Israel’s ‘Demographic Time Bomb’

One of the main reasons given for Israel to “urgently” resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – never mind that the Palestinians show no signs of wanting to make a permanent peace with the Jewish state — is the worry that Israeli Jews will eventually be swamped by both Israeli Arabs and, in the West Bank, by Palestinians. When he was Secretary of State, John Kerry warned that Israel’s demographic dynamics represented an “existential threat … that makes it impossible for Israel to preserve its future as a democratic, Jewish state.”

The argument, in a nutshell, goes like this.

The birth rate among Arab families in Israel and “Palestine”(the PA-ruled areas in the West Bank) is higher than it is for Jewish families [this is no longer true]. Therefore, at some point in the future the Arabs will become a majority in the area Israel occupies. When that day comes, Israelis will have to choose between having a Jewish state or a democratic one, because giving every person an equal vote would mean losing the Jewish character of the state. Israel’s only hope of maintaining its Jewish identity, proponents of the “demographic time bomb” theory argue, is to soon cut a peace deal that paves the way for an independent Palestinian state.

There’s only one problem: the numbers just don’t add up. Demography relies on more than just birth rates. Similar predictions have a long history of falling flat. Israeli Jews have a healthy and largely stable demographic majority in Israel and the West Bank, and developments in the coming years may even enhance this trend. The demographic time bomb, in other words, is a dud.

Yoram Ettinger has examined the latest data on Jewish and Arab fertility rates, and concludes that the fear of Israeli Jews “being swamped by Arabs” is unwarranted. His analysis of the so-called “demographic time bomb” is here.

In defiance of Israel’s critics and conventional wisdom, the highest-ever Arab population growth rate in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) occurred during Israel’s full control of the area (1967-1992).

From the end of 1967 (586,000 people) until the end of 1992 (1,050,000 people), the Arab population of Judea and Samaria expanded by 79 percent, compared to a mere 0.9 percent growth during the 1950-1967 Jordanian rule.

Note that the Arab population in the West Bank, which scarcely budged under Jordanian rule from 1949 to 1967, increased enormously when the West Bank came under the rule of the “genocidal” Israelis.

The unprecedented population growth was the outcome of the unprecedented Israeli development of health, medical, transportation, education and employment infrastructure in Judea and Samaria, following the stagnation during the Jordanian occupation of the area. In addition, Israel offered employment opportunities, in its pre-1967 core, to Judea and Samaria Arabs, who preferred working in Israel to the distant Arab Gulf states, West Africa or Latin America.

As a result of the enhanced infrastructure (especially health and medical), Arab infant mortality was drastically reduced—and life expectancy surged—almost to the Israeli level. Furthermore, emigration was substantially curtailed due to new opportunities for employment and higher education.

Under Israeli rule, the extensive and greatly improved medical care made available to the West Bank and Gazan Arabs greatly reduced infant mortality. The improved level of health care available for Arabs of all ages led to longer life expectancies.

Israel also provided better transportation in the West Bank, making it easier for Arabs to get to jobs in Israel proper. Israel’s booming economy provided employment, at good wages, for Palestinian Arabs. They no longer needed to emigrate, as they did under Jordanian rule, to find work.

Hence, while net emigration during the 17 years of Jordan’s control (1950-1967) was 28,000 annually, it subsided to 7,000 annually during the 25 years of Israel’s full control (1967-1992).

The exceptionally high Arab population growth rate during Israel’s full control of Judea and Samaria was highlighted by the 170 percent growth of the 25-34 age group, which is the group typically responsible for the bulk of emigration. That they stayed attested to Israel’s unprecedented development of employment opportunities for Arabs.

Compared to an Arab population growth rate of merely 0.9 percent during Jordan’s rule—when the number of births was almost offset by net emigration—there was a 2.2 percent average annual population growth rate during Israel’s rule. Moreover, 1990 and 1991 featured 4.5 percent and 5.1 percent population growth rates, respectively.

Arguably, the surge of the Arab population growth was misperceived by the demographic establishment, which projected a continued growth, ignoring the “pre-fall-surge” [a sudden increase followed by a sharp decrease] syndrome. The latter characterizes population growth rates of third world societies, whenever integrated into Western world societies.

Demographers have assumed that the Israeli Arab fertility rates would continue indefinitely at the same high level. But Ettinger notes that third-world populations, integrated into much more advanced Western societies, experience a “surge” in population growth due to the sudden availability of greatly improved medical care, which results in a decrease in infant mortality and, because of better care throughout the life cycle, leads to a lengthening of life expectancies.

When a Third World population is integrated into a Western one, it benefits from a considerable modernization of infrastructure, which triggers a surge in fertility rate (and reduced infant mortality) and a drop in emigration. But the surge in population growth lasts for one generation, before falling due to modernization/Westernization, as evidenced in Judea and Samaria:

  • Massive urbanization (from 75 percent rural in 1967 to 77 percent urban in 2021);

Families in urban areas are usually smaller than those in rural areas; urban residence increases the costs of raising children. Urban housing is more expensive, and children are usually less valuable in household production in urban (vs. rural) areas.

  • Most girls complete high school and increasingly pursue higher education;

The Arab girls under Israeli rule have had greater access to high schools, and then to higher education; that helps explain the decrease in fertility rates. The longer girls stay in school, the later they marry and have children.

  • Reduced teen pregnancy and substantial use of contraceptives (70%);

Under Israeli rule, Arab girls and women enjoy greater availability to Western health care, including access to contraceptives. The result is far fewer unwanted pregnancies.

  • Larger female participation in the job market.

Israeli Arab girls and women who work tend to have fewer children; they are no longer at home to take care of them; childcare is expensive.

  • Rising marriage age for women, from 15 years old to 22 and up;

See above — Arab girls now stay in school longer, putting off marriage until their education is complete.

  • Shorter reproductive period, from 16-55 years old to 23-45 years old;

Many more Arab girls in Israel delay marriage and childbearing in order to complete schooling or to establish themselves in an occupation. Older women can now more easily prevent unwanted – and given their age, potentially dangerous — pregnancies through easily available contraceptives.

  • Higher divorce rate and youth emigration;

Arab women who obtain more education can better support themselves and need not remain stuck in a marriage for economic reasons. They are likely to be less submissive to, and to expect equality with, husbands, including a refusal to accept the Islamic practice of polygyny. They see, and aspire to, the independence and equal treatment that Israeli women enjoy.

  • Bottom Line: Nine births per Arab woman in the 1960s; 3.02 births in 2021.

From nine to three births for each Arab woman is a colossal decline. If it continues, as Ettinger argues is likely, it eventually will fall below the replacement level of 2.1 births.