The Human Spirit: Israeli Jewish women and demography
From 1995 to 2013, the annual number of Israeli Jewish
births surged by 65 percent – from 80,400 to 132,000
Former ambassador Yoram
Ettinger needs to change our appointment. He has to go out of town to babysit
for his grandchildren. Working grandparents in Israel these day have to balance
their workweek with grandparenting responsibilities.
Feel familiar? When
we do meet for coffee, the reason for Etthinger's postponement turns out to be
germane. We're having the background conversation for a late-night,
Hadassah-sponsored, over-the-Internet lecture on "Defining Zionism in the 21st
Century for America." He's the speaker and I'm the facilitator.
us to discuss Diaspora-Israel relations, but instead we talk mostly about babies
– who is having them and why.
When it comes to Middle East demography,
Ettinger maintains that most of us have our facts backwards. We've become so
accustomed to thinking we're sitting on a demographic time bomb that will
implode when Jews are outnumbered, that we've failed to follow the latest
Indeed, Ettinger's ideas are counterintuitive for all of us
who have long believed that the demographics of our region are pitted strongly
Having heard scholarly lectures reinforcing this point of
view, I admit I'm initially skeptical and need to be convinced.
lots of new statistics. It turns out that in 2014, we Israeli Jewish women, like
our biblical foremothers, are extremely prolific.
According to Ettinger,
from 1995 to 2013, the annual number of Israeli Jewish births surged by 65
percent – from 80,400 to 132,000. In 2013, the Jewish fertility rate was 3.04
births per woman – and trending upwards. It's 3.04 births when both spouses are
Israeli-born, no matter where their parents were born.
is the operational term here. There are many factors, including population age,
which are important in predicting future population growth or shrinkage. But,
taking all these factors into consideration, the Jewish population is growing
fast, and will grow even faster.
That's counterintuitive, if you've read
all the literature about "sub-replacement levels" of society. Family size has
been traditionally linked to the number of children it takes to run a farm or
support an elderly parent. But as women become more educated, move to cities and
have other economic resources, they have fewer babies. At least that's the
A CBS report earlier this year, citing UN estimates, shows
there's been a drop in family size among Muslims throughout the region. The most
fertile Arab nation, Jordan, has a projected 2035 fertility rate of 2.41
children. Israeli Muslims are projected to decline from 3.37 to 2.71. This is
consistent with the greater education and urbanization.
But it doesn't
hold for Israeli Jews.
Says Ettinger, "Israel's Jewish fertility rate is
currently higher than any Arab country, other than Yemen, Iraq and Jordan, which
are rapidly declining. The Jewish population is also growing relatively younger,
which bodes well for Israel's economy and national security."
in Jewish population, in contrast to the downward trend among the region's
Muslims, has major implications for the geopolitics of our area, of course. But
this is not the subject of this discourse.
I'm wondering why we have this
surprising increase in population. It's not from immigration.
Jewish? Unhappily, this fertility pattern isn't true for our American sisters.
According to the most widely quoted survey, the National Jewish Population
Survey 2001-2002, the average number of children born to Jewish women was less
than 1.9. The so-called "effective Jewish birthrate" is below 1.9 children per
More recent studies don't dispute this trend. You need 2.1
children per woman to get to replacement rate. (The average total fertility rate
in the European Union was calculated at 1.59 children per woman in 2009.)
Lest you think I'm about to crow about this being the result of the Orthodox
population to which I belong, Ettinger says "wrong, wrong, wrong." He attributes
the surge in fertility to Israel's secular Jews, mostly thanks to the "yuppies
around Tel Aviv" and immigrants from the former Soviet Union! Russia has one of
the lowest birth rates in the world, closer to one than two per couple. But when
the million former Soviet Jews came to Israel, their children immediately took
on Israeli baby-producing habits.
Ettinger, an only child who has three
daughters, says that both Tel Aviv Sabras and Russian immigrants have opted to
have larger families than their parents.
I know it's risky to compare
statistics to one's anecdotal experience, but how can you help it? I started to
think of the families I know, not just in Jerusalem where I live.
all the married couples I am acquainted with have more than two children,
whether they are traditional or less traditional families. Single women are
opting to have babies on their own with the help of hospital-based artificial
insemination programs. Single- gender families are having babies via surrogates,
artificial insemination and adoption from abroad, and women are having babies
into their 30s and 40s. I know two single-gender couples who have three children
and are considering more. I know three women who had babies into their 50s! Why
are we having so many babies? This is currently an area for speculation, not
statistics. Ettinger names the following factors: a sense of the collective and
community patriotism; attachment to religious, cultural and historical roots;
I'm not sure I can accept his first line of reasoning.
Devoted Zionist though I am, I still can't imagine anyone deciding to get up at
night to deal with a crying baby, enduring decades of parent- teacher
conferences and waiting up late for rambunctious teens out of patriotism.
Certainly not to produce soldiers. Every Israeli's first prayer over newborns is
that we should have peace in the coming 18 years, so they won't have to put
their lives on the line.
Optimism is the answer that resonates for me.
Despite the many challenges of living here, the low-frills lifestyles in
contrast to the members of the OECD whom we lead in fertility, we believe in the
future and want to share it with a new generation. Just as the Israelite women
prior to the Exodus convinced their husbands they needed to have more children,
so we believe we can overcome hurdles.
Optimism, yes, and obsessive love
of family. But living here also assumes an unquantifiable willingness to make
the personal sacrifices of time, money and sleep that child-rearing requires. Or
grandchild-rearing for that matter.
It has to do with setting priorities
and deciding what's really important: our children. Sometimes outsiders don't
get that about us. Or why we care so much when they are missing.