The latest UN Development Program report places Israel in 10th place in a
worldwide table of life expectancy at birth: 81.2 years – below France, Italy,
Sweden and Spain but above Norway, Canada and New Zealand and much above the UK
(79.8 years) and the US (79.6). This is a general average: The data for Jews in
2009 is higher – 83.9 for women; 80.5 for men.
Thus, in a sea of bad
news, we find an island of good.
The Israeli data points to a continuing
dramatic development: Only 20 years ago, the average life expectancy here was
These figures are astounding. Generally there is a
correlation between the wealth of a country, its income distribution and its
citizens’ life expectancy.
Israel is (not yet) a wealthy country, and its
income distribution is one of the OECD’s worst. It is subject to acts of terror
and belligerence (all deaths caused by these – as distinct from casualties of
“official” wars – are calculated into the average). Its road-accident death rate
is scandalously high.
Furthermore, Israel is a divided society, and its
Arab minority, although enjoying a standard of living superior even to that of
the oil-rich Arab states, is poorer than the Jewish majority. Indeed, there is
an average discrepancy of 3.8 years in life expectancy between the two
This may seem natural, as the poor usually have shorter
lives. A recent survey in the UK showed that life expectancy in London’s
Kensington-Chelsea neighborhood is 17 years (!) higher than that which prevails
a few miles away in Tottenham Green; and in the US the discrepancy between
whites and blacks is five years.
However, the very distinction between
Jews and Arabs in this context may be misleading. An unofficial (and hitherto
undisclosed) survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics prepared for the Van
Leer Foundation shows substantial gaps within the Israeli Arab population:
Christian Arabs are at the top (81.5 years for women; 77.6 for men) and close to
the Jewish rates; the gap between them and the Muslims is three years – roughly
the same as between Arabs and Jews. Below them rank the Druse, and last come the
Muslims. But even among Israeli Muslims there are gaps: those in the North live
four years longer than the Negev Beduin.
ARE THESE substantial gaps the
products of income discrepancies? Do they reflect differences in access to
health services, to healthy diets, to anti-smoking campaigns? Probably all these
factors play their part, but the truth is that we do not know. Recent research
at Newcastle University claimed that women – in all countries, without exception
– live longer for genetic reasons. In the US, Latinos have the highest
longevity, despite the fact that they are inferior in socioeconomic status, and
this is sometimes ascribed to cultural reasons: a strong communal and family
solidarity, and the “strong and ambitious immigrant” syndrome.
such genetic and cultural factors in Israel, or is it all a question of income?
The absence of research on this subject leaves room for speculation. One could
speculate that many factors affect the gaps.
I venture to suggest that
family size and the number of children play an important role, and that this is
the dominant factor distinguishing between the longevity of Christian and Muslim
There is a further fact which has to be noted: Israelis not only
live longer but, as sociologist Oz Almog notes, they lead a longer active life
than their peers in other countries. Perhaps this is why Israelis accepted with
equanimity the postponement of the right to pension by two years from 65 to 67
for men and 60 to 62 for women, and why they cannot comprehend the French rage
against the postponement of the retirement age to 62.
Needless to say,
the gaps in society are very troubling, and there should be a national effort
(absent in the proposed budget) to shrink them. An added result of such
shrinkage would be greater clarity as to whether noneconomic factors play a role
in the life expectancy of different sectors.
But in the meantime we may
sit back and take pride in this unique achievement: It is totally unexpected
that our violence-ridden, tense, relatively poor country should precede rich
welfare states such as Norway, Canada and Germany in this important criterion
measuring human development and quality of life.
Let’s leave the reasons
for this miracle aside – perhaps the reason is that we prefer humous to
hamburgers, or the ever-summery weather we complain about – and just
The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center
Herzliya, a former minister of education and MK and the recipient of the 2006
Israel Prize in Law.