Analysis

Israel Is One Big Lab, Experimenting on Humans

A population bomb waiting to explode

Israelis wait in a traffic jam caused by a protest on Tel Aviv's Ayalon Highway, February 2019. Israeli roads are the most jam-packed in the developed world, surveys show.
Tomer Appelbaum

According to international surveys, Israeli roads are the most jam-packed in the developed world, with far more cars per paved street than No. 2 Spain. Israeli classrooms are also more crowded, with an average of 28 students per room, five more than the average for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Even when Israelis need to see a doctor urgently, they find themselves chockablock with other patients. At 94%, Israeli hospital emergency rooms have the highest occupancy rate in the developed world and the longest waiting times.

The crowding extends to other areas, too, and comes at a cost to the economy, society and quality of life. It’s only going to get worse over time.

Already the third most densely populated developed country after the Netherlands and South Korea, by 2035 Israel will be No. 1. The reason: Its population is growing so quickly – about 2% a year versus an average of just 0.5% for OECD countries.

That makes Israel an outlier. It’s an advanced and wealthy economy that’s growing quickly, but its rate of population growth is akin to a developing country. If the trend doesn’t change, by 2065 we will be the most crowded country on Earth after Bangladesh, according to Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Dan Ben-David.

This strange combination of an advanced Western state and crowding like the poorest countries presents Israel with an unparalleled challenge. Because no other Western country faces the problems of population density like Israel, there’s no precedent for how to address them.

‘Children are a blessing’

Israel got into this mess for two reasons. The first is poor long-term planning and the fact that no key decision-makers are grappling with the problem seriously. The second is the widespread view in Israel that “children are a blessing.”

We continue to encourage childbirth, in part due to the demographic contest with the Palestinians, yet birthrates among Israeli Arabs have plummeted over the last three decades from an average of nine per woman to three.

The notion that high birthrates encourage economic growth is only partly correct because each additional child generates diminishing returns.

It’s easy to attack the Israeli government’s poor planning, but policymakers deserve some slack amid the stark reality that Israeli women give birth to 3.1 children on average, versus 1.7 for OECD countries. No other country has to cope with the phenomenon of a population of about 8 million growing to between 16 and 18 million by 2050.

In fact it’s quite the opposite; most developed countries face a future of shrinking populations (in the case of Japan, the process has already begun).

FILE PHOTO: An ultra-Orthodox woman is seen with children, Jerusalem, Israel January 12, 2019.
Emil Salman

The Forum for Population, Environment and Society, led by Prof. Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University, Eyal Rotenberg of the Weizmann Institute of Science and Itamar Shahar, has been trying to call attention to the problem. They say the conventional wisdom, which considers Israel’s rapid population growth a boon for the economy over the long term, is wrong. All those babies will bring disaster.

The traffic jams, the beds in hospital corridors, the lack of discipline in overcrowded classrooms, the sky-high housing prices, and the crowded beaches and forests will only get worse. Israel’s quality of life will deteriorate badly unless we act.

Artificial intelligence lurks

“We are approaching the moment when the quantity of life will begin hurting the quality of life,” said Tal; he points to Lake Kinneret’s shores, which have to be closed during Passover when they reach full capacity.

“You can’t talk about the standard of living without relating to the quality of life – the ability to spend time outdoors without being overwhelmed by the masses, sitting on the train and not standing in the aisle with hundreds more passengers, and even creating employment for young people,” he said. “With so many children born, what employment do we have to offer them in an age where artificial intelligence is replacing people?”

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, who once chaired the National Economic Council, estimates that if Israel’s population growth dropped to 0.5% annually from 2%, gross domestic product per capita would double by 2050.

He points to the irony that Israel encourages childbirth with child allowances and discounts for large families, but doesn’t do much for children when they start school by crowding them into classrooms.

The result is that as AI replaces people in lower-skilled jobs, Israeli schools aren’t producing graduates ready for the most highly-skilled positions. Trajtenberg says Israel will need to raise taxes just to ensure that children receive proper schooling and services.

Prof. Rachelle Alterman of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology is even blunter. In an interview with TheMarker she predicted that if the population reaches 18 million by 2050, 98% of Israelis will have to live in giant apartment towers each containing hundreds of units.

Parts of Singapore and Hong Kong already look much like that, but Alterman notes that those are tiny city-states next to large countries (Malaysia and China) that give residents some elbow room. And the people in those city-states are pretty disciplined – plus they have small families.

“At a time when our families have an average of 3.1 children, in Singapore and Hong Kong the average is one,” she writes. “There is no example in the world today of large-scale housing involving many children in condominium towers. Singapore and Israel are not the same case; children change everything.”

Alterman compares what the government is doing to experimenting on animals without approval from an ethics committee, as required of scientists. “In Israel,” she says, “we’re experimenting with people on a huge scale without any option of going back.”