Arabs Are Israel's New Yuppies

Rapidly falling birthrates point to a wider social phenomenon: Israeli Arabs are aspiring to ever-higher standards of living and education by having fewer and fewer children

Ben-Gurion University. Among Israeli Arabs studying for their bachelor’s degree, women account for 72 percent of the total.
Ben-Gurion University. Among Israeli Arabs studying for their bachelor’s degree, women account for 72 percent of the total. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Central Bureau of Statistics is forecasting that non-Haredi Jews will shrink to being just 49% of Israel’s population by the year 2065. The reason for that is the extraordinary projected growth of the ultra-Orthodox minority from 11% in 2015 to 32% 50 years later.

That figure has properly won the attention of policy makers, who are now busy trying to figure out ways to force Haredi children to study subjects like math, science and English at school to prepare them for productive roles in the job market. The Israel of 2065 can’t afford to have a third of its population uneducated and mostly unemployed.

But another statistic is at least as interesting and important: The share of Israeli Arabs in the population is forecast to shrink by 2065 to 19%, from 21% in 2015.

Bringing down baby
Average number of births per woman

The reason behind these variable trends is declining birthrates. Haredi women are on average giving birth to between 6.5 and seven children over their lifetimes, non-Haredi Jewish women have just 2.6. That’s still high by Western standards and the figure is trending slightly upwards, but it’s still well less than half the ultra-Orthodox rate.

Meanwhile, Israeli Arab women have seen their birthrate plummet – from 4.5 children on average two decades ago to just 3.1 today. The CBS says the rate for Israeli Arabs is rapidly approaching that of non-Haredi Jews.

The CBS doesn’t offer any analysis of why this is happening, but experts in the Israeli Arab community knno why the birthrate is declining. Behind the backs of the Jewish majority, Israeli Arabs are undergoing a middle-class revolution. They are aspiring to ever-higher standards of living for themselves and their children. They are demanding better schooling and seeking white collar jobs. In short, they are becoming Israel’s new Jews.

'A natural process'

“It’s a natural process that began with the growth in women’s education,” says Rassem Khamaisi, a professor of geography at Haifa University. “That has led to a lifestyle change in Arab society: Young families want to invest in their children and in their standard of living. Also, don’t forget the housing crisis hasn’t passed Arab society by and higher home prices have forced them to live in smaller apartments.”

Prof. Aziz Haidar, a sociologist at Hebrew University and editor of the Van Leer Institute’s Arab yearbook, agrees. He points to the growth in the number of Arab families traveling abroad every year – 70,000 during the last holiday period – as a barometer of the change.

“The Arab middle class is expanding dramatically,” Haidar says. “The rate has grown from 17% [of the Arab population] two decades ago to 27% today. There are still not a lot of wealthy people, only 3% fit that category, and the majority is still in the lower income brackets, but without a doubt it’s a growing segment among the young, educated professionals.”

Other figures bear out the rise of the Israeli Arab middle class. About 120,000 of them have a bachelor’s degree or more and lot of them are working in medicine as doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Arab women have been leading the change: Among Israeli Arab studying for their bachelor’s degree, women account for 72% of the total. By comparison, Jewish women account for 60% of all Jews matriculating.

The effect on so many educated women is huge. Studies by World Bank researchers and others have found that more than for men, higher rates of education for women have a bigger social impact, mainly because better educated women tend to have fewer children and ensure their aspirations are passed onto the next generation.

Unfortunately, the growth of educated Arab women hasn’t been accompanied by a concomitant increase in employment. Their labor-force participation rate hasn’t exceeded the very low level of 30%. Experts debate about why that’s the case and most point to logistical problems – the distance between their homes and places of work and the absence of public transportation – which is something the government is committed to changing.

The other popular explanation, which holds that traditional values in the Arab community deter women from working, doesn’t hold up against statistics on marriage. The average marrying age has been climbing and now stands at 22.4 (compared with 26 among Israeli Jews).

Meanwhile, the rate of divorce has been rising, to 7% in 2012 from 6.3% 10 years earlier, while the Jewish rate has held steady at 9%. Haidar even sees a wholly new phenomenon emerging of women remaining single past age 30.

The impact of this growing Israeli Arab middle-class is immense and is even likely to make itself felt in the political sphere. Haidar and Khamaisi say that’s because as a group they take more interest in things like housing prices, schools and cost-of-living issues than they do in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That’s not to say they are abandoning the Palestinians, but their political concerns are widening to issues that affect social mobility and equality, which they contend has come to be expressed in the formation of the Joint List during the 2015 elections. Its chairman, Ayman Odeh, devotes much of his time to practical issues facing Arab society.

This socioeconomic change, and the political one that has followed, means that for Israel’s Jewish majority the discrimination that exists can no longer be justified. If it continues, they have no one to blame but themselves.