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The annual demographics press release published this week by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) reveals an astounding shift. Two months ago, Haaretz highlighted a significant decline in the fertility rate among Muslims in Israel, following 15 years of treading water. CBS data, published this week, indicates that this is no mere decline - it is an outright nosedive.

The most important statistic used to measure fertility is the general fertility rate (GFR) - that is, the number of live births that a woman in a certain segment of the population is expected to produce during her lifetime. The average GFR of Muslim women in Israel remained 7.4 children per woman from 1985-2000. But CBS statistics published this week indicate that the rate in 2005 declined to only four children per woman, a drop of 18 percent (compared to 2.7 children per Jewish woman in Israel).

This downturn, from 4.5 to only four children per woman, mainly took place from 2003-2005: Half a child less in two years.

What made these years so significant? In June, 2003, substantial cuts in child welfare benefits provided each additional child only NIS 140 per month.

What happened since 2005? Calculations made by the American-Israel Demographic Research Group indicate that, in early 2006, the GFR among Arab-Israelis had already dropped to 3.7 - that is one whole child less than in 2000 and only one child more than the GFR in the Jewish population.

But the CBS provided Haaretz with far more startling and fascinating, geographically-segmented statistics: The GFR among Arabs in Israel's southern district, mainly Bedouin, plunged from nine children per woman in 2003 to 7.6 children, in only two years - one and a half children less. In the northern district, the GFR among Arabs stands at only three children (but this statistic includes many Christian Arabs).

A relatively unknown fact is that the GFR among Christian Arabs is less than that of Jews. The GFR among Christian Arabs remained at about 2.3 children per woman in the '90s and dropped to only two children per woman in 2005. Thus, the GFR among Christians dropped to less than the substitution rate (1.2 children per woman) required for a population to maintain its fixed size. Christian Arabs are approaching European fertility rates. The Druze GFR, which was more than four children per woman 20 years ago, declined this year to 2.6 children per woman, less than the Jewish fertility rate.

The fertility rate in the general population in Israel was 2.84 children per woman. In this sense, Israel is truly not a Western nation. A similar fertility rate exists among women in India, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Bahrain. The fertility rate in the United States is two children per woman; in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, it is 1.7, and in Japan, Italy, Spain, and Eastern European nations, it is 1.3. The segment of the Israeli population with the lowest fertility rate, 1.5 children per woman, is women who immigrated from the Commonwealth of Independent States. This rate is slightly higher than that in their nations of origin in the former Soviet Union.

Cheating the government

Is it permissible for Gush Katif evacuees to cheat the Disengagement Administration (SELA) to increase the compensation that they receive? A halakhic ruling published by one Gush Katif rabbi indicates that the answer is unequivocally affirmative. "It is permissible for displaced individuals to cheat clerks of the SELA authority or at least mislead them in order to extract what is rightfully theirs," writes Rabbi Ya'akov Epstein of the Torah and Land Institute, an evacuee of the Atzmona settlement in Gush Katif. However, he qualifies this statement, "as long as the act is not discovered and does not cause desecration of God's name."

It is not entirely understandable how Epstein intended to prevent such desecration, hilhul hashem, when he himself instead of passing on the ruling by word of mouth published it in the Tzomet Institute's annual halakhic journal Tehumin, a well-known publication in the religious Jewish world. The ruling was even published under the perspicuous title "Deceptive Declaration for the Purpose of Receiving Compensation." Apparently Rabbi Epstein took the matter of hilhul hashem into his own hands.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews who seek to deceive the state may rely on relatively simple halakhic justification. They maintain that the rule of dina demalchuta dina, the authority of the law of the land, which requires Jews to obey civil law, is inapplicable in Israel, as opposed to the Diaspora.

According to this logic, one is not required to obey the laws of the heretic Jewish State.

But the problem of Rabbi Epstein, a member of the national-religious camp, is far more complex. He explicitly declares, "In the State of Israel, despite the fact that a clerk is lying, working in opposition to orders, or even accepting bribes, it is forbidden to deceive him," because "the capital does not belong to the clerk." Moreover, he explains, "The State cannot conduct itself in this fashion and if we permit this, even in extreme cases, the affliction will spread to all government institutions and the entire state will begin to be conducted by means of payoff and bribery."

The case of Gush Katif is exceptional, he maintains, because "all matters pertaining to compensation of displaced individuals are distorted. They are not issues of dina demalchuta [the law of the land] but hamasnuta demalchuta [the theft of the land]." He explains that even if one accepts the assumption that it is permissible for a nation to evacuate residents, "it is obligated to build them a bloc of settlement identical to that which preceded the displacement." The nation, he writes "chose to first crush and demolish Gush Katif, to grab everything from the residents and then to offer them partial compensation." It failed to provide compensation for destruction of community life, emotional trauma or loss of livelihood.

Not everyone believes that Epstein's halakhic argument rests on a good basis.

Yoske Ahituv, of the religious kibbutz movement's yeshiva, wrote a response to Epstein's ruling, published in the movement's house organ, Amudim. "This 'halakhic' conclusion is scandalous, as far as I am concerned," he writes, "and unfounded from a number of points of view." He particularly questions the relatively insignificant halakhic source that Epstein relies on to support his conclusions. Ahituv also takes issue with "the damage to image generated by Rabbi Epstein's article, which taints all those displaced from Gush Katif and even causes potential financial damage resulting from excessive strictness on the part of SELA administration clerks who suspect those who seek compensation of fraud." According to him, Epstein's position is "non-instructive and patently immoral." He demands that Rabbi Epstein retract these statements and that the Tzomet Institute renounce the content of the article it published.