Israel: natalism and nationalism | MercatorNet
Scrolling through imperial media the other day, a clickbait headline popped up in The Economist:
In Israel, birth rates converge between Jews and Muslims
Religious Jews there have resisted the downward trend in fertility elsewhere
It sounded interesting.
From a demographic point of view, Israel is a curiosity. It is a first world country in a third world quarter, a Jewish state among the Arabs and extremely influential in the United States. A nuclear power, Israel is the only country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with a fertility rate above 2.9+.
Israel is also a leader in reproductive technologies.
Israeli demographics are very complicated, driven by religion and nationalism. To even try to understand it, a little history is necessary.
In 1896, Theodor Herzl Judenstatt (The Jewish State) has been published:
Jews who want a state will get it. We will finally live as free men on our own soil and die peacefully in our own homes.
Herzl, the founder of Zionism, became known as Hozeh HaMedina or “Visionary of the State” of Israel. Jews around the world worked to realize his vision of a Jewish homeland.
In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring the United Kingdom’s unequivocal support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. While historians debate such questions To infinitythe Declaration may have been part of a complex arrangement involving the United States’ entry into World War I on the side of the British.
In April of the same year, President Woodrow Wilson, elected on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, had asked Congress to enter “a war to end all wars” in order to to “make the world safe for democracy”. We know how it worked. No member of President Wilson’s family was sent overseas to deal with the carnage. But I digress.
Jewish immigration to Palestine increased when the National Socialist (Nazi) regime came to power in Germany (1933). Soon after, the infamous Transfer Agreement (Haavara Agreement) was concluded between the Zionist organizations and the Nazi government. Although fraught with controversy, the agreement allowed some Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine. A book by Jewish scholar Edmund Black explores this.
In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the plight of European Jews was at the center of Western consciousness. Jewish immigration to Palestine accelerated exponentially. In late 1947, the United Nations voted to divide the soon-to-expire British Mandate into Arab and Jewish sectors. This sparked a civil war between Arabs and Jews.
Then, on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, head of the World Zionist Organization, declared the establishment of the State of Israel effective upon the end of the British Mandate at midnight. The United States conferred diplomatic recognition on the same day. Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first prime minister.
Unfortunately, tensions between Arabs and Jews have continued with no end in sight. This is where demographics matter.
National identity strained
Fast forward to Jerusalem shortly after 3am on Thursday, July 19, 2018. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood outside the Knesset to celebrate the passage of the controversial Jewish National State bill:
This is a defining moment in the history of Zionism and in the history of the State of Israel. 122 years ago [Theodor] Herzl shared his vision, we enshrined in law the fundamental foundation of our existence. “Israel” is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
With this, Israel officially became a Jewish state, “the national home of the Jewish people”. Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and Jewish holidays became state policy.
Also in 2018 (Columbia University’s International Business Journal):
According to former Israeli minister and architect of the Oslo Accords, Yossi Beilin, the conventional wisdom on the demographics of Arabs and Jews is that if there are similar numbers of Jews and Palestinians, they can choose to live together in a state or two. If the choice is a state, Israel can be Jewish or Democratic, but it cannot be both.
This, in a nutshell, is the basis of Israel’s trilemma. It cannot have at the same time a strong Jewish majority, all the land it conquered in 1967 and a complete democracy which does not discriminate against Arabs. So numbers matter. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have long scrutinized birth rates.
The Israeli enigma: how to be a Jewish state when one in four inhabitants is not Jewish. For 2021, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics counted 9.449 million people in Israel, including Jewish Israelis in the West Bank. Officially, the population of Israel is 74% Jewish, 21% Palestinian Arab, the rest being predominantly Christian and Druze.
The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics estimates the population of the West Bank and Gaza at just over 5 million.
As European nationalists discuss “The Great Replacement(The Great Replacement), claiming they are being replaced by Muslims, it is Muslims in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank who feel they are being replaced by Jews. There is resentment everywhere.
In the 1990s, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat (1925-2004), said: “The belly of the Arab woman is my most powerful weapon. It sent shivers down the spines of Jewish Israelis, but Palestinians whose families have lived in refugee camps for half a century didn’t care about the hurt feelings.
For a time, it looked like the Palestinian Arabs were going to “breed” with the Jewish Israelis. This was one of the driving forces behind the proposed “two-state solution” where Palestinians and Jews could have their own separate states. As recently as the early 2000s, projections indicated that if current trends continued, Arabs living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank would one day outnumber Jews. In 2003, Benjamin Netanyahu (then a cabinet minister) warned that Arab fertility, twice that of Jews at the time, threatened Israel’s “Jewishness”.
This has changed. Arab Israeli fertility was 9.3 in 1960. In 1995 it had fallen to 4.7 and was recorded at 3.0 in 2019. Jewish Israelis were at 3.4 in 1960 and have fallen to 2.6 in 1995. They are now at 3.1.
Of Ha’aretz (December 31, 2019):
The fertility rate of Jewish Israeli women surpassed that of their Arab counterparts in 2018, for the first time in the country’s history, according to data released Tuesday by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Why is Jewish fertility increasing? According to Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at Israel’s Shoresh Institute:
Almost all of this increase is caused by the growing number of ultra-Orthodox (or haredi) Jews in Israel, who have a fertility rate of 6.6, more than double the national average and three times the rate of secular Jews. As a result, the share of Haredim in Israel’s population has more or less doubled with each generation…
Although Haredim make up only 13% of the population, their offspring make up 19% of Israeli children under 14 and 24% of those under four. The Israeli statistics agency estimates that, based on current trends, half of Israeli children will be Haredi by 2065.
The Haredim stand out. The men wear long black coats and black hats; women wear long black dresses. There are 1,200,000 Haredim in Israel. They marry younger than other Israelis. Haredi children attend religious schools and study Torah generally to the exclusion of math and science.
Most Haredi men are not employed and devote their time to ongoing Torah study, subsidized by the state and Jewish charities and supported by their wives. They don’t serve in the military. Thus, Haredim (with few exceptions) do not participate in or contribute to Israel’s high-tech economy or national defense.
According to the World Bank, the fertility rate of Israeli Christians, Druze and secular Jews is almost identical at 2.0; Muslims are at 3.0, religious Jews at 4.0 and Haredim at 6.6.
A strong Jewish nationalism (Zionism) drives pronatalism among Israeli Jews. They are constantly reminded of the Holocaust and that they vastly outnumber the Arabs in the region. By The Economistan Israeli demographer noted: “If an Israeli woman has fewer than three children, she feels she owes everyone an explanation – or an apology.
Moreover, less than 10% of Israeli babies are born out of wedlock. Grandparents participate much more in the education of children than in the West.
And the Palestinians? According to University of Montreal demographer Dr. Anais Simard-Gendron:
Palestinian women, despite their high level of education overall, are known to have the highest fertility rate in the Arab world, with an average of more than three births per woman… The total fertility rate in Israel, estimated at around three children per woman, masks significant regional disparities, including the case of Jewish women living in Israeli settlements, who have even more babies than Palestinians, averaging five. These women are aware of the political value of their fertility.
Since 2000, Jewish fertility has increased, thanks to Haredi and other Jewish religions. According to Ms. Simard-Gendron’s research, it is now at the level of the Arabs with an average of 3.13 children per woman. Because demographics is such a sensitive topic in Israel, demographic data and projections are often disputed.
The area Zionists call “Eretz Israel(Land of Israel), includes Israel as well as Gaza and the West Bank (aka the Occupied Territories). Most Palestinians live in the territories.
According to Arnon Soffer, a demographer at the University of Haifa, “Jews are a 47% minority in Israel and the territories”, where 7.45 million Jews and 7.53 Arabs reside. Soffer says those numbers include hundreds of thousands of non-Jews living in Israel who are not citizens. Moreover, while the fertility rates of Arabs and Jews may converge, the death rate of Jews is significantly higher than that of Arabs because the Arab population is much younger.
Israel is therefore a demographic curiosity. As daily life goes on as usual, there is considerable discord within the Jewish majority, and Palestinians want out from under Israel. Violence erupts from time to time, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank. There are charges of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli state terrorism. The whole region is still on the razor’s edge. The tension is there.
I wonder how many people in Israel really believe that “diversity is our strength”?