Forget Iran. Is the Fertility Rate the Real Threat to Israel's Existence?

Israel could be home to 36 million people by 2050, according to some forecasts. Prof. Alon Tal explains why irresponsible government policies have created a ticking time bomb, and why the state has to get out of its citizens' bedrooms

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
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'The ultra-Orthodox have 6.5 children on average, and that’s solely thanks to public policy.'
'The ultra-Orthodox have 6.5 children on average, and that’s solely thanks to public policy.'Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

During its 68 years of existence, Israel has changed from a sparsely populated country to one of the most densely populated in the Western world. That is how Prof. Alon Tal, chairman of Tel Aviv University’s public policy department, opens his latest book, “The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel” (Yale University Press).

Israel’s population density, he writes, is 1,000 percent higher than the OECD average. Conservative forecasts say that Israel will have 23 million inhabitants by 2050. Less conservative forecasts predict 36 million inhabitants by then. And well before then, in 2030, Israel will have doubled the population it has today.

Reading this book is like reading a dystopian novel. I thought about my children growing up in such a cruel, crowded place and I was afraid.

Tal says he wrote the book because of his three daughters. “I’m a diehard Zionist and I want them to continue living in Israel,” he explains. Even though his book is pessimistic and frightening, Tal, surprisingly, describes himself as an optimist. “I’ll tell you why. Our society has a taboo about not bringing children into the world – everyone feels they have to have children. But we’re a developed country, in which it’s relatively easy to break taboos.

“Over the last 10 years, society’s attitude toward the gay community has changed completely. Society threw out one of the hardest taboos to get rid of and entered a much healthier phase. With regard to childbirth, too, if we tell the truth I think we’ll get there. The very fact that a conversation is happening is important. Ultimately, we’re a pragmatic people.”

The government should get out of the bedroom

Tal was born in North Carolina to a Conservative Jewish family. At age 17, he came to Israel on a one-year program and fell in love with the place.

“Israel is a place where it’s possible to change society – unlike the United States, where everything is set in place,” he says. “Today, I can say that Israel hasn’t disappointed me in this respect. Without any connections, just with ideas in my head and hard work, I managed to change what I wanted.”

Prof. Alon Tal. "What does it mean that the government tells its citizens, ‘We’ll give you more money if you have more children’?"Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

At the tender age of 29, when he returned to Israel after getting a doctorate from Harvard, Tal founded the organization Adam Teva V’Din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense).

It’s no accident that Tal stresses his Zionism. In the introduction to his book, he cites numerous examples of the denunciations heaped on anyone in Israel who raises the demographic issue. Among other things, he mentions the advice given by one of Israel’s leading demographic experts, geographer Prof. Arnon Soffer, to anyone who wants to deal with this issue: “Be prepared to be condemned simultaneously both as ‘anti-Zionist’ by Israeli right-wingers and ‘fascist’ by left-wingers.”

Despite the potential for suffering rejection, over the last year, Tal has crisscrossed the country with his lecture about the population explosion. He says that during this lecture tour, he discovered that young people react to his talk differently than older people do.

“The young people are much more open to this issue,” he says. “I think that’s because they haven’t been burdened with the classical Zionist thinking of ‘Fill the land.’ In my Conservative synagogue there was actually great opposition, but I felt that after two hours of discussion most people were convinced. The great challenge will be to convince ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Bedouin leaders and our politicians, who only see the short term.”

It’s hard to talk about restricting birthrates. It raises immediate associations with China, as well as the thought that the government will start interfering in this area of our private lives as well.

“On the contrary. I’m taking the government out of the bedroom, where it is today. What does it mean that the government tells its citizens, ‘We’ll give you more money if you have more children’?

“The ultra-Orthodox have 6.5 children on average, and that’s solely thanks to public policy. Once, the average was 2.5. David Ben-Gurion said that anyone who doesn’t have more than four children is a traitor – that’s coming into our bedrooms.

“I’m not proposing that we become China; I’m merely telling the government, ‘Get out of our bedrooms.’ How? Say that two kids are great and more than that is undesirable, but without interfering – neither forbidding nor encouraging.”

“People tell me it’s immoral to limit birthrates,” he adds passionately. “Excuse me? It’s immoral that my friends want to have a third child, but they don’t have money to pay for private day care, a dentist, after-school activities or university because 60 percent of their taxed salary goes to finance families with 10 children – whose parents don’t pay taxes. Is it moral that my friend should give up on having a child so they can have 14?

“In my view, this is an irresponsible public policy that cries out for correction. Anyone who thinks it’s possible to expect this self-sacrifice by the middle class to continue over the long term is living in la-la land.”

In his book, Tal writes that “Israel’s population growth is driven more and more by high ultra-Orthodox fertility rates.” Thus, if ultra-Orthodox fertility “doesn’t drop significantly, the social and environmental indicators by which quality of life in Israel is measured will deteriorate. In general, ultra-Orthodox parents have more children than they’re capable of supporting, so they have to rely on subsidies to survive. Given the poverty into which most ultra-Orthodox children are born, they don’t enjoy equal opportunities for a prosperous future.”

Anyone dealing with demographics in Israel must inevitably address Bedouin and Palestinian demographics, and one chapter of the book is indeed devoted to that issue. It says the average Palestinian family in the West Bank today has 2.8 children, while the average Palestinian family in the Gaza Strip has 4.2, while the average Bedouin family in Israel has six, similar to the ultra-Orthodox. With regard to the Bedouin, Tal says the main culprit is the lack of employment opportunities for women.

The book’s overall argument could be read as one by a privileged person attacking weaker population groups.

“Anyone who believes a just society must provide equality of opportunity to all members of that society must understand the truth: Subsidizing birthrates perpetuates and increases poverty. Why does one out of every three children in Israel live below the poverty line? Anyone who thinks the current policy is ‘pro’ weaker population groups ignores the practical ramifications of the current policy and the empirical data.

“Israel’s middle class is collapsing. This isn’t a privileged segment of society, quite the contrary; it’s the segment that serves in the army, does reserve duty, pays taxes and can’t make it through the month. The book’s argument is that good public policy must think about the future of these people, too.”

The term "demographic" in Israel is connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s apparent you try to avoid this discussion.

“My arguments relate to quality of life – like health levels, access to justice and, above all, poverty. The book would miss its target if it’s seen as opposing the ultra-Orthodox. I have no problem with the ultra-Orthodox if they can support their families.

“As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I recall a newspaper headline from 1985 screaming that in another decade Arabs would be the majority here. Since then, many things have happened, including the encouragement of childbirth and the waves of immigration, which have changed the demographic dynamic between Arabs and Jews to the Jews’ benefit.

“Israel’s Arab community has been at 40,000 births a year for the past 20 years. Among Jews, the annual birthrate ranges from 100,000 to 120,000. Yet even today there are politicians who prefer to distort the picture, as if there were still a demographic threat from the Palestinians.”

What’s your view of the growth of fertility treatments in Israel? The population increase also stems from this, yes?

“Not really. In 2013, the number of babies born through in vitro fertilization to date stood at 6,752, so I assume that today the number would be a bit more than 7,000 throughout Israel’s history. This isn’t a statistic that significantly changes the demographic balance. What is true is that the costs are insane and attest to the moral distortion of Israeli public policy on fertility.”

Gloom and doom

Soffer, a professor emeritus of geography and the environment, is considered one of the leaders of Israel’s demographic discussion. At the beginning of our telephone conversation, he warns that I, my family and friends won't stay in Israel much longer, because the burden will become too great on us. When I note that I currently have no plans to emigrate, he responds, “This week you don’t.”

He backs Tal’s arguments, saying, “For years now, I’ve been screaming about demography. We’ve reached the critical moment in which we are the most crowded country in the Western world. We give birth like Third World countries and consume like First World countries.

Prof. emeritus Arnon Soffer. "We’ve reached the critical moment in which we are the most crowded country in the Western world."Credit: Daniel Bar-On

“Moreover, this is a small, arid country in which the desert keeps expanding. To this, add that 50 percent of the land in this country belongs to the army – something that has no precedent anywhere else in the world. Insert these statistics into a country with no governability and you get the real picture, which is appalling.”

Why do you think this is such a sensitive issue?

“I think that talking about restricting childbirth in Israel is like telling someone his desire for a Jewish state is unacceptable. People connect these things in a way that can’t be unraveled.

“I also used to think like this. When I got married, I swear, I wanted six children – one for every million,” he adds, referring to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. “But today, I understand that the diametric opposite is the case. If somebody loves the land of Israel but chooses not to take action on this issue now, he’s betraying the country. Anyone who loves this land must strive for stability, so that things will still be good here in another few years.”

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