New Challenges, and New Opportunities, for the Guardian of the Jewish Nation

Now home to the majority of the world’s Jews, Israel has responsibilities for the future of the Jewish people as a whole.

The historic lighthouse in Tel Aviv on October 17, 2009. Uri lenz/FLASH90

The historic lighthouse in Tel Aviv on October 17, 2009. Uri lenz/FLASH90

Last Word
May 29 2018
About the author

Ofir Haivry, an Israeli historian and political theorist, is vice-president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and the author of John Selden and the Western Political Tradition (Cambridge).

I thank my respondents Sarah Rindner, Haviv Rettig Gur, and Alon Tal for their comments on “Israel’s Demographic Miracle.” All three essentially agree with my presentation of the facts concerning the unexpected turnaround in Israel’s Jewish birthrates from a downward slope twenty years ago to what is by now a sustained rise in fertility. They also agree that Israel thereby presents a stark contrast to the picture in other developed societies, where the fertility rate has been steadily sinking to or below replacement level.

Nor do the respondents contest my discussion of the cultural and social factors that may help explain this unique phenomenon. Where they differ among themselves, and in some cases with me, is in their respective assessments of the implications of this phenomenon—a subject I touched on only lightly but now, thanks to their contributions, can address more fully.


To Sarah Rindner, the success of the Israeli model—a contemporary society whose members, she writes, “remain educationally advanced and psychologically stable while actually exceeding the fertility replacement rate”—should lead to “a reconsideration of some settled assumptions about childrearing in the modern world.” For, as she enumerates, despite the ostentatiously favorable attitude toward children common in Western democratic culture, despite the abundant presence of how-to manuals dealing with every aspect of parenting, and despite the arguments being made to persuade people, by appeals to their own “enlightened self-interest,” to have more children, there still seems to be no stopping the reality of falling birthrates across most developed societies.

Indeed, just in the last weeks new demographic data have revealed that the fertility rate in the United States, which had been relatively robust until recently, and was still holding its own as late as 2008, has just plunged to a historic low of 1.76—far below the replacement level of 2.1 children per family. The drop has been so swift and dramatic that experts are already discussing its adverse effects on the economy, and “Toys R Us” has ascribed to it some responsibility for the company’s recent financial woes.

With reason, Rindner fears that measures to encourage a rise in birthrates, whether through the urgings of professors and pastors or through government policies like mandatory maternity leave, “will never be enough by themselves to reverse the West’s falling birthrate.” That is because, in her view, the democratic West “is indeed undergoing a deep cultural or spiritual crisis of which the demographic crisis is less a cause than a particularly severe symptom.”

I agree. Here is not the place for a comprehensive analysis of this crisis, but my own sense is that in part it stems from, and feeds into, the particular type of individualism that is now prevalent in the West. This is not the individualism whose source is traceable to the biblical idea of freedom of moral choice, first given to humans upon eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Nor are its roots in the Greek idea of heroic self-realization, or in the ancient Epicureans’ denial of reality or meaning beyond one’s sense-experience. Rather, the individualism now dominant in the West is one whose origins lie in political ideas first promulgated in the 17th century by thinkers like Hugo Grotius and John Locke—namely, that the “only island of [human] certainty” and authority, and the fundamental building-block both of all knowledge and of a successful society, is the autonomous, rational individual.

This idea held minority status in the West for more than three centuries. The counter-view, formulated in the writings of thinkers like John Selden and later Edmund Burke, was famously encapsulated by the poet and preacher John Donne in the phrase, “no man is an island.” In this majority view, individual choice and responsibility are indeed essential for a meaningful life, but that does not make the individual either the foundation or the sovereign of society. Individuals do not spring full-blown into the world as rational and autonomous beings; they are to be seen, rather, as the products of particular families, cultures, and societies.

Since World War II, however, the Lockean idea of the autonomous individual has gained greater and greater suasion in the West, as well as in places like East Asia that have adopted Western ideas and social practices. So where do Israeli Jews differ? They differ in evincing a strong individualistic streak that is nevertheless simultaneously infused with, and balanced by, a no less strong sense of belonging to a family and a nation.


Haviv Rettig Gur, too, would appear to subscribe to this way of seeing things. As he astutely points out, Israel’s peculiar mix of collectivism and individualism is “relatively poorly understood by sociologists and political scientists, rooted as [it is] more in unconscious social psychology than in any explicit planning or policy actions by Israel’s founders or leaders.” Yet, however poorly understood, it is what makes Israel a “happy place,” supporting, for example, the willingness of its citizens to undergo extensive and often dangerous military service, and reinforcing their deep sense of mutual solidarity, of having a share in their society and country.

Moreover, Gur notes, at a time when other Western societies, blessed with strong constitutions and deeply entrenched social programs, are showing unmistakable signs of internal stress, the Israeli model seems quite robust. But he then asks a hard question: is it possible that this model, and the culture and society supporting it, could also fray and destabilize, like so many others?

Writing that “the trouble with good times is that they eventually end,” Gur wonders whether an economic, political, or social crisis might yet be around the corner for Israel, and indeed whether its so-welcome demographic turnaround might itself reverse course. With regard to the ratio between Jewish and Arab population statistics, which only two decades ago purportedly showed the Jewish majority in Israel in serious danger, he asks whether the Israeli future can “really be allowed to depend on a pattern of behavior we scarcely understand, and that was nowhere on the horizon a single generation ago?”

His proposal for confronting such an eventual crisis rests on a call for humility and caution—especially when it comes to weighing the merits of a possible withdrawal from the West Bank. Responsible Israelis, he warns, should not “advocate and implement policies that could leave the country saddled with a desperate moral, social, and political albatross down the road.”

Here I disagree. My own take on dealing with current and future challenges confronting the Jewish state is that caution is not a strategy, or even a policy. One might even argue that, to the contrary, elevating cautiousness, and harping on the need above all to safeguard existing achievements, have become the detrimental bane of the affluent West in the last generation. Europe and the U.S. have increasingly adopted the statecraft not of Greece or of Rome but of Byzantium: too cautious and irresolute to create a coherent strategy, they alternate between buying off adversaries for the sake of another few years of quiet and lashing out furiously in momentary strikes followed immediately by lassitude and exhaustion.

Israel, at least when it has recognized issues as vital, has gone in the opposite direction, moving in bold and sometimes uncertain paths. Take, as one example among many, the water crisis. Little more than a decade ago, it became clear that water resources were swiftly dwindling all over the Middle East. Experts were forecasting regional conflict over this increasingly scarce resource, if not the collapse of whole societies. Indeed, the Middle East water crisis was a major cause of the collapse of Syrian society and a harbinger of its terrible civil war. Today, Iran, Iraq, and Jordan are under duress for the same reason.

In Israel, too, initially cautious measures were able to save more of the country’s existing freshwater resources, but clearly not enough. Although it had long engaged in desalination efforts, a large-scale move in that direction seemed at once prohibitively expensive and fraught with technical problems. Nevertheless, Israel boldly and massively moved ahead. Technological breakthroughs overcame the problem of “biofouling” (micro-organisms jamming the systems), bringing down the price of desalinated water by more than two-thirds; a string of giant desalination plants sprang up along Israel’s coast. Ten years after the inception of the crisis that was supposed to do the country in, the majority of its domestic water is now desalinated.

One could easily cite similar examples of head-on action, including the anti-infiltration wall erected along the border with Egypt and the new “Iron Dome” anti-missile technologies. Future challenges of various kinds will certainly continue to confront Israel, and each should be assessed in the light of both good and bad scenarios. But timidity and caution are not the key. We cannot run away from our challenges; nor, whatever scenario one might envision, can we simply run away from the West Bank. Better by far to heed the wisdom of Prime Minister YItzḥak Shamir when confronted with the alleged demographic crisis 30 years ago: “Never did our people resort to the solution of escapism. That is no solution.”


Which brings me to Alon Tal, for whom the implications of Israel’s demographic success are altogether darker. Life in Israel, he writes, has already become “very, very crowded,” so that what I see as a success story is actually a problem, and a severe one. If immediate steps are not taken to halt the fertility upsurge, and to adopt a policy of zero population growth, we will be in deep trouble: “high population density,” Tal warns, “not only spawns myriad social and environmental hazards, it also tends to make for a more aggressive, stress-filled existence.”

In corroboration of his thesis, Tal offers a list of examples:

*over the last eight years, the waiting time in Israel for an appointment with an endocrinologist, orthopedist, nephrologist, or gastroenterologist has trebled, from about 30 to about 90 days;

*it takes, on average, 3.5 years to get a court verdict in a civil suit;

*despite a rise in train ridership, Israelis spend much more time in traffic jams, especially on the eve of holidays.

And so forth. But wait—clearly, over the last ten years, there has been no massive surge in Israel’s population, let alone a tripling; nor, happily, has there been a notable rise in the numbers of children needing endocrinologists and other medical specialists. Could it be, then, that instead of signs of terminal overpopulation, Tal’s numbers are simply signs of a poorly managed public-health system, such as many countries (including thinly populated ones) are experiencing?

As it happens, the number of doctors and hospitals in Israel is tightly regulated by the state; if there’s a lack of doctors or hospital beds, that is where the reason lies. As a member for a few years now of Israel’s Council of Higher Education, I’ve personally witnessed repeated clashes among representatives of the Treasury, the Health Ministry, and the medical schools over state-imposed limits on the number of publicly-funded medical students and hospitals in the country—a vexatious policy that has absolutely nothing to do with population density. And yet, despite everything, Israelis are currently among the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world.

As for judiciary gridlock, this has been a problem in Israel for at least a generation, and again one surely shared by many less crowded countries. And as for commuter nightmares, especially during holidays, many a city in the U.S. and the UK can testify similarly. An entire sub-genre of American comedy is devoted to mishaps resulting from the clogging of roads and airports during the holiday season—this, in a country not noticeably overpopulated.

There is no need to go into details about each and every such claim made by Tal—whether about housing prices, or looming food shortages, or the allegedly recklessly high fertility rates of Israel’s Ḥaredim, or the time it takes “a scholastically floundering child . . . to receive even a few minutes of a beleaguered teacher’s attention.” The simple truth is this: his case that Israel is already so “densely populated that sheer quantity of life is compromising quality of life” hasn’t a shred of evidence supporting it.

But what, then, of the future? According to Tal, as bad as things are now, they are only going to get much worse, because in the next 30 years (according to one forecast), Israel’s population is going to double, causing us to need twice as much of everything: double the roads, double the cities, double the houses, and so forth. This, surely, is a catastrophe in the making.

Or is it? Thirty years ago, in 1988, Israel’s population was at 4.4 million; it is now at about 8.8 million. In other words, the country’s population has already doubled in the same timespan now worrying Tal, and we’re coping. Not just coping; we’re doing much, much better than that. As the population doubled between 1988 and 2018, the GDP went from $43.9 billion to $318.7 billion, a seven-fold increase; per-capita GDP has more than tripled, from just under $10,000 to just over $37,000. (The latter figure is for 2016; the one for 2018 will be higher.)

But money isn’t everything. What about education? Israel is now among world leaders in the percentages of people with post-secondary degrees. At 46 percent of the population, it is tied with sparsely populated Canada; the OECD average is a measly 32 percent.

And what about longevity? In 1988, life expectancy for an Israeli was 74.4 years; it is now about 82.5 years, at number 8 in the world (and number 5 for men), above France, Canada, Denmark, and the U.S. among others. Not bad for a people sweating out an “aggressive, stress-filled existence.”

All in all, one could fairly say that Israel may feel crowded to some, cozy to others, but clearly it is quite a good thing to be an Israeli these days. Just to put things into perspective: with 399 people per square kilometer, Israel is certainly densely populated, although still far less densely than are such idyllic places as Bermuda or the island of Jersey. But Israel’s population would have to grow tenfold (something even Tal doesn’t envision) to reach half the density of Singapore (8,188 per square kilometer), which also happens to be one of the most affluent and prosperous places in the world.

In other words, there are crowded countries all over the planet that are doing fine, and basket cases irrespective of population density. We may say with confidence that whatever the number of Israelis in 30 years or a century from now, we will probably be doing fine.


To conclude, I would like briefly to consider another aspect of things: what the Jewish demographic turnaround in Israel entails for the future of the Jewish people as a whole. In the past, the foremost responsibility of the Jewish state was to provide a refuge and safe haven for the masses of Jews threatened with persecution and violence. In the future, that will be the case only exceptionally.

As the country has itself become home to the majority of the world’s Jews, but as Jewish life and continuity in most of the diaspora is palpably struggling, the nature of the challenge for Israel as the guardian of the Jewish nation is far less defined. The Jewish people is itself more diverse and decentralized than ever before, and includes within it substantial numbers of groups and individuals who are in the process of drifting away even as, no less significantly, others on the outside are gravitating inward.

Unlike with Israel’s great material successes in technology or military affairs, the way forward on this front is far harder to chart. Israel will have to produce novel ideas and institutions that can help preserve and even nourish those parts of the Jewish people in danger of becoming detached while also welcoming to the fold those who want to join. In short, it will have to become a light unto its own nation.

This will be no easy task, for at the moment, apart from rare privately funded exceptions like some programs of the Tikvah Fund, very few people in Israel or abroad are even trying to do anything about it. There are many Jewish colleges and universities, yeshivas and seminaries, but in none of them are Jewish political ideas being comprehensively studied, let alone developed. Almost nowhere are the Bible and the Talmud being plumbed as sources of philosophical or social thought. Not a single faculty anywhere devotes itself to the study of Hebraism—that is, the impact of Jewish ideas on Western thought. Scarcely an institution is committed to retrieving and studying the traditions and social realities of the many crypto-Jewish communities resurfacing around the world. And so forth and so on.

Still, as daunting as the prospects are, they are also not completely unprecedented. A century and a half ago, the Hebrew language was revived by a relatively small group of poets, journalists, and novelists who disseminated it in journals, books, and schools until it eventually became the living language of millions in the Jewish state. Jewish thinkers fashioned the principles of political Zionism as well as institutions to serve it, from the Jewish National Fund to the kibbutz to the Jewish Agency and many more. Later on, the state of Israel found itself tackling for decades the need to fight for its survival even while welcoming massive waves of immigration, settling the land, and building a modern economy more or less from scratch.

A change of course is now necessary, placing the emphasis much more on the Jewish state’s software, so to speak, than on its hardware. But we have done it before. Blessed with a growing population of individualists committed to their collective national life and its future, we can do it again.

More about: Demographics, Israel & Zionism