By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The Holy Land is “running out of room” for Jews and Arabs, according to a bizarre article article at Reuters. Is this news, analysis or opinion? Either way, it seems it was written with a penchant for China’s “one child” policy at hand, social engineering along the line of the Soviets, who sought to “rationalize” child birth rates, to the “correct amount.” From the very first claim, this article is shot through of holes and it’s worth enumerating them.
According to the article, Israel has “the highest [birth rate] in the developed world and once seen as a survival tactic in a hostile region, could be its undoing unless measures are taken to reverse the trend.” The authors don’t go deep into the figures, but note that it is “nearly double the fertility rate for the rest of the industrialized countries in the OECD.” This is all true, namely that the OECD has low birthrates and that most developed countries have low birth rates. Oddly the same exact voices forecasting doom in Israel because of “too many” children, are the ones who are saying the EU and other OECD countries, with their low fertility rates, need immigrants. Remember the August 25 headline at The Guardian claiming Europe “needs more babies” to avert “disaster.” Germany’s workforce will shrink by 6 million because of their declining birth rates. So whereas in the OECD we hear that they all need Syrian refugee immigrants, and countries like Japan with a fertility rate of 1.4 and among the lowest birthrate in the world (8.07) will face ruin because of it, Israel is still slanted for having too many kids.
Let’s look at the numbers. When it comes to birth rates, Israel is ranked 101st in the world, right in the middle at 18 births per 1,000 people. It’s true most of the 100 countries with higher rates are poor and in the third world, like Morocco which has 18, Namibia at 20 and Laos at 23. One of the only wealthy countries with a higher birthrate is Saudi Arabia with 18.78. When it comes to fertility rate, the story is similar. Israel is ranked 72nd or thereabouts with 2.93 children per woman. It is similar to its poorer neighbors such as Jordan (3.2 babies per woman) or Egypt (3.16). Saudi is similar to Israel, but Gulf Arab states seem to have a lower birthrate. Some of these numbers are misleading, for instance the UAE appears to have a low birthrate because of all the foreign workers, but actually local Emirati women have a decent birthrate, “The overall birth rate declined from 20.79 for every 1,000 people in 2001 to 15.01 in 2010,” reports The National.
The fact is that European countries had relatively high birthrates through 1950. Germany had a fertility rate of 25 in 1920. Italy’s was even higher. France’s was 30 per 1,000 in 1930. The Birth rate was 2.7 children per woman in the 1950s. The US had a fertility rate of around 25 in the 1950s. All these countries were higher than Israel, and it didn’t lead to economic disaster, in the opposite, it was an engine of economic growth.
Halfway through the Reuters article the authors note “the number of Jews in the Holy Land is now roughly equal to the number of Palestinians – each around 6.3 million.” It’s interesting they mention Palestinians here, because the birthrate and fertility rate of Gaza Palestinians is among the highest in the world (23 per 1,000 and up to 7 children per woman). The West Bank also has a high birth rate at 23. But you’ll notice the authors don’t focus on Gaza or the West Bank “running out of room.” Only Israel: “the small country could simply run out of room,” they claim.
They claim Israel’s population density is a threat. Their evidence is one professor at Ben-Gurion University, whose view of the problems of population density may be more connected to his own view of what Israel “should” look like, then what it does. “Israel is on the road to an ecological, social and quality of life disaster because as the population density rises it becomes more violent, congested and unpleasant to live in and with absolutely no room for any species other than humans,” said Alon Tal, a professor at BGU. Israel’s supposedly unsustainable and violence population density stands at 380 per kilometer today. The authors claim it could “reach 501-880 in 2059.”
In order to arrive at the conclusion of there being “no more room”, a neat bait and switch is made, “excluding the nearly empty Negev desert, which occupies more than half of Israel, population density jumps to 980 people per sq km, just a little below Bangladesh.” That’s like deciding that we’ll just not include Alaska and Texas or the Western United States in calculations about population density in the US. It might be noted that in the US, if you take out the wide open spaces, and include just the major metropolitan corridor, the density is 359. So is America heading for economic meltdown? Well, apparently it’s ok in the US to have a high density throughout the northeastern United States, just not in Israel’s Gush Dan area (Tel Aviv and environs). Because in Israel, when one says “no more room”, one just subtracts areas that don’t mesh with the statistics. In fact there is plenty of room in Israel, just like in America or Japan or the UAE.
The highest population density in the world is in Singapore at 9,150 per kilometer. Bahrain, Malta, Bermuda all have densities far higher than Israel. Are they “violent” and horrible places to live, with “no room”? Perhaps no room for professors from Israel’s universities who live on bucolic kibbutzim, but most of these countries have a lower murder rate than Israel. In fact there is no correlation between violence and population density. South Africa, with one of the lowest densities in the world, has a murder rate of 30 per 1,000, compared to SIngapore at .02 per 1,000. Israel has a rate of 1.8. Bahrain is less, Malta is slightly worse. Only Israelis it seems have invented a notion that these items are related. It is mostly because of a secular Zionist impulse that views the high birth rates of Arabs and Haredim as a “problem.”
But why turn Israel’s demographic bogeyman of “too many Arabs” into an article about “no more room”? The article plays into this narrative, by noting “the birth rate is even higher among Israel’s Arab community and more than double among its ultra-Orthodox Jews, two groups that also have low participation in the workforce, dragging the economy down.” Here the author’s allow their own theories of the reasons for Israel’s high birthrate to color the article.
They claim Israel has a high birth rate as a “survival tactic” and it stems “from the biblical command ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ to the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust, to fears of being outnumbered by Arabs.” None of this is based on research or a survey, this is just conjecture; mumbo-jumbo that stereotypes Israel and Jews without evidence. Do Israelis really have more children because of “fears of being outnumbered by Arabs”? Let’s just say they do. It sounds logical. But the highest birthrate is among Arabs? Well, maybe they want to outnumber themselves? And Haredim who are non-Zionist have the highest birthrate? Well, for them it’s the Bible.
In order to cater to the “Arab demographic problem,” narrative the article claims “Palestinian population growth easily outpaces Israel’s, with the average woman in the Palestinian territories having four children.” Easily outpaces? How is that again? Israeli women have 3 children per woman and Palestinians 4 children per woman, and most of that growth is actually in Gaza. And why does this matter? To bolster the “demographic battle” theory, the authors note “[Israel] also offers incentives to Jews abroad, and even to Israeli emigrants, to move to Israel, measures needed when Israel was founded in 1948 but perhaps less crucial when the population is surging.” This confuses the law of return with a demographic policy, when the law of return is a policy related to being a Jewish state, a centre-point of Zionism. The fact is that some secular professors want to cancel the law of return, because of this “villa in the jungle” mentality of not wanting Jewish immigration, and those academics influenced this article to pretend that the law of return is a demographic law. Journalist Yaron Landon writes “abolish the law of return,” claiming “the demographic balance between the Arabs and Jews is consistently shifting in favor of the Arabs. Ostensibly, their demographic boost should strengthen the Jewish argument for preserving the law, but as I will try to show, it is weakening it.”
After jumping on the “demographic battle” bandwagon, the authors then shift to claiming that the real problem with the birthrates is the “problem” populations of Arabs and Haredim who don’t work enough supposedly. “Israel’s case the growth is in populations where employment rates are lowest. Among both Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, workforce participation is around 40 percent, far lower than the 61 percent for Israelis overall.” The authors claim, in “the case of Israeli Arabs, the figure is dragged down by women, traditionally encouraged not to work.” Did they survey Arabs to create this conclusion? The story of the non-working Arabs and Haredim who have “too many” children has long been parroted by institutes such as the Taub Center, and The Marker’s Meirav Arlosoroff. In a 2013 article Arlosoroff claimed that “the new Israel will be more Arab, more Haredi, the changing population threatens economic disaster.” Daniel Ben-David notes “Among those within the primary working ages of 25 to 54, 73 percent of the ultra-Orthodox men and 79 percent of Arab-Israeli women are not employed. In the future, who will be able to finance non-working lifestyles at the rates to which these groups are currently accustomed?”
That’s fine that the Ben-Davids, Arlosoroff view a demographic-economic time bomb, but it’s important to challenge this view and not turn it into “fact.” So which is it, is Israel “running out of room”, or does it simply have too many unemployed people? The fact is that Arab unemployment is over-reported as many work in a shadow economy, including women. But the narrative is primarily an anti-minority one that views minorities as not “contributing”, being “parasites” and not working, a familiar argument in Europe, where migrants are viewed as “stealing” benefits.
Oddly the article seems to imply Israel’s population is also aging and that is a problem, “Assaf Geva, a senior economist at the Finance Ministry, notes that by 2059, people aged 65 and over will make up 17 percent of Israel’s population compared with 10 percent now. Over the same timeframe, the percentage of Arabs in the population will grow to 23 percent from 20 percent.” So again we have “threatening” Arabs paired with too many old people, two facts that seem to have little in common. An increase of 20 to 23 percent of the population is negligible. But if there are too many elderly, as in Japan and the EU, then a high birth rate would be good?
At the end of the article the authors throw in environmental problems, noting “population growth has already created shortages in Israel’s most precious resources – land and water,” and even blame the “housing shortage” on having a high birthrate. Well, if that was the case, shouldn’t the real emergency be in Gaza, not Israel? And does the housing shortage have to do with a high birth rate or bad planning and bureaucracy? Palestinians in the West Bank seem to have houses, it’s primarily an Israeli problem, stemming from government ownership of 93 percent of the land. So there is a shortage of land, but not because of birth-rates, but government policy.