come about?
I. Warnings of Demographic Apocalypse
In some ways, the entire history of Zionism is one of false prophecies of Jewish demographic doom as well as the one intimation—of a horrific fate for European Jewry—that came dreadfully true in the Nazi murder of a third of the Jewish people in 1939-45.
Around the time of the first Zionist congress in 1897 where Theodor Herzl articulated his vision of a future Jewish state—to many at the time it was less a vision than a fanciful dream—there were approximately 11 million Jews in the world, of whom only about 1 percent lived in the land of Israel itself. By the beginning of World War II, the world number had risen to almost 18 million, only to fall by the end of the Nazi genocide to fewer than 12 million. Of those, some 600,000 had ingathered in Palestine and would be present at the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, proceeding within a few years to double their number by absorbing the vast majority of Middle Eastern Jews fleeing persecution at the hands of Arab dictators.
Today, there are about 14 million Jews in the world, a number still significantly smaller than in 1939. Of these, about half now live in the Jewish state. There, as the Zionist story unfolded, a long series of dire demographic predictions would prove successively and dramatically wrong. To take one early example: in 1898, the great Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, an opponent of the Zionist movement, wrote that “the creation of a state with a significant Jewish population is impossible. . . . [I]n the year 2000, there will live in Palestine at most 500,000 Jews.”
Nor did such bleakness cease with the establishment of the state itself. Roberto Bachi, soon to become the founding director (1949-1971) of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), calculated in 1944 that by 1971 the Jewish population in the land of Israel would stand only at about 1,900,000 as against a majority of 2,186,000 Arabs. Bachi later corrected his figures to account for the large-scale ingathering of Jews from Arab countries and elsewhere and their temporarily high birthrates, which had boosted the Jewish majority, but he still held that the fall to minority status had only been postponed to the year 2000.
Demographic pessimism was reinforced after 1967 when the Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli rule and it became common for demographers to include this population in forecasts for all of the lands “west of the Jordan.” Although Israel to this day has formally annexed only the areas of eastern Jerusalem as well as the sparsely populated Golan Heights, and although in 2005 it disengaged totally from Gaza, today most demographic assessments still treat the whole area west of the Jordan River as one undifferentiated unit.
Already by the late 1980s, with the outbreak of the first intifada, it had become fashionable to predict an imminent Jewish demographic apocalypse. The new consensus was presented in an October 1987 New York Times column by Thomas Friedman, who quoted various trends and statistics to illustrate an inescapable downward Jewish trajectory:
According to [Israel’s CBS], in 1985 Israeli Jews had an average birthrate of 21.6 per 1,000 people, while Israeli Arabs had a birthrate of 34.9, Arabs of the West Bank 41.0, and Arabs of the Gaza Strip 46.6—more than double that of Israeli Jews.
Friedman’s local expert was Arnon Sofer of Haifa University, who warned that unless Israel withdrew immediately from all of the West Bank and Gaza, it would be faced with the “calamity” of an Arab majority. Another supposed expert, Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, thought that Israel might soon be forced to adopt the shamefaced method pioneered by the failing Maronite Christian rulers in Lebanon, who “simply stopped taking a census.” Both Sofer and Benvenisti stressed essentially the same point: in the battle for a comfortable majority “west of the Jordan,” Jewish demography was a losing game, a reality that in turn demanded radical changes in Israeli policy vis-à-vis the territories.
Friedman did note that some Israeli right-wingers were not so pessimistic. One prominent example was then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who declared, quoting the Hebrew Bible, that
from its inception our nation was “the smallest among all the nations,” and always faced demographic problems. Yet never did our people resort to the solution of escapism. That is no solution.
Shamir held out hope for large waves of Jewish immigration in the future—a hope that would be spectacularly confirmed when, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, just such a wave brought more than 1.2 million Jews to Israel.
Still, as we have seen, even this great inflow did not put to rest the forecasts of demographic doom. From the early 1990s, and particularly after the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993, the mantra of a “demographic threat” was again widely repeated in the media and cited in diplomatic circles as a reason for ever greater Israeli territorial concessions to Yasir Arafat’s PLO. Yet every such concession made by Israel in those years was met by a hardening of the PLO’s demand for a complete withdrawal to the state’s pre-1967 borders and for granting a “right of return” to all descendants of the 1948-9 Arab refugees—a return that, if implemented, would inundate the Jewish state and thus thoroughly vitiate the rationale for the concessions in the first place.
To Arafat, who understood this process perfectly, the goal was to break the spirit of the Israelis, as he stated explicitly in a February 1996 speech to Arab diplomats in Stockholm:
The PLO will now concentrate on splitting Israel psychologically into two camps [i.e., for and against concessions]. . . . We plan to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion [emphasis added]. Jews will not want to live among Arabs.
Which brings us back to the start of the 21st century and the onset of the second intifada. As the terror raged, fear of the so-called Arab “population explosion”—or what Arafat, referring to the wombs of Arab women, liked to call his secret “demographic bomb”—reached an apex. In 2003 Benjamin Netanyahu, then minister of the treasury, articulated those fears in declaring that even though Israel had relieved itself of responsibility for the Arabs in the territories ruled by the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Jews would likely still face the problem of an insufficiently large numerical majority even within the country’s pre-1967 borders: “If we have [an Arab minority of] 40 percent, the Jewish state is nullified.”
Chiming in, Arnon Sofer announced in 2004 that Israel was “in a demographic collapse; the demographic map in Jerusalem, in the Negev, and in the Galilee points to devastation.” So did the demographer Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University, who foresaw that by 2020 there would be a Jewish minority “west of the Jordan” of some 6,380,000 Jews versus 8,810,000 Arabs, and that even in an Israel without the territories, Jews would still become a minority, if at a slower rate, reaching that point around the 100th anniversary of the state in 2048.
American well-wishers, including Bill Clinton, once again stepped in to call for increasingly far-reaching concessions as a means of staving off the looming demographic threat. Ever since the 1993 Oslo accords, Clinton assured one Jewish group in 2009, “the geographic or demographic facts have not changed, and the Palestinians are having more children than you can make or import.”
Under Barack Obama, this would become a constant talking point. In March 2013, during his state visit to Israel, Obama declared:
Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine [through a complete withdrawal from the West Bank].
Obama’s speech was synchronized with a piece in Foreign Policy by Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and Middle East policy expert, asserting baldly that “Israel can be Jewish, democratic, or a state in control of the Palestinian territories. Choose two.” In December of the same year, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the presidential warning: Israel’s parlous demographic situation represented an “existential threat . . . that makes it impossible for Israel to preserve its future as a democratic, Jewish state.”
By then, however, anyone attuned to the actual numbers being recorded by Israel’s CBS would have known that, for some time already, the demographic facts had changed, and that the tide had turned.
II. Israel and Worldwide Fertility Trends
In one sense, perhaps, the doomsayers could be forgiven—at least if one were to ignore the often transparently political motives behind their predictions. After all, modern society is indeed characterized by a trend of declining fertility rates. Even many poor and only partly modernized societies exhibit such a decline. But it is particularly marked in developed countries, where rising education and income levels correlate with a fertility rate that has often plunged to, or beyond, the level at which the population will shrink unless augmented by immigration. That level—the average “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman over the length of her childbearing years—has been effectively forgone by most economically developed countries.
Thus, in 2015, the average fertility rate of women in the 35 member countries of the OECD (including the U.S. and most EU nations) was at 1.68. Within the European Union, the average current fertility rate is about the same, albeit with wide differences between, say, France with a fertility rate of 1.96 and neighboring Spain at a catastrophic 1.3. These rates, moreover, reflect not a momentary dip but a trend that has been gathering force for a generation or more.
Outside the EU, Russia has a fertility rate of 1.75, a number that masks a sharp discrepancy between an abysmally low rate among ethnic Russians and a much higher rate among the Muslim minority. A similar discrepancy is discernible in West European countries including France and Germany.
In East Asia, where in-migration has been negligible until now, the sharply falling fertility trends are even more dramatic than in Europe or North America. In China the fertility rate is at 1.57, in Japan at 1.46, in Singapore at 1.24, in South Korea at 1.05, and in Taiwan at 0.9. All of these societies are now grappling with the daunting prospect of a rapidly aging population coupled with a no less rapid shrinking of the workforce.
Now for the Middle East. Some countries in the region face a challenge that is even worse: a steep decline in fertility before they have achieved significant economic affluence. There the results can be catastrophic. Several countries are now approaching what has been aptly termed a “death spiral” of collapsing fertility and rapidly aging populations with few economic or social resources to fall back on. In many cases, an exacerbating factor is an oppressive regime, propping up an already brittle ethnic balance, that is now threatened by declining fertility primarily among the ruling ethnic or religious groupings.
A notable case in point is Iran, where fertility crashed from 6.2 in 1985 to below 1.7 in 2015. With an underdeveloped economy that relies solely on oil exports to keep it out of bankruptcy, Iran completely lacks the financial or social wherewithal to deal with a situation in which old people outnumber the young. That the low fertility rate is far more marked among the ethnic Iranians than among oppressed minorities like the Azeri, Kurds, Baloch, and others, who already constitute about 45 percent of the population, points to a likely rise in ethnic unrest.
In Turkey too, the fertility rate has declined steeply, halving from a rate of 4.1 in 1985 to 2.1 in 2015. While still at replacement level, the rate once again disguises a wide disparity, in this case between the western and predominantly ethnic-Turkish parts of the country, where the fertility rate is at about 1.6, and the eastern, ethnic-Kurdish parts where fertility is over 3.0 and in some areas above 4.0.
Finally, fertility rates in all Arabic-speaking countries, although still relatively high at an estimated average of 3.3, are likewise on a rapidly descending path. In Algeria (2.8), Saudi Arabia (2.6), Morocco (2.5), and Tunisia (2.2), fertility is gliding toward replacement level, while in Lebanon (1.7) it is already below that level. It’s harder to estimate the rates in countries embroiled in civil war, specifically Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, but it appears that only the last two have a fertility rate substantially higher than replacement level. Two other Arab countries with a still-high rate are Egypt (3.3) and Jordan (3.45).
Up to this point, all figures have been taken from the World Bank’s “World Development Indicators” for 2017. But this brings us to Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, where determining real fertility rates is freighted with problems.
Between June 1967 and the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel controlled these territories directly and was able to collect exact demographic data. But in the 25 years since then, the data, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, have become highly unreliable. The PA has a strong incentive, financial as well as political and psychological, to inflate both the numbers of Arabs in the territories and their fertility rates. The higher the numbers, the larger the subsidies the PA can extract from the Western and Arab countries on which most of its finances are based.
Accordingly, PA reports of population numbers in the 1990s and 2000s ballooned exponentially to the point where, in February 2008, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) declared the Arab population of the West Bank to stand at 2,300,000 (including some 200,000 in eastern Jerusalem), while that of the Gaza Strip was at 1,460,000, yielding a combined total of 3,760,000 people. By then, however, it was becoming harder to hide the disparities between these total numbers and other determinable data, like the number of children in schools. Nevertheless, the PCBS sticks to them, proposing that by 2015 the population in the West Bank and Gaza was at a grand total of 4,680,000.
In the past decades, however, other demographic studies—especially those undertaken variously by Yoram Ettinger, Yakov Faitelson, and a joint American-Israeli effort led by Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid, and Michael L. Wise—have radically challenged and undercut these PA numbers. Their general conclusion is that the PCBS has added about one million non-existent Arabs to its numbers and that the actual Arab population in the West Bank (without eastern Jerusalem) is at about 1,800,000 while in Gaza it is at about 1,600,000, for a total of 3,400,000.
Even a pro-Palestinian organization like the Norwegian Fafo Institute for Labor and Social Research has ventured to criticize the PA’s accounting. Similarly, the CIA Factbook for 2017, exhibiting its own distrust of the PCBS, estimated the Arab population of the West Bank (including some 250,000 Arabs in eastern Jerusalem) at 2,150,000, quite close to the Ettinger and Zimmerman et al. estimates, while for the Gaza Strip the CIA estimate was closer to the PCBS at about 1,815,000.
These disparate estimates of total population size influence fertility estimates as well. For the PCBS, the fertility rate of Arab women in the West Bank in 2013 was at 3.7 while in Gaza it was at 4.5. But the CIA in its 2017 Factbook put the 2014 fertility rate of Arab women in the West Bank at a much lower 2.83, and in Gaza at a somewhat lower 4.18.
As for the fertility rate among Israeli Arab women, it has declined from about 4.5 in the year 2000 to about 3.1 in 2015, in line with the trends evident among other Arab-speaking populations in the region.
But amid all of these global and regional trends, and bucking them, stands one significant exception. In the last generation, higher educational and income levels among Israeli Jews have correlated with a marked rise in fertility.
III. The Changing Face of Israeli Society
In 2015, Israel’s general fertility rate was at 3.1, with both Jewish and Arab sectors of the population at about 3.13. This represented a sea change from the year 2000, when Israeli Arab fertility, as we have just seen, stood at 4.5, while the Jewish rate was at 2.6. During the last decades, fertility among Arabs in Israel has roughly followed the general downward trend across the Middle East, with Muslim Arabs now at about 3.35 and trending downward while among Christian Arabs the rate has for a long time fallen far below replacement level. Meanwhile, the Jewish rate continues to rise, with an estimate for 2017 of 3.16—roughly on a par with or above that of Arabs within Israel as well as across most of the Middle East.
About a decade ago, when signs of the great shift in Jewish birthrates became undeniable, some demographers tried to trace the phenomenon to the poorer and religious segments of Israeli society, especially ḥaredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. Demographic doomsayers like Arnon Sofer, forced to drop their warnings of a coming Arab majority in Israel, now began to warn of a future “non-Zionist” majority that would purportedly unite ḥaredi Jews with Israeli Arabs against the Zionist spirit of the state. Granted, the Ḥaredim were Jews, but for all intents and purposes, according to this argument, they were to be considered a burden rather than an asset to Israel: they expected others to pay for the multitudes of children they birthed, declined to send those children to serve in the army or to engage in productive work, and in sum represented a weight that in its own way threatened to sink the Zionist enterprise.
These contentions were largely spurious. Setting aside a small minority who are actively hostile to Zionism (as is true also of a small minority among secular Israeli Jews), most Ḥaredim are deeply attached to the Jewish state. Nevertheless, various schemes were proposed for discouraging ḥaredi families from having children.
It eventually emerged, however, not only that ḥaredi birthrates weren’t responsible for the rise in Israeli Jewish births but that the opposite was true.
A word of caution: before adducing estimates of fertility rates among various segments of Israeli society, it’s important to bear in mind that in many individual cases, definitions of religiosity in Israel overlap and are also fluid over time. Relying, then, mainly on religious self-identification among Israeli women, we can construct a timeline for the changes in fertility rates in given sectors of Israeli society over the last decades as follows:
In the year 2000, the fertility rate among ḥaredi women was at about 7.5. In 2015, it was at about 6.7—a drop of 10 percent.
Among non-ḥaredi, religiously observant Jewish women, fertility in the same period remained almost unchanged: about 4.0 in the year 2000 and about 4.2 in 2015, for a rise of perhaps 5 percent.
Among women identifying themselves as “traditionally” observant, the fertility rate rose from about 2.6 in 2000 to 3.0 in 2015—an increase of about 15 percent.
Among “traditional” but not very observant Jewish women, the upward jump was even more striking, higher by almost 20 percent: from about 2.1 in the year 2000 to about 2.6 in 2015.
Finally, among women identifying themselves as non-observant or secular, fertility rose by almost 15 percent from about 1.8 in the year 2000 to about 2.1 in 2015.
In sum: since the beginning of the 21st century, fertility has actually declined by about 10 percent among Ḥaredim, risen slightly (5 percent) among religiously observant women, and risen significantly, by 15-20 percent, among all other sectors of Israeli Jewish society. While fertility among ḥaredi women remains high, the dramatic rise of fertility across the Jewish population as a whole is attributable to something else: the combined decisions by millions of Jewish families, women and men of all Israeli social groups, variously described as traditionalist, non-religious, or even secular, who have chosen to have more, many more, children.
Eventually, even the most obdurate naysayers have had to concede that the rising fertility levels in Israel are for the most part the choice of mainstream, educated, middle-class Israeli Jews. Although so far no serious studies exist to explain this unusual and sustained phenomenon, we may point to some plausible contributing factors.
IV. What It Means to Be an Israeli Jew
Israeli Jews are a notably—some would say dizzyingly—diverse lot, marked by many stark differences in affiliation, outlook, style of life, and even attire. But on some basic things they are far more homogeneous than might outwardly appear. And there is no single aspect of life in which they are more united than in the central emphasis they place on family welfare and continuity.
On some level one could say the same of every society. But all around the world, modern cultures, groups, and whole societies, even while committed to this ideal, have simultaneously acted on the proposition that the material and even the spiritual well-being of individuals is connected to the limit they place on the number of their children. For some, indeed, especially in the most affluent European and Asian societies, the stricter those limits, the greater are the chances for happiness and self-fulfillment.
At the other extreme, many tribal or clannish societies to this day continue to count large numbers of offspring as the single best measure of success and status, sometimes even endorsing polygamy for this purpose. The downside in such societies is that children are often regarded as mere appendages of the collective wealth, with little or no consideration paid to their individual welfare and development.
Various UN and OECD studies agree on the factors responsible for falling birthrates: rising educational levels in general and especially among women, more women in the workforce, marriage and childbearing postponed till later ages, a stress on career achievement and economic advancement, and so forth. These factors apply in all societies—including in tribal ones, where even small advances in education or emancipation from tribal control are associated with a sudden drop in fertility.
The same factors exist in Israel, too, but, for most Israeli Jews, without the same effects on fertility. It thus appears reasonable to conclude that Israeli society has somehow succeeded in balancing rising levels of affluence and education with continued adherence to a family-oriented culture, thereby developing a unique and currently stable combination in which the centrality of the family has successfully withstood the full effects of the individualist ethos. Throughout Israeli society, the educational and moral welfare of children as well as the continuity of the family remains at the center of parents’ (and grandparents’) lives, not only emotionally but as a matter of almost day-to-day practice.
This peculiarly strong culture draws sustenance from and in turn informs the equally strong sense of national solidarity. Thanks to that strongly shared national identity, Israeli Jews are unusually willing to make personal sacrifices when it comes to welcoming new Jewish immigrants into the state and into their homes—and also when it comes to stoically enduring protracted periods of violence and bloodshed perpetrated by intractable enemies. As traditional communities of origin have receded in importance elsewhere in the world, the shared sense of an Israeli nation-family underlies the habitual instinct of most Israeli Jews to regard other Jews, and especially those in Israel itself, primarily as family members rather than merely as fellow citizens.
This attitude certainly has roots in Jewish tradition going back to the Bible, many of whose formative stories involve struggles with fertility and continuity. And Jewish religious practices are also notably family-centered. With the exception of Yom Kippur, virtually all major religious holidays, from Passover to Sukkot to Hanukkah, have evolved more around the family home and table than the synagogue; and as for the Sabbath table, it is a family table or it is nothing. In Israel, many of these family rituals are also performed, whether in part or in full, by most Jews who regard themselves and are commonly classified as secular.
Similarly, the shared experience of being or representing the survivors of the Shoah, or of the Jewish communities expelled from Islamic countries, and survivors as well of decades of unrelenting wars, terror, and hostility, has forged a widespread resolve to uphold the family and its continuity.
As a result, one may say that among Israeli Jews of all kinds, having children is commonly felt as both a right and a duty—an attitude that is rapidly assimilated by newcomers as well. An excellent example here is the great wave of immigrants who arrived in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union, where birthrates among Jews were some of the lowest in the world. Indeed, it was widely expected that the arrival of these immigrants, many of them highly educated and culturally Russified, would dramatically and perhaps permanently reduce the Israeli fertility rate. In actuality, both the immigrant generation and its progeny quickly adopted the regnant view, and in time their birthrates have converged with the national mean.
Nor is this the only example testifying to the pervasiveness of Israel’s pro-child culture. In Israel, second marriages are themselves regularly cemented by the arrival of new children. Moreover, it is also now a socially accepted phenomenon for successful but unmarried single women in their late thirties to have one or two children on their own, with the help of their relatives. (Whether or not this mode of family-formation should be regarded as an unmitigated good is an issue on which analysts and others may vary.) Even among religiously observant families, where extramarital childbearing was until recently virtually unheard of, it is not uncommon for single women in their late thirties or early forties to conceive by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and go on to raise children with the support, both financial and moral, of their strictly Orthodox kin.
An analogous trend can be observed among Israeli Jewish gays and lesbians. Although precise data are lacking, it appears that high percentages are having children and creating a much more child-oriented culture than is to be seen among their counterparts in Europe or the U.S.
Finally, Israel has become by far the world leader in fertility treatments. More than 40,000 such treatments are performed every year—adjusted for population size, thirteen times the number in the U.S.—even in cases where the chances of conceiving are quite slim. Whereas wealthy European countries with generous state-funded health services offer only up to six rounds of fertility treatments, and then only until a woman reaches the age of forty, in Israel there is no limit to the number of publicly funded fertility treatments a woman can undergo if she wishes (so long as she has fewer than two children already), and the upper age limit is forty-five. Currently, more than a third of the fertility treatments in Israel are for women over the age of forty.
Israel also performs incomparably more check-ups for pregnant women than does any other country, and has developed groundbreaking technologies for surgery on fetuses with life-threating conditions. In the words of Arnon Wiznitzer, director of the women’s hospital at Israel’s Beilinson Medical Center, “we are the superpower of fertility.”
Surely, then, the prophets of demographic doom can now retire? Amusingly, some seem so reluctant to abandon the field as to have identified a new up-and-coming danger: too many Jews. The leading spokesman for this new Malthusianism is Alon Tal, chairman of the department of public policy at Tel Aviv University and the author of The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel (Yale). Forecasting a population three decades from now of 23 million and perhaps even as many as 36 million, he has embarked on a mission to break his fellow Israelis’ conviction that they must bring children into the world. (Incidentally, Tal, an American Jew originally from North Carolina, is a father of three.)
V. The Secret Zionist Victory
We can sum up the story so far:
In 2000, for each Arab child born in Israel there were two Jewish children: a ratio of 2/1.
In 2010, for each Arab child born in Israel there were three Jewish children: a ratio of 3/1.
In 2020, two years from now, if current trends hold, for every Arab child born in Israel there will be four Jewish children: a ratio of 4/1.
Absolute numbers tell the story even more starkly. In 2001, 95,146 Jewish children were born in Israel, and 41,440 Arab children; in 2015 the respective numbers were 137,708 and 41,016. In other words, within a mere fifteen years the number of Jewish children rose by more than 45 percent while the number of Arab children remained essentially unchanged.
The continued ingathering of Jews to Israel is an added source of demographic optimism. Since the turn of the century and the petering-out of the massive wave of Jewish immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union, smaller but still significant numbers have been coming both from the former USSR and from such countries as France, Ethiopia, and the U.S. In the last decade the net gain (subtracting returning Israelis and new immigrants who subsequently left) has been fairly constant at an average of about 20,000 annually or more than 200,000 additional Jews each decade.
These statistics tell a heartening tale concerning the demographic strength needed for Israel to survive and prevail in its existential struggle with its enemies. They also tell another tale—a Jewish tale—concerning Israel’s relationship to the diaspora.
Israel’s rising fertility rates, together with the continuing arrival of new Jewish immigrants, when placed against the opposite trends in most diaspora communities, mean that for some years now, Israel has been the world’s largest single Jewish community—something unprecedented since the period of the Second Temple. Even more significantly, Israel is or will soon become home to the absolute majority of world Jewry—something unprecedented probably since the period of the First Temple some 2,500 years ago.
But the sheer numbers reflect only part of the dramatic recalibration between Israel and the diaspora. Current data and foreseeable trends suggest that Israel is about to become home to roughly two-thirds of all Jewish children in the world, with close to 140,000 being born every year compared with some 70,000-80,000 in the diaspora. This last number is perhaps the most striking, for it means that within the next generation, Israel will become by far the undisputed center of gravity of Jewish life.
The new demographic reality presents new challenges as well as new opportunities. As many traditional Jewish communities in the diaspora are witnessing a period of rapid decline, and as the frequency of out-marriage among European and American Jews shows no sign of abating, there will be far larger numbers of unaffiliated people of Jewish descent than ever before. How to reach them will be a task to occupy Jewish policy planners for a long time to come.
Concurrently, however, individuals and groups around the world whose links to the Jewish people have become even more greatly attenuated than those in the affluent West are now actively seeking to regain some kind of connection with the Jewish core. Some of these seekers are descendants of people in Western and Eastern Europe who during the Nazi and Communist periods hid their Jewish identity or converted. Others are among the millions of descendants of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in late-medieval Spain, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere, but whose families over the centuries preserved certain traditions and memories. Still others retain traditions of even more ancient lineage. For many, Israel will become the main and sometimes the only significant link to Jewish history and to a possible Jewish future.
All of this amounts to a striking if still largely unrecognized victory for Zionism’s 120-year-old goal of making the land of Israel once again the center of the Jewish nation and the Jewish story. In this respect as in others, Herzl’s dream is a dream no more.