Birth Rates Sag Among Religious Jews and Muslims, New Official Study Finds

The number of births among ultra-Orthodox women has dropped by 15 percent - from a 7.6 average per woman to 6.5 in the past decade.

The birth rate among ultra-Orthodox and Muslim women in Israel has dropped sharply over the past decade, while the birth rate of secular and religious women has risen, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported in a working paper this month.

This is the first official bureau report based on women's self-definition of how religious they are.

The number of births among ultra-Orthodox women has dropped by 15 percent - from a 7.6 average per woman to 6.5 in the past decade and the average birth rate among Muslim women dropped from 5.6 births in the early 1980s to 3.63 in the second half of the last decade, the report found.

The study was edited by Dr. Ahmad Hleihel, head of demographics at CBS.

The study is based on the bureau's social survey, which is based on the participants' own classification of their religiousness extent. It is also based on Population Registration data about the number of children they have and the age in which they gave birth.

The social survey is seen as the leading method in classifying the Jewish and Muslim sectors in Israel in recent years. The survey divides the Jewish population into "ultra-Orthodox," "religious," "observant-religious," "observant not-so-religious" and "not religious/secular." The Muslims are divided into "very religious," "religious" and "not-so-religious and not religious."

Until now the CBS's assertion that the birth rate in the ultra-Orthodox community has plummeted was based on studies in ultra-Orthodox towns like Betar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit. In 2008 a central bank report found declining birth rates among the ultra-Orthodox.

But this is the first time an official CBS document - based on participants self-definition - clearly indicates this trend.

The social survey the study is based on was conducted in 2002-2009 among almost 26,000 Jewish women and over 3,100 Muslim women. The canvassers checked the number of each woman's births since 1979, to obtain birth rate estimates over the course of 30 years, from 1979 to 2009. The study checks how many children each women gives birth to on average throughout her lifetime and her estimated birth rate.

Hleihel said a clear link was found between the religiousness extent and birth rate, in each of the 30 years examined. The study also found that ultra-Orthodox women's birth rate peaked in 2003-2005, when the average was more than 7.6 children per woman.

Since then the birth rate has dwindled perceptibly and in the last period studied - 2007-2009 - the average dropped to 6.5 children per woman.

The plunge may be associated with the drastic slash in child allowances in 2003. But economic and ideological changes in the ultra-Orthodox world could also have affected the birth rate.

For example, the ultra-Orthodox community has grown considerably and members are now more likely to join the labor force. In addition, growing numbers of women are working, which could lead to lower birth rates.