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Israel is having a baby boom, and now has the highest per capita rate of population growth in the developed world. Families here have an average of 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 in other developed countries. At this rate Israel’s population, which currently numbers 8.7 million, could soar to 15 million by 2050. What makes fertility distinctive here is a unique combination of societal messages and policies. Foremost is a lingering post-Holocaust imperative to replace the 6 million who were murdered, but the list also includes fears of Arab demographic dominance and of the next impending war, and economic incentives from the government that include bankrolling fertility treatments. Alon Tal, a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University, has been sounding a warning about Israel’s exponential population growth, which he says has already made it the most crowded country in the developed world. But Orna Donath, a sociologist who researches motherhood, says the trend has deep roots. Driving it, she says, “is the collective fear of annihilation. It continues to haunt us, and children are seen as symbolizing a continuance of life, of survival.”
At the entrance of an event called BabyLand, expectant mothers and their partners – along with tired-looking, newly minted parents – lined up to receive bulging bags of free baby products.
Over the course of the three-day event, 50,000 people paraded through the balloon-festooned convention center, some pushing strollers occupied by two or three young children.
Religious, secular, Arab, and Jewish, they were on a mission: shopping for discounted diapers and baby formula and perusing stalls offering the latest versions of snack containers and sheets for bed-wetters.
Pro-natalist Israel is having a sustained baby boom, and now has the highest per capita rate of population growth in the developed world, experts say.
Families here have an average of 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 in other developed countries. At this rate Israel’s population, which currently numbers 8.7 million, could soar to 15 million by 2050.
The importance of having children is a focus in Israel as it is in most parts of the world, but what makes the attitude distinctive in the country’s Jewish sector is a unique combination of societal messages and policies. Foremost is a lingering post-Holocaust imperative to replace the 6 million who were murdered, but the list also includes fears of Arab demographic dominance and of the next impending war, and economic incentives from the government that include bankrolling fertility treatments, even in-vitro fertilization.
Driving this focus, argues Orna Donath, a sociologist who researches motherhood, “is the collective fear of annihilation. It continues to haunt us, and children are seen as symbolizing a continuance of life, of survival.”
Birthrates have long been especially high among ultra-Orthodox Jews, a small if highly visible minority in Israel, with the average family having close to seven children, although that number has begun to drop slightly in the past decade.
But even among secular Jews, three children is the norm. Families with one and even two children are often looked upon with pity. People often assume the parent or parents must have fertility issues or are “selfish,” says Daphna Birenbaum Carmeli, a sociologist at Haifa University who researches Israel’s pro-natalist policies.
It’s the intensity of this fixation on family that makes Israel different from its counterparts in Europe and the United States, argues Elly Teman, a medical anthropologist and senior lecturer at Ruppin College, in central Israel.
“In America you are an individual who is not necessarily going to live close to your parents. But in Israel the whole basis of society is familial,” Dr. Teman says. “The metaphors used describing the nation as one body, one family, is an example of this. It often comes out when we are having a security crisis. The idea of family as the basic unit of Jewish society adds to this narrative: This is how Jews have always survived.”
The Jewish state also has a sizeable Arab minority that makes up some 20 percent of the population. But with the exception of the semi-nomadic Bedouin, who tend to be poorer than other Arabs and have a birthrate of 5.5 children, the birthrate among other Arab families has been dropping as more have joined the middle class. Today the rate stands at 3.1 children per family, the same overall rate as Israeli Jews.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile, even when it is on a low-intensity flame, still places Israel in the category of what experts call a “war society.”
Mix that with being a small country and, “We hear that if we don’t have enough citizens, we don’t have enough soldiers. And people are acting on those messages [whether] they are aware they are or not,” says Teman, referring to the Jewish sector.
The Israeli attitude toward children and families affects immigrants, as well, Teman says. She points to the example of the wave of immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Those who came as adults usually had one child. By contrast, those who came as teenagers and absorbed the societal message have – for the most part – gone on to have two to three children.
“There is pressure on people here, a message that the only way to be included in society is through having children,” says Teman.
There has also been a baby boom among members of Israel’s gay community, who, through having children, have found social acceptance that had eluded them before.
In Israel women typically return to work after a paid 14-week maternity leave covered by the government. Those who opt to stay home longer have their jobs guaranteed for a year.
Still, in many European countries with low birthrates, there is comparatively even more state support for women and families who have children. That can make a real difference when the cost of living is high. And the cost of living in Israel, like its birthrate, is among the highest in the Western world.
But while elsewhere in the West, middle-class families might limit the number of children they have because of the cost of raising them, in Israel that rationale is heard less frequently.
Ron Ganot, who was selling collapsible, lightweight wagons for children at the BabyLand event, says he and his wife are expecting their third child. Family is central to his life, he says, and he gets together every week with relatives.
“We definitely need more money, and we have rising expenses,” he says, “but I want a large family and the cost of living won’t stop us.”
In addition to receiving maternity leave and job protection, any Israeli woman of child-bearing age who is struggling to conceive, Arab or Jew, is eligible for nearly full state funding of in-vitro fertilization treatment (IVF) until she has two children. And despite its expense, there is hardly any criticism of this policy, says Dr. Birenbaum Carmeli, the Haifa University sociologist.
Some women have had as many as 25 attempts at IVF, and she says she came across two women in her research who had 37 attempts.
“When we ask women how many cycles are they willing to go through, their reply is the same: ‘As much as is takes,’” she says.
Conversely, she observes, the state does very little to encourage or facilitate adoption, which in most cases requires an international search.
“My own theory is that Israel cultivates this notion of a tribe, of bio-connectivity,” she says, to cement the Jewish people to their return to this, their ancient homeland. That’s why, she argues, “The whole issue of fertility and infertility is connected with nationalism.”
Alon Tal, a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University, has been among the lone voices in Israel sounding a warning about Israel’s exponential population growth, which he says has already made it the most crowded country in the developed world.
“We have a narrative that has not told people of the terrible end results,” he says. He cites the state’s own estimates that in just over 20 years there may be five million more citizens living here, with all that implies for rising housing prices, ballooning traffic, jobs, mounting greenhouse emissions, and the education system.
Dr. Tal, author of the book, “The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel,” calls for an end to government subsidies provided to families with children, including preferential rights for public housing and child allowances.
Most importantly, he adds; “Empower women, empower women. All the rest is commentary.”
Dr. Donath, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is the author of a book “Regretting Motherhood,” which has now been translated into 11 languages and was based on her research on Israeli Jewish women. Her findings, she says, reflect the voice of backlash, among a small number of women, against societal pressure that assumes all women want to be mothers.
“They saw it (motherhood) as a heavy responsibility, a loss of time, their private lives. Even though all of them said they loved their children, they also said they hated being mothers,” says Donath of the women she interviewed for the book.
At the BabyLand event, Galia Sharabi, a teacher and Orthodox Jewish mother of five, says having children was a priority. Pushing her stroller through the exhibits, she says she does not see family size as a decision to be determined by economics or population trends.
“A family brings happiness,” she says.