Why is Israel’s Jewish fertility rate thriving? Yoram Ettinger explains here.
Jewish demography has been impacted by the Israeli state of mind, which is heavy on optimism, faith, patriotism, attachment to roots, collective responsibility and the centrality of children. Israeli Jews have a frontier mentality, in the face of Jewish history and contemporary existential threats in the stormy, violently intolerant, unpredictable and anti-“infidel” Middle East.
Ettinger points to “optimism” as explaining Israeli Jews’ high fertility rates. You are less likely to have many –- or indeed any — children if you are pessimistic about the future. By “patriotism,” he means that Israeli Jewish women see having many children as helping to ensure the survival — after the Holocaust — of the Jewish people, and to sustain the Jewish state; this is not only a personal desire, but also fulfills a communal duty.
Unlike the generally pessimistic and less patriotic European state of mind—which has produced an extremely low fertility rate of 1.5 babies per woman (2.1 is required to sustain an existing level of population)—Israel’s left and right, doves and hawks, secular and religious, wealthy and poor sectors of the Jewish population embrace the Zionist vision to buttress the Jewish state. They consider children (3.09 per woman) as a means to enrich their own lives, and secure the civilian and military future of the Jewish state.
This state of mind has catapulted Israel to lead the 34 OECD countries in fertility and population growth rates, in addition to the percentage of youth under the age of 15 (28 percent of the population), and the percentage of immigrants (23 percent of the population). Israel’s Jewish fertility rate is the highest among the top 100 developed countries in the world.
Moreover, Israel’s Jewish fertility rate (twice the OECD average) is unique in the world with regard to its positive correlation between the level of education and income, on the one hand, and the number of children per woman on the other. Also, Jewish women have sustained their relatively high fertility rate irrespective of their increasing marriage age.
It is customary for a secular, urban, highly-educated, high-income and over-30 working (yuppie) Israeli Jewish woman to have three to four children. Since 1995, the secular sector has played the key role in Israel’s Jewish demographic momentum: a 68 percent rise of the annual Jewish births from 80,400 in 1995 to 134,866 in 2020, compared to a 16 percent rise of the annual Israeli Arab births, from 36,500 in 1995 to 42,435 in 2020.
Israeli Jewish births are soaring at a rate that is more than four times the rise of Israeli Arab births. If there is a “demographic time bomb,” it will likely explode among Israel’s Arabs and not its Jews.
Israel’s demographic momentum has evolved despite the moderate decrease of the ultra-Orthodox fertility rate—caused by the expansion of the ultra-Orthodox participation in the job market (especially women) and higher education—and due to the non-conventional surge of secular fertility.
While the ultra-Orthodox fertility rate has decreased from 7.5 births per woman (in 2000) to 6.5 births (in 2020), it is still—by far—the highest fertility rate in Israel. This is the result of the ultra-Orthodox Torah-driven worldview, which highlights children as a source of divine joy and critical obligation.
The ultra-Orthodox state of mind underscores procreation, as stated in Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘be fruitful and multiply….” It underscores God’s blessing of Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Genesis 15:5), and the firm belief in Maimonides’ assertion: “For one who adds a soul to Israel is as though he built a whole world….”
Israel’s unique secular and religious fertility rate reflects the sturdy state of mind of the Jewish state in the stormy Middle East, a most challenging region of the world.
Israel’s robust demography refutes the assertion that its Jewish majority is threatened by a supposed Arab demographic time bomb. In fact, well-documented demographic data, since 1900, suggest that policy-makers and public opinion molders who make such assertions are either dramatically mistaken or outrageously misleading.
Finally, the uniquely optimistic demography of the Jewish state reflects the unique qualities of the Jewish people, which have enabled them to overcome calamities, such as physical destruction, exiles, pogroms, the Holocaust and systemic anti-Semitism.
In 2021, the fertility rate for Jewish Israelis of 3.09 births exceeded the 3.02 fertility rates of Arab Israeli women. If this trend continues – a steady rise in the Jewish fertility rate and a steady decline in the Arab fertility rate – that demographic “time bomb” that John Kerry and others warn about, in an attempt to scare Israel into embracing a “two-state solution,” will prove to be a dud. Israel will not need to choose to be “either Jewish or democratic”; it can continue to be both. That’s one less thing for the Jewish state to worry about.