Birth of a Nation

The Council for Demography is a government-sponsored body that is identified mainly with encouraging childbirth in Israel's Jewish society. Is it an invasion of bedrooms in order to promote a nationalist ideology?

Merav Sarig
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Merav Sarig

On Independence Day in 1967, the Israeli public was introduced to a national heroine: Amalia Ben Haroush, from the lower-class Amidar neighborhood of Kiryat Binyamin in the town of Kiryat Ata, near Haifa. Ben Haroush, Israelis learned, gave birth to her 20th child that year. There is nothing surprising about the fact that having children was posited as an act of national excellence.

A few weeks earlier, at a time of severe economic recession, which was making more Jews leave the country and inducing fewer immigrants to settle in Israel, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (as it was then known) established the Center for Demography and the Public Council for Demography. "We have to work systematically to realize demographic policy, which is intended to create an atmosphere that will encourage childbearing, in light of the fact that it is crucial for the future of the Jewish people," the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, declared. Accordingly, the government decided to give large families benefits in education, housing and insurance, with the aim of encouraging families to have more children. At the same time, the decision was made "to reduce `artificial' abortions, whose large number constitutes a worrisome phenomenon in terms of both national demography and women's health."

Demographic anxiety intensified after the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel conquered a large amount of territory - and with it, many Palestinians. A year later, in 1968, in a meeting of the Na'amat women's labor organization, under the leadership of Baba Idelson, Jewish women were urged to have more children. Nearly 35 years later, at the opening meeting of the Public Council for Demography last month, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri (Shas) spoke about "the beauty of the Jewish family that is blessed with many children."

The council had been dormant for years, its activity renewed only in 1986 and again in 1997 for brief periods on each occasion. Benizri made reference to the fact that the council was resuming its activity: "We are the majority in this country and we have the right to preserve our image and the image of the Jewish state, and also to preserve the Jewish people. Every state has the full right to preserve its character."

Are women supposed to "donate" their wombs in order to resolve Israel's demographic problem? MK Yael Dayan (Labor) thinks not. On Tuesday of last week, Dayan convened a special session of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, which she chairs, in order to discuss the council's activity. The meeting was attended by Meretz MKs Anat Maor, Naomi Hazan and Zahava Gal-On, MK Marina Solodkin (Yisrael b'Aliyah), MKs Yitzhak Gagula and Yair Peretz (Shas) - Peretz left about five minutes after the meeting began - and many of the members of the Council for Demography.

Dayan, who objects to the council's activity, notes: "For years the status of women in Israel equaled the status of the womb. The emphasis was always on the woman - the Jewish woman, of course - as a bearer of children, as though the womb is the solution to Israel's demographic problems and, indirectly, to its security problems as well. I do not accept this approach, which asks women to make decisions for national reasons."

The chairman of the council, Dr. Baruch Levy, an expert on social policy who is Benizri's personal appointment, vehemently rejects Dayan's arguments: "What is all this business about the womb in the service of the state? I don't accept that and I don't want to talk about that. That is the most misguided thing you can say about the council. Our goal is for the state to be a Jewish state, yes, but that has nothing to do with infringing anyone's freedom of privacy. All we will do is make sure that the optimal conditions are available for every couple that decides to have as many children as it wants, that's all. We are not talking about directives or about giving 100 pounds to every 10th child, so our policy is neither womb for hire not womb in the service of the state, or any of these other notions, which I have repeatedly denied."

`Ringing the bell'

In May 1986, following a discussion on "worrying demographic trends" among the Jewish people, the national unity government, then headed by Shimon Peres, reiterated the 1967 resolution and asserted that it "will strive to ensure an appropriate level of growth of the Jewish population." However, the Council for Demography, which met at the time, failed to follow through on its activity. Eleven years later, in 1997, came the turn of MK Eli Yishai (Shas), then the minister of labor and social affairs. Yishai, whose constituency includes many large families, initiated the re-establishment of the council, chaired by a retired judge, Sarah Frisch. The council proceeded to submit recommendations to the government (of Benjamin Netanyahu), which included the preparation of a kit to be used by every woman who became pregnant, containing advice and publicity information to convince her not to have an abortion, citing also national motives.

The recommendations drew flak from the Israel Women's Network (IWN), which stated that "women are not a womb that is intended for demographic goals." The recommendations were not implemented, and following the resignation of the chairwoman, the council again ceased to function. Now, in the wake of the increase in the number of foreign workers in Israel, the declining immigration rate, a report by the National Security Council stating that Israel faces a demographic threat (within 18 years, the report predicts, there will no longer be a Jewish majority in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River), and data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics to the effect that 18,000 abortions were performed last year in Israel, Beniziri decided to tackle the "demographic threat" again and renewed the work of the council. His handpicked chairman, Dr. Baruch Levy, also chaired the body in its brief revival in 1986. The other 35 members (all serving on a voluntary basis) include demographers, educators, social workers, gynecologists, legal experts, economists and representatives of women's organizations. There is also one non-Jewish member: Colonel (res.) Gideon Abas, Benizri's adviser on Arab affairs, who is a Druze.

"The goal of the current council is to identify issues that have demographic aspects, analyze them and formulate recommendations that will be submitted to the minister within a year," Dr. Levy says. Among the relevant subjects: the number of foreign workers in the country; Jewish immigration, particularly from the former Soviet Union, with its large proportion of non-Jewish immigrants; and encouraging childbirth in families that tend to be satisfied with one or two children - in other words, secular families. The question that will have to be examined, Levy explains, is whether there is a way to get such families to bring another child into the world, and what that way might be. As for the ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations, the natural birthrates are already high, so there is no need to encourage them to have more children, Levy says.

In 1986, with Levy as its chairman, the council took as the basis of its activity a fertility survey conducted by the United Nations, which found that Israeli women aged 22 to 39 want to have 3.5 children on average, but in practice have only 2.6. When the women who were surveyed were asked what would persuade them to have the additional child they said they wanted, they cited day-care centers, proper housing, tax benefits and the like.

"We will have to take the 1986 survey and see whether it is still relevant," Levy says. "If it turns out that the population in general is unwilling to have another child, the council's work will be far more difficult, because if there are no bells, there is nothing to ring. If we succeed in maintaining an average of 2.6 or 2.7 children per family, we will be all right, because as it is, Israel is the only country in the world where Jews show a positive natural increase."

MK Dayan isn't buying it. "Women should be given incentives so they will want to have more children, but without having to stop work, without any connection to demography. It should be done as part of the effort to exploit the human resource of women, and not for political reasons. For at least 30 years the Knesset has repeatedly refused to enact legislation that would bring about greater state participation in paying for day-care centers and tax breaks for caregivers. So it's not likely that a recommendation to that effect by the council is suddenly going to pass."

Change from within

Female Knesset members, including Zahava Gal-On, say that women's organizations, which represent them as well, should refuse to be part of a panel that has its only aim the recruitment of the womb for national-political purposes. The chair of the Na'amat women's organization, Talia Livni, and the chair of the IWN, Rina Bar-Tal, both of whom are members of the Council for Demography, think otherwise and promise to wage a fight from within if women's rights are not preserved.

Gal-On doesn't believe them: "It's a disgrace that representatives of women's organizations are on the council, because they legitimize its very existence. Despite the sweet talk, this is a gross invasion of the bedroom under an ideological cloak. We are given the role of childbearing, as though our self-fulfillment can come only through motherhood. Where will it end? They will start by talking about how to encourage childbearing and then they will tell us how the Arabs will take over and then they will hammer it home that abortions are invalid and dangerous. The message that this council is sending young women is that they should become mothers, and it even has an official government seal. It may be kosher, but it stinks."

Talia Livni, from Na'amat, has a different approach. "The role of the Council for Demography is to encourage childbearing in Israel," she explains. "I am on the council in order to work for a sector that is discriminated against: secular young couples who want large families but can't afford it, because they want to maintain a good standard of living and raise children in proper conditions. That segment of the population needs to be encouraged and we have to ensure that the large grants go for the third and fourth child, and not from the fifth child on, as is the case today in child allowances."

What is truly important, Livni maintains, is that the right incentives be given to women who want to work without forgoing children. "The state doesn't need our wombs. The question is what we want to do with our womb and whether we can afford to do what we want. That's all. To get what we want, we have to enlist the help of the council and not talk about the womb or about gynecology. There are 15,000 single mothers in Israel, and if I have the chance to do something for them, am I supposed to pass it up because it's the womb in the service of the state? If I'm not there to exert all the influence I can in order to promote the interests of the public I represent, who will do it instead of me? It's just possible, isn't it, that if I'm not there, the council will go off on a completely different tangent."

Wielding influence from the inside is also the approach taken by Rina Bar-Tal, of the IWN. "I am well aware why Benizri wants me on the council," she says. "He thinks that if the women's organizations are part of the council, that means that they share his worldview. From his point of view, that's a very smart move. I will not feign innocence. As a politician, I understand exactly what's behind this. But that is only one way of looking at it. Another way is to say that we can't influence the birthrate from the outside, so the right thing to do is to take part in the council and try to understand it from within and create an internal coalition of people who share similar views and identical goals."

Both Bar-Tal and Livni assert that if they find that their goals are not being realized, they will resign from the council. "And then we will fight from the outside," Bar-Tal declares. Gal-On, for her part, retorts: "I am familiar with the approach of fighting from within, but I reject it. My blood pressure rises at the thought that they are part of the council, because, after all, we know the person in charge and we know what his intentions are. What Benizri wants is for women to have children, stay home, raise the children, get child allowances and not have abortions. If a woman choose motherhood to fulfill herself, that's fine, but if it becomes a state conception, that's problematic. I am not willing to have the state put pressure on me."

Gal-On also rejects the contention of Livni and Bar-Tal that something good might come of the council. "Oh, really - is Benizri about to start showing concern for women? Is he going to be so concerned for their fate that he won't cut our state allowances? You have to remember that the government is about to pass a budget that is going to be detrimental to women."

Abortion issues

Another sensitive issue on the council's agenda is abortions. "We will not lend a hand to the `Efratization' of the council," MK Dayan asserts, referring to Efrat, an association that encourages childbearing. In fact, Efrat is not represented on the council and, surprisingly, is against the panel's existence.

"Efrat is not on the council because the council has existed for 30 years and we are still waiting for the first child who will be born as a result of its activity," Dr. Eli Yosef Schussheim, chairman of Efrat (which describes itself as "the organization for strengthening the health and happiness of the family in Israel"), told a meeting of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. "Nothing comes of this council. But Efrat gets things done. We are engaged in practical demography. So I would like to tell everyone to calm down: There is no reason to be frightened because the council is renewing its activity."

Dr. Ilana Ziegler, a demographer who is executive director of the Israel Association for Family Planning, says that the abortion rate need not concern anyone from a demographic point of view. The UN survey found that a woman who has an abortion subsequently has a child "in place of" the aborted fetus, so that in the final analysis, abortions do not affect the number of children a woman has. "Beyond that," she adds, "studies show that most women who have an abortion give birth within a year of the abortion."

Ziegler promises to oppose any attempt to amend the abortion law, which makes legal, state-financed abortion possible and is, she says, one of the most liberal laws of its kind anywhere in the world. "Neither I nor those who think like me will let anyone touch the law, because any change in it will necessarily be asocial and will be detrimental to the weak population groups. A woman who wants an abortion will have it one way or the other, so those who have the wherewithal will find a decent way to have it, while those that don't have the means will be forced to have it done in all kinds of unauthorized places, where anything can happen."

The only way to reduce the number of abortions is by means of education, Ziegler says, and partial success has already been achieved in this regard: "The fact is that the figures of the Central Bureau of Statistics show a decline every year in the number of abortions among young women."

Dr. Levy, too, will recommend this approach: "It is important to ensure that those concerned receive the best possible education so that they can make the right decision for themselves." Asked what type of education he has in mind and what message that students will receive, Levy replies: "I am talking about sex education - about education that will explain what family means, what it means to have a partner, the meaning of bringing children into the world, the dangers of doing something that is contrary to nature. If you ask me, there is no message here. After all, I can hardly go to kids in high school and tell them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land."

The council members, including the representatives of the women's organizations and the MKs already mentioned, agree that the current abortion law should be left intact. Those who take a strict line - such as Dr. Mordechai Halperin, a rabbi and physician who specializes in fertility problems and sexual performance at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem - maintain that "just as the law must not be touched, it must also be implemented in full. Women have to be given all the information about what to expect in the wake of an abortion so that they can make a true decision. In addition, thousands of illegal abortions are performed every year in Israel, and more has to be done to enforce the law in this regard."

Demography and democracy

Opposition to the activity of the Council for Demography is not confined to contentions about the mobilization of the womb. The fact that the council seeks to encourage Jews to have larger families raises questions about Israel's democratic character. Immediately after it was announced that the council would be reconvening, Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, called on Benizri and the government not to give the council government funding and to maintain a complete separation between the council and the state authorities. A legal adviser to Adalah, attorney Suhad Bashara, wrote in her letter: "We have learned that the Public Council for Demography has resumed its activity in the wake of data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics, according to which there has been a slowdown in the rate of Jewish [population] increase in the country as opposed to an increase in the proportion of the Arab population."

The council's activity, she continued, "is tantamount to sending a message to the public according to which the Arab population increase in the country constitutes a threat to the state and to the population at large. This message entrenches the perception of the Arab as a threat, reinforces the trend toward delegitimization and dehumanization, and emphasizes the inferiority of the Arabs in Israel."

Bashara added a constitutional point: "It is the duty of every administrative authority to operate in accordance with the principle of equality for the benefit of all the country's citizens, irrespective of race, gender, origin and nationality. In its activity and its goals, both covert and open, the council sends a message to the country's citizens that they are not equal, and this will entrench and legitimize racism against part of the population in Israel."

Dr. Levy: "The Council for Democracy does not have the goal of fighting Arab childbearing, but neither does it have the intention of encouraging Arab childbearing, just as it does not have the intention of encouraging childbearing in the ultra-Orthodox population. Terms such as `dehumanization' and `delegitimization' are highly volatile. There is no `de-' in what we are doing. There is a goal that has to be seen from the right perspective. At first glance, it might seem as though there is discrimination and racism, but it needs to be remembered that whatever the government decides in the wake of the council's recommendations will be equally valid both for Mrs. Katzenstein from North Tel Aviv and for Mrs. Mahmouda from an Arab village. Whatever the state decides, under the law or by means of regulations, will apply to every citizen of the country. In other words, people have to give the council a chance."

MK Gal-On is not convinced. "Some people think the Arab population will evaporate if we only encourage Jewish women to have more children. I don't. We have recently seen problematic legislation on the part of government bodies and by private MKs, aimed at hobbling the Arab population. So I will hardly be surprised if the Knesset passes another discriminatory law. There is a deliberate policy being conducted that is harmful to Israel's Arab citizens. Are we now about to get a correction that will benefit them? Don't make me laugh."

Benizri also received a message from Mossawa, the advocacy center for Arab citizens of Israel, calling for the immediate dissolution of the council. "The discussions of the council are fraught with clear-cut racism, which contradicts the supreme principles of the state concerning an equal attitude toward all citizens," says attorney Alhanan Nahas-Daoud, from the Mossawa Center. "The decision to renew the council's activity is contrary to the values of democracy and creates an ethnic democracy. This discriminatory step will adversely affect the status of the Arab population, push it into the corner and imbue it with the status of a foreign population."

The council's opponents could have invoked the remarks made by David Ben-Gurion, who warned against government activity in this sphere when the Council for Demography was established in 1967: "No state institution or body that gets its manpower and financial means from the state or through its laws will be able to engage in encouragement of childbearing - and only Jewish childbearing requires special treatment and decides the future of the Jewish state," the former prime minister stated. "It will have to be done on a voluntary basis by one or more Jewish bodies, which will not be authorized to do anything that is contrary to the laws of the land, but which do not represent the state."

Standing fast

As Ben-Gurion's idea was rejected 35 years ago, the Mossawa Center's request was also ignored. Replying to the center's letter, Tomer Moskowitz, the legal adviser to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, wrote: "Preservation of the Jewish majority in the country does not constitute a severe blow to the honor of the Arab citizens, as it does not alter the customary practical-legal situation, according to which they are equal citizens in a Jewish state. Therefore, we do not intend to terminate the council's activity."

Mordechai Halperin of Hadassah University Hospital reminds "those who may have forgotten" that "the person who recruited the womb for national purposes was none other than [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat, who declared that the wombs of his people's women would decide the war." If this is invalid for one side, isn't it also invalid for the other, Halperin is asked. "I definitely think it is invalid for both sides, but it's important for me that people know who introduced the idea into the Middle East," he says.

However, according to Prof. Yonathan Anson, a sociologist and demographer from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, "demographic war by means of the womb is an Israeli invention that the Palestinians adopted. True, the Palestinians do not have a council for demography, but studies have shown that they have a high birthrate because they are committed nationally, just like the Jews who live in Palestine - that is, in the territories." Israel, he adds, is not only one of the few countries that encourages childbearing - contrary to the prevailing trend in the world - it is also the only country that openly talks about demography in ethnic terms.

"From the point of view of government policy, this is unparalleled anywhere in the world," he notes. "The style of speech in which a state intervenes in matters of birth passed from the world after World War II, for obvious reasons. People were simply frightened by notions of enhancing the human species by means of correct childbearing."

Former Labor Party health minister Shoshana Arbeli Almoslino is infuriated by the debate. "There is no racism of any kind here, and I don't accept this kind of talk," she asserts. "Why did we establish a state if in the end it will be democratic but not Jewish? What do they want - that I should encourage Arabs to have more children, to have 15 children instead of 10? The Jewish people must survive and do everything it can to ensure that it does. If we cannot preserve the Jewish people, we will be left without a people. So I suggest that we tone things down."

Colonel (res.) Abas, the Druze member of the council, also cannot understand what all the fuss is about: "I don't see the council as sending any message to the effect that the Arab public in Israel constitutes some sort of threat to the state," he says. "It's important to remember that encouraging Jewish childbearing is only one of the council's goals, and as the representative of the Arab population, I have to say that I have no problem with that. It is legitimate. After all, this is the state of the Jewish people, and in any case, there is no need to encourage the Arab public to have large families."

Far from finding it problematic to be a member of the council, Abas adds: "I am proud to be on this council and I also thanked the minister for renewing its activity. The council will also deal with the subject of the foreign workers, who are threatening employment in the Arab sector, and also with social welfare issues, which definitely relate to my public. I am sorry that the Adalah organization sees only the half-empty glass with regard to the council: I see the full half. I know that by being on the council, I can make a major contribution to my sector. I will do nothing to hurt it. The very fact that I am there brings honor to the Arabs, because it is important for them not only to write letters, but also to act. And it is better that we love the state and integrate into it than to verbally abuse its institutions all the time."

Racism or survival

Dr. Halperin believes that encouraging Jews to have more children is a matter of sheer survival - a "Darwinian" move, as he puts it, adding: "It is well known that following a war or a major disaster, the birthrate in the country in question goes up. The baby boom, for example, was a result of the world war. A nation that wants to survive activates its Darwinian mechanism. Nations that lack this survivalist quality disappear from the stage of history. If we do not put our survivalist mechanism into action now, it's possible that in less than 50 years, we will face a demographic catastrophe. We have to find the way to prevent that."

He doesn't think there is anything racist about this. "It depends how you look at it," he observes, "as a racist act or as a natural step by a people that has undergone so much and only wants to survive. Is the need to maintain a Jewish majority in the world's only Jewish state a racist act, or is it a thrust toward survival? The question is whether we came to this land in order to establish a state for all its citizens, or a national home for the Jewish people. So maybe our Declaration of Independence is also racist; maybe we should change the national anthem, too."

Another council member, Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer and the head of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says: "Even though the focus on demography riles some people, we should place all the emotions to one side and concentrate on what's important. To ignore demography today is pathetic. We are talking about social and cultural processes and about providing services to a population that, in the final analysis, constitutes the infrastructure for the existence of the society. The question of whether it's racist or not is misguided: Demography has nothing to do with race or with prejudice; it concerns the fundamental essence of a society in a given state."

To encourage childbearing among Jews, DellaPegola says, he will recommend adoption of the Scandinavian model, which grants tax breaks to working women so they can hire a caregiver, and which also divides the burden of rearing the children more equally between the sexes (according to this model, it is possible for the father to take a leave of absence from work instead of the mother after childbirth). In addition, he says, the council will have to address the issues of state allowances, housing, the Law of Return and other critical demographic subjects. Asked why he thought Benizri had decided to renew the council's activity at this particular time, DellaPergola says: "The question is not why he did so just now; the real question is why it hasn't been done until now. The irregular situation is when the council is not functioning, not when it is functioning."

Benizri: Personal is national "After I assumed office as minister of labor and social affairs, many people contacted the ministry to inquire about the demographic issue, so I thought it would be right to establish a committee made up of representatives of the spectrum of the Israeli society," Shlomo Benizri says. "It was very difficult to put the committee together, as we are talking about dozens of people who had to be examined by the ministry's legal advisor."

Benizri expects the Council for Demography to recommend action that will ensure the preservation of the Jewish majority in Israel. "A study conducted three years ago found that the majority of women in the country want to have a larger family if the state is willing to help out in a variety of areas, such as housing, day-care centers and so forth. It follows that not only is there no contradiction between the personal desire of the women in the country and the national interest in increasing the birthrate, but that the personal interest of the majority of the women in the country (and of the men) is completely consistent with the national interest of consolidating the Jewish majority."

As to the contention that his interest is primarily a Jewish-national one, Benizri says: "In my opening address, I emphasized to the members of the council that its recommendations also have to take into account the rights of non-Jewish minorities in the country. I promise to examine the recommendations seriously, but certainly I can't commit myself in advance to adopt all of them."



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