Stop Encouraging Big Families: Israel Is Full, Demography Expert Warns

Unless sacred cows are slaughtered, and fast, life in super-crowded Israel will get worse, says BGU Prof. Alon Tal, but adds: Israeli society has changed attitudes before and can do it again.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Waiting for the light rail in Jerusalem. The tram platform is crowded to the nth degree. It's not going to get better unless Israel radically changes social policies, argues BGU professor Alon Tal.
Waiting for the light rail in Jerusalem. The tram platform is crowded to the nth degree. It's not going to get better unless Israel radically changes social policies, argues BGU professor Alon Tal.Credit: Emil Salman
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The return of Jews to the Promised Land after 2,000 years of exile has been controversial since the Zionist movement emerged in the 19th century. But Israel was established in 1948 anyway, and Jews who survived the rigors of exile and the Holocaust flocked to the Holy Land, albeit some less zealously than their offspring might like to think.

Thus it came to pass that the population of the Jewish state burgeoned tenfold, from about 800,000 in 1948 to over 8 million today. In the shadow of the Shoah and given the desperate plight of world Jewry in general, demographer and environmentalist Alon Tal agrees that Israel’s embrace of Jewry was a necessity. But, he argues: Dayeinu (enough) – the land is full.

Literally so. In his new sober, must-read book, “The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel” (Yale University Press), Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, describes how after nearly 70 years of promoting immigration and advancing policies aimed at deliberately spurring Jewish population growth, the country's roads, education system, health-care facilities and infrastructure in general – indeed, the very environment – are all groaning at the seams.

The roads are congested, hospitals are buckling while treating people beyond their capacity, schools draw the line at 40 kids per classroom – a level at which no child can receive personal attention – and the state of the environment is horrendous. Even the justice system is collapsing under the weight of the growing case load.

Sacred-cow policies of subsidizing large families, even practically forcing them to be fruitful and multiply (through policies that make abortion and contraception hard to obtain) are unsustainable, Tal argues. “Unsustainable” means: Living standards in Israel will plummet. The land is being poisoned and paved over. Our children will not live as well as we do. Don’t buy it? Buy the book, read it and think again.

Tal bases his arguments on solid statistics and science, but they grate against the Israeli grain. Obsessive promotion of the Right of Return (of all Jews to Israel) and large families are treated as axiomatically good. Questioning the merits of either is a good way to be labeled anti-Zionist or fascist. Even so-called green groups may moan about habitat loss and species extinction but they dare not mention the real reasons why these things happen; they won’t look the sacred cows in the eye, let alone strangle them.

If nothing is done, Israel will become more and more crowded, its infrastructure more and more stressed. Can anything be done? “I don’t think there is a single magic bullet,” Tal tells Haaretz. “It has to be a whole series of policies, and changes.”

First and foremost is to reverse the policy on encouraging large families.

Technically, Israel is not the densest country in the world. Monaco beats Israel hands-down with 25,718 people per square kilometer, compared with Israel’s 372 (figures as of 2015). But it isn’t a contest and Israel is still about 1,000 percent more congested than the OECD average, says Tal. And crowding translates into stress, not a thing Israelis need more of.

The fastest-growing groups in Israel are the ultra-Orthodox and Bedouin. Because of their large families, they also receive the most in government support. With the lion’s share of Jewish communities that once faced persecution and economic hardship already residing in Israel (or elsewhere) – immigration is no longer a driver of demographic growth. As a Zionist himself, Tal professes relief that there is no compelling need to alter the Law of Return’s lenient criteria for Jews. The key to changing the population in Israel is to abolish subsidies, cold-turkey, and to empower women, he suggests.

“It was incentives that created the high birth rate in the 1960s and 1970s in the first place,” he says. “You have to start changing the calculus, and do everything to empower women.”

Each child born in Israel costs the taxpayer roughly $350,000 in subsidies from birth through high school – basically until age 18, when they get drafted, Tal explains. “As a society we love children, we pay for their education and health. But think about the ramifications: A family with 10 children is getting $3.5 million from the Israeli taxpayer.”

Research all over the world has shown that children in large families underperform. “Think of the long-term implications for a society with more and more super-large families, six to 14 kids each, millions of dollars per child who probably won’t be able to contribute to society because of the narrow focus of their educational programs,” he says.

Female empowerment matters just as much as turning off the tap. How? “By making abortion legal and easier to obtain, rather than make women go through hoops as they do today,” the professor explains. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been forced to go through with unwanted births, he estimates. Ironically, the only place to get a free abortion without hassle at present is in the army. Also, oral contraceptives should be distributed freely like in Europe, urges Tal.

The Interior Ministry in East Jerusalem.Credit: Pierre Terdjman / BauBau

A tip from Tehran

Israel should also take a tip from Iran and postpone the age of marriage. “If a woman marries at 24-25 as opposed to 18, that’s two less children she would have in certain communities,” says Tal. “More importantly, she might have some professional skills and understand a little bit about family planning by then.” If that is politically impossible in Israel, then at least, the government could take action to change the normative expectations.

That is doable. Not long ago, being unmarried at 30 was considered pitiable, and now it’s unremarkable, he points out. But one can use carrots, not only demographic sticks – “Provide scholarships and the like. Give the women incentives to postpone marriage,” Tal suggests, adding that Ben-Gurion University, for one, has a “wonderful policy of affirmative action and providing scholarships to the Bedouin.”

Sweeping reform will inevitably hurt some families. But the long-term policy results can be breathtaking, in terms of in reducing the gaps between the rich and poor, says Tal. Take Singapore. GDP per capita grew there from $428 in 1960 to $56,284 in 2015, chiefly after government decided to encourage people to have no more than two children – using a carrot, not a stick.

“They did something simple. Their policies basically said: We as a society will help you to have only two kids. We will provide the best schools, the longest and best paying maternity leave – do what it takes, provide public housing, because we want people to do the right thing,” he explains.

Without subsidies, "doing the right thing" involves thinking before procreating. “I have friends who decided not to have a third or fourth child because they couldn’t afford it, but these citizens are actually penalized for being socially responsible,” says Tal, adding, “I think there’s something very wrong with a society that rewards people who cannot support their children and have no regard for the common good.”

Can Israeli society change seemingly immutable values, along the lines of “More Jewish children = More good," Alon Tal is confident it can. “Israeli society, it turns out, is one that is able to overcome taboos and change its perspective faster than almost any on earth,” he says, for once not backing his statement with statistics.

“Take the attitude toward homosexuals in Israel,” he proposes, driving home his point. “When I moved to Israel in 1980 (from the United States), I couldn’t imagine a soldier or anybody else coming out of the closet because of the pervasive homophobia. In the space of 10 or 15 years, the president himself came out and spoke strongly on behalf of LGBT rights – it is a total transformation.”

Single women having children was another taboo that very quickly became a norm: Today single moms even get discounts on city tax and on the purchase of schoolbooks (subsidies Tal would support only for the first two children.)

“Israeli society is very nimble,” he sums up. “I think we can change the accepted narrative. Values that were important in 1950s and 1960s aren’t relevant anymore.”

The time to move is now. “Demographic policy is like an oil tanker,” the professor asserts: Changing course takes time. "It is taking China about 50 years to stabilize its population, even with an abusive one child policy, he points out. The question I ask is if we can show an ounce of prevention before we need tons of cure.”

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