Israel: natalism and nationalism

While perusing imperial media the other day, a clickbait headline popped up in The Economist:

In Israel, birth rates are converging between Jews and Muslims
Religious Jews there have bucked the trend of falling fertility elsewhere

Sounded interesting.

From a demographic standpoint, Israel is a curiosity. It is a first-world country in a third-world neighborhood, a Jewish state amidst Arabs and hugely influential in the US. A nuclear power, Israel is the only country in the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development (OECD) with an above-replacement fertility rate at 2.9+.

Israel is also a leader in reproductive technology.

Israeli demographics are very complicated, driven by religion and nationalism. To even attempt understanding it, some history is required.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstatt (The Jewish State) was published:

The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.

Herzl, the founder of Zionism, became known as Chozeh HaMedinah or “Visionary of the State” of Israel. Jews worldwide worked to achieve his vision of a Jewish homeland. 

Jewish homeland

In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, stating unequivocal UK support for establishing a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. While historians debate such matters ad infinitum, the Declaration was possibly part of a complex arrangement involving US entry into World War I on the side of the British.

In April of that year President Woodrow Wilson, elected on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” had asked Congress to enter “a war to end all wars” to “make the world safe for democracy.” We know how that worked out. No member of President Wilson’s family was shipped abroad to face the carnage. But I digress.

Jewish immigration to Palestine increased when the National Socialist (Nazi) regime came to power in Germany (1933). Before long, the infamous Transfer Agreement (Haavara Agreement) was struck between Zionist organisations and the Nazi government. Though fraught with controversy, the Agreement enabled some Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine. A book by Jewish scholar Edmund Black explores this.

In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, the plight of European Jews was front and center in Western consciousness. Jewish immigration to Palestine accelerated exponentially. In late 1947 the United Nations voted to partition the soon-to-expire British Mandate into Arab and Jewish sectors. That triggered civil war between Arabs and Jews.

Then on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, head of the World Zionist Organization, declared the establishment of the State of Israel, to be effective upon termination of the British Mandate at midnight.  The US conferred diplomatic recognition the same day. Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first Prime Minister.

Sadly, tensions between Arabs and Jews have continued with no end in sight. That is where demography matters.

Fraught national identity

Fast forward to Jerusalem shortly after 3:00 AM on Thursday, July 19, 2018. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the Knesset to celebrate passage of the controversial Jewish National-State Bill:

This is a defining moment in the history of Zionism and in the history of the State of Israel. 122 years ago after [Theodor] Herzl shared his vision, we have established into law the fundamental tenant of our existence. ‘Israel’ is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

With that, Israel officially became a Jewish state, “the national home of the Jewish people.”  Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and Jewish holidays became state policy.

Also in 2018 (Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs):

According to former Israeli minister and the architect of the Oslo Accords, Yossi Beilin, conventional wisdom about the demographics of Arabs and Jews is that if there is a similar number of Jews and Palestinians, they can choose to live together in one state or two. If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, but it cannot be both.

The Economist:

This, in a nutshell, is the basis of Israel’s trilemma. It cannot have at the same time a strong Jewish majority, all the land it conquered in 1967 and full democracy that does not discriminate against Arabs. So numbers matter. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have long scrutinised birth rates.

The Israeli conundrum: how to be a Jewish state when one in four residents are not Jewish. For 2021, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics counted 9.449 million people in Israel, including Jewish Israelis in the West Bank. Officially, Israel’s population is 74% Jewish, 21% Palestinian Arab, with the remainder mostly Christians and Druze.

The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics counts the population of the West Bank and Gaza at slightly over 5 million.

While European nationalists discuss “Le Grand Remplacement” (The Great Replacement), saying they’re being replaced by Muslims, it is Muslims in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank who feel they are being replaced by Jews.  There are hard feelings all around.

In the 1990s, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat (1925-2004) famously said, “The womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon.” That sent chills up the spines of Jewish Israelis, but Palestinians with families living in refugee camps for a half century were not concerned about hurt feelings.

Fertility wars

For a time it looked like Palestinian Arabs would “outbreed” Jewish Israelis. That was one of the driving forces behind the proposed “two-state solution” where Palestinians and Jews could have their own separate states.  As late as the early 2000s, projections were that if current trends continued, Arabs living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank would one day outnumber Jews. In 2003 Benjamin Netanyahu (then a cabinet member) warned that Arab fertility, twice that of Jews at the time, threatened Israel’s “Jewishness.”    

That has changed. Arab Israeli fertility was 9.3 in 1960. By 1995 it had dropped to 4.7 and was recorded at 3.0 by 2019. Jewish Israelis were at 3.4 in 1960 and declined to 2.6 by 1995. They are now at 3.1.

From Haaretz (December 31, 2019):

Jewish Israeli women's fertility rate exceeded in 2018 that of their Arab peers, for the first time in the country's history, according to data released Tuesday by the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Why is Jewish fertility rising? According to Dan Ben-David, Tel Aviv University economist and scholar at Israel’s Shoresh Institute:

Almost all this increase is caused by Israel’s growing number of ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Jews, who have a fertility rate of 6.6, more than double the national average and three times the rate of secular Jews. As a result the share of Haredim in Israel’s population has more or less doubled every generation…

Though Haredim are just 13% of the population, their offspring make up 19% of Israeli children under the age of 14, and 24% of those under the age of four. Israel’s statistical agency reckons that under present trends half of Israeli children will be Haredi by 2065.

The Haredim stand out. The men wear long black coats and black hats; the women wear long black dresses.  There are 1,200,000 Haredim in Israel. They marry younger than other Israelis. Haredi children attend religious schools and study the Torah usually to the exclusion of math and science.

Most Haredi men are not employed and devote their time to continued Torah studies, subsidised by the state and Jewish charities and supported by their wives. They do not serve in the military. Thus Haredim (with few exceptions) do not participate in or contribute to Israel’s high-tech economy or national defense.

According to the World Bank, the fertility rate of Israeli Christians, Druze and secular Jews is nearly identical at 2.0; Muslims are at 3.0, religious Jews at 4.0 and Haredim at 6.6.

Driving factors

Strong Jewish nationalism (Zionism) drives pro-natalism among Israeli Jews. They are constantly reminded of the Holocaust and that they are vastly outnumbered by Arabs in the region. Per The Economist, an Israeli demographer remarked: “If an Israeli woman has fewer than three children, she feels as if she owes everyone an explanation -- or an apology.”

Also, less than 10% of Israeli babies are born out of wedlock. Grandparents are involved in child-rearing much more than in the West.

How about the Palestinians? According to University of Montreal demographer Dr Anais Simard-Gendron:

Palestinian women, despite their high level of education overall, are known to have the highest fertility rate in the Arab world, averaging over three births per woman… The total fertility rate in Israel, estimated at approximately three children per woman, masks significant regional disparities, including the case of Jewish women living in Israeli settlements, who have even more babies than Palestinians, the average being five. These women are aware of the political value of their fertility.

Since 2000, Jewish fertility has risen, thanks to Haredi and other religions Jews. According to Ms Simard-Gendron’s research, it is now on a par with that of Arabs at an average of 3.13 children per female. As demographics is such a sensitive subject in Israel, population data and projections are often disputed.

The area Zionists call “Eretz Yisrael” (Land of Israel), includes Israel and also Gaza and the West Bank (aka the occupied territories). Most Palestinians live in the territories. 

According to Haifa University demographer Arnon Soffer, “Jews are a 47% minority in Israel and the territories,” where 7.45 million Jews and 7.53 Arabs reside. Soffer claims these figures include hundreds of thousands of non-Jews living in Israel who are not citizens. Further, while Arab and Jewish fertility rates may be converging, the Jewish death rate is significantly higher than that of Arabs because the Arab population is much younger.

So Israel is indeed a demographic curiosity. While daily life goes on as usual, there is considerable contention within the Jewish majority, and Palestinians want out from under Israel. Violence flares from time to time, especially in Gaza and the West Bank. There are accusations of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli state terrorism. The entire region is ever on a knife-edge. Tension abounds.

I wonder how many folks in Israel truly believe “diversity is our strength”?


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