Israel Might Have the Answer to the Global Birthrate Crash

Many countries are concerned about plunging birthrates, but Israel has the opposite problem

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Newborn babies sleep at Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.
Newborn babies sleep at Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. Credit: Sakchai Lalit / AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

A new danger threatens humanity: a collapsing birth rate. We haven’t yet recovered from the coronavirus crisis, we haven’t even begun to cope with the catastrophic implications of climate change, and now the experts are telling us that the demographic crunch is an equally acute threat.

Large areas of the planet are suffering from an increasingly severe demographic deficit. In many countries, the rate of population growth was negative as early as two years ago, but the pandemic sparked a dramatic decrease in birth rates. Based on other acute crises in the past, experts predicted a baby boom as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis – but the very opposite occurred. In Spain and Italy the birth rate fell by about 20 percent compared to the same period the preceding year; dramatic declines have also been recorded in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.

There are as yet no unequivocal explanations for this phenomenon, but the result is clear: Fertility rates are declining from China to the United States, from Poland to Iran. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A population reduction in the prosperous lands is excellent news in ecological terms. Every spermatozoon or ovum that doesn’t become a child is a gift to the planet: less plastic in the oceans, one less car on the roads. It’s already been proven that in terms of environmental impact, forgoing children is immeasurably more effective than solar panels, electric cars or veganism.

It’s important to make it clear that even if the birth rate continues to decline, the world’s overall population will continue to grow in the coming decades – indeed, it is already using up far more resources than our ecosystem can bear. There are enough children on the planet. Too many, actually.

The demographic crisis is more embarrassing than it is terrifying. What are you supposed to do when women and men at the relevant ages simply don’t want to reproduce? At the same time, we must also not make light of the worrying effects of the reduction in the birth rate, especially in countries where it’s happening at a rapid pace. What all this will lead to in practice is an aging population, accompanied in many cases by the emptying out of towns, cities and provinces. Within a decade, Europe and East Asia will look like an aging kibbutz. Residents of Italy needn’t worry much about the situation of the planet at the end of the century, however: At the present rate there won’t be many people left in their country in 2100.

Last week French writer Michel Houellebecq published an article dealing with demography, in which he reviewed, in his typically sardonic style, the symptoms of the crisis – such as the fact that elderly Japanese are committing crimes just to be imprisoned, and thus be ensured of having food and lodgings. In his view, we’re even beyond talking about the “West committing suicide,” but rather are facing a “suicide of modernity,” considering that even China is not being spared the crisis. Although Houellebecq is known for being a provocateur, there’s no doubt that the economic and social implications of the population crash are significant. Because, even assuming that many jobs will continue to become automated, someone will still have to fly the planes, clean the streets and staff hospitals.

Enter Israel. Here, no one’s heard about a declining birthrate. People who choose not to have children are considered an exotic species here. The fertility rate in Israel is 3.1 children per woman, the highest in the OECD and far above those of Turkey and Mexico. Fertility in Israel outstrips even that of such developing-world countries as Algeria, the Philippines and India. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says he wants Israel to be like Singapore, but in Singapore the fertility rate is 1.1 children per woman. Ultra-Orthodox have the highest fertility rate, but even secular women have 2.2 children each on average, similar to the rates in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Indonesia.

So there’s no fear that Israel’s population is going to shrink in the foreseeable future. Indeed, we are suffering from the opposite problem: a population explosion. The crowding is becoming worse, and we are stretching our resources to the limit. The roads are jammed, the cost of housing is soaring and tourist sites are again packed. Already today, with a population of nine million, there’s no room to stick a pin into Israel. And yet, by 2050 the population is expected to be almost double that number. We will soon bypass Sweden, maybe also Holland and Romania. Given Israel’s small area, that is a truly dystopian scenario.

Credit: Ilan Assayag

The hatchery works

Despite these dire predictions, it’s hard to see how the average Israeli family can be persuaded to have fewer children. Israelis seem to like being crowded together. In other countries, when women are educated, for example, it leads to a fall in the birth rate, but that’s still not likely to work here. There’s also no point in talking about draconian measures such as limiting the number of children a couple can have – fortunately, Israel is not China.

The only hope, then, is that the high concentrations will somehow balance out, or that the surplus population numbers will undergo osmosis and leave. If so many countries in Europe are gradually emptying out, why shouldn’t they take in a few more Israelis? Israel is a terrific hatchery, which can help nourish other countries.

As of today, that possibility is at complete odds with official policy here: Israel encourages immigration, not emigration. Still, that could change. Already today Israel is supplying halakhically approved ova for barren Jewish women in the West. There are agencies that specialize in that. No real marketing efforts would be needed for adults – they will emigrate on their own perhaps – but they could be encouraged along those lines. In fact, Israel already has experience in encouraging emigration, even if only in the case of asylum seekers from Africa. In an era of global citizenship, it wouldn’t hurt for Israel to export residents.

In the Middle Ages, the kings of Poland encouraged the Jews to settle on their soil so that they would contribute to economic prosperity and the crown’s revenues. One can hope that history will repeat itself. In the intervening centuries, the Zionist enterprise invented a new and unique product: the Israeli sabra. They’re tanned, thorny, bursting with life, initiative and creativity. The problem is that it’s a bit crowded for the sabra in the homeland. Luckily there’s lots of room in Korea and Romania.



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