Compared with the rapidly developing political and military situation in the Middle East, demographics change at a glacial pace. Yet demographic developments in Israel in recent years have been unfolding with unusual speed, and seem to be accelerating.
In the first 12 years of the current century the number of Arab births in Israel has almost completely flatlined at around 40,000 per annum. This despite the growing size of the Arab population, which means that the Arab birth rate – births relative to population size – has fallen. Over the same period, Jewish births have risen from 95,000 to 130,000. In the first four months of 2013, the most recent period for which data is available, Jewish births were up 38 percent during the same period for 2001, and Arab births down 6%.
This means that the Arab share of Israeli births, at a little over 22% of the total, is now not much higher than the overall Arab share of the population, at a little under 21% of the total, and well down from its peak of around 30%. The birth rates of Arabs and Jews in Israel are close to converging. This is both significant and unsurprising.
It is significant because it represents a dramatic drop in Arab fertility rates. Since the Arab population is younger and has more women of child-bearing age relative to its size than the Jewish population, it would be expected to have a higher birth rate. The fact that the birth rates of the two communities are close to convergence means that we are nearing the point, if we have not already passed it, when the average Jewish woman in Israel must be having more children than the average Arab woman.
It is unsurprising, at least in terms of falling Arab fertility rates, because it reflects well-documented trends elsewhere. In the period between the early 1960s and 2005-2010, the UN reports that the average woman in Egypt went from having more than 6.5 children to having fewer than three. In Lebanon, over the same period, the fall was from more than 5.5 to around 1.5, well below replacement level. In Jordan and Syria, too, declines in fertility were dramatic, from eight and 7.5 children per woman respectively in the early 1960s to around three and 3.5 in the 2005-2010 period.
Beyond the Arab world, in the wider Muslim community, similar trends have occurred, with the average Iranian and Bangladeshi woman, for example, going from having around seven children to 2.5 or fewer. No surprise, then, that Israeli Arab women have, albeit belatedly, followed a similar path.
The surprising factor has been the steady rise of the fertility of Israel’s Jewish women. At around three children per woman, this is a fertility rate of twice or more the level of Russia, Poland and Germany and half as many again as those of France, the UK and the US. It is an unprecedented level of child-bearing for women in a developed country.
And although the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) certainly contribute to this trend, the latest evidence from experts Evgenia Bystrov and Arnon Sofer suggests that childbearing among haredim is falling while among the secular population it is slowly rising.
These trends are having a major impact beyond the Green Line, too. According to Neve Gordon, a geographer at Ben-Gurion University, and Yinon Cohen, an academic at Columbia, births to Jews living in the West Bank have grown five-fold in the past 20 years, while Jews moving to the West Bank have more than halved in number. Overwhelmingly today, the growth of the Jewish population in the settlements is organic and due to a high birth rate rather than to arrival from pre-1967 Israel. Gordon and Cohen’s work suggests that the fertility rate of the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population in Judea and Samaria is now no less than two-and-a-half times that of the local Arab population.
This information should be handled with care. It does not have a direct bearing on the hotly debated question of the total number of Arabs living in the West Bank and what the impact of their incorporation within Israel would be. Nor does it necessarily suggest that Jews will grow as a share of the population of Israel with or without the West Bank; issues of mortality as well as fertility will impact this, and so will movements of populations in and out of the area.
However, it is worth noting that, at least within Israel itself, Arab demographic momentum is flagging.
Whereas in 2003 the Arab share of Israel’s population grew nearly one quarter of one percentage point, last year it grew less than one tenth of one percentage point.
My objective in presenting this information to the public is not to support one side or the other in Israel’s “Left-Right” debate. Indeed, both sides can take some comfort from it; for the Right it can be used to argue that a territorially maximalist position is at least more demographically feasible than it was a decade or two ago, from the Left’s point of view it can be used to deflate what is sometimes taken to be demographic panic aimed at the Arab citizens of Israel. Whatever policy conclusions are drawn, the quality of the debate will surely be improved by a greater appreciation of the facts.
The writer is a business consultant and an Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London.