If a demographer set out to write a mystery novel, the most promising setting would be here in Israel and the title could be “The Case of the Femme Fertile.”
Unlike their sisters in America, Europe and even much of the Arab world, Israeli women are giving birth at higher rates than they were 20 years ago. The total fertility rate has risen from a low of 2.6 per woman in the late 1990s to a little over 3.1 in 2016. They are also producing children at more than twice the rate of women in the European Union countries.
Certainly, ultra-Orthodox women are doing their share to keep the Israeli birthrate high. In 2015 the total fertility rate for the average Haredi mother was 6.7, but it is down from 7.5 in 2000. Israeli Arabs, who have traditionally had far more children than Israeli Jews, have likewise seen their fertility rate plunge from 4.36 in 1996 to 3.11 in 2016.
Strangely enough, the increase in birthrates is coming from the place you would least expect it, namely from non-religious Jews.
Bigger non-Orthodox families
Fertility rates among Orthodox women rose by about 5% (to 4.2 children per family) in the last 15 years. Among women who define themselves as traditional or secular, in that time their rates shot up by 15% (to 3.0 and 2.1 children per family respectively).
True, non-Orthodox women are giving birth to fewer babies than ultra-Orthodox women, but they're making a lot more than women in Europe, America and even the developed countries of Asia.
And that’s the mystery. The conventional wisdom in the demographic world is that as societies grow wealthier, women become more educated and adults focus more on career and lifestyle. They marry later and have fewer children.
That had been the case in Israel too, but Israeli women today seem more inclined to have babies than they did 20 years ago, on average.
A recent essay in the online journal of opinion Mosaic by the historian Ofir Haivry celebrates Israel’s baby boom as an expression of Israel’s superior values, as he sees them.
In a Trumpian takedown of experts, Haivry disparages professional demographers who in the past warned of a shrinking Israeli-Jewish population. Their pointy-headed analyses missed the real story, which is: “Throughout Israeli society, the educational and moral welfare of children as well as the continuity of the family remains at the center of parents’ (and grandparents’) lives, not only emotionally but as a matter of almost day-to-day practice . This peculiarly strong culture draws sustenance from and in turn informs the equally strong sense of national solidarity.”
Misreading the trends
There may be some truth to this, although the kind of things Haivri points to for high and rising birthrates are misty-eyed and unprovable. Were Israeli women less family oriented and patriotic in the in the first 60 years of the state, when fertility rates were declining? How come women in Japan, a country known for its national solidarity and traditional values, aren’t producing babies at close to replacement level?
Yet Haivry, like many on the right, is quite prepared to reach fateful political conclusions from recent demographic trends: Israeli Jewish women are producing enough new people that we can confidently keep control of the West Bank without fear of losing a Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
In fact, this reasoning is faulty on two counts. One is that fertility rates change, and there’s no telling whether the trends of the last 20 or so years will remain in place. Even if they do, the Israeli-Arab, Palestinian and Haredi populations are younger and their share of the population will grow over the next decades because they will continue to have relatively estimates that the share of non-Haredi Jews in Israel will fall from close to 70% in 2009 to just over 50% in 2059. And that doesn’t count West Bank Palestinians
That said, we can tip our hats to Israeli women (and their male partners) for enabling us to stave off the worst of the economic distress being caused by a shrinking working-age population.
Some 40 countries around the world are coping with that problem, including China.It means a shrinking tax base, a growing burden for working people to support pensioners and the healthcare system, and declining economic growth, unless a country can produce miraculous increase in labor productivity. Shrinking populations are one reason why Europe has no choice but to welcome immigrants.
Israel’s main problem isn’t producing warm bodies, but producing bodies that have the skills and training to make the most of their jobs and generate value-added. And in that respect we are doing badly. Israeli workers are not highly productive by Western standards because our schools don’t do their job teaching basic skills, government services are poor and infrastructure is sub-par.
There’s a limit to how much we can rely on babies and mothers’ willingness to have them. We certainly shouldn’t gambling our political future on demographics and we need to hedge it when it comes to economics by making sure that the next generation grows up in an environment that enables them to become productive citizens.