Children get close to the land on Tu Bishvat, 2005.
(photo credit: JOE MALCOLM)
Predictions that Israel’s population is expected to reach 20 million by the end of 2065 may be correct. Should we fear this as a disaster? It all depends upon if you believe in the word “overpopulation.” Can there be such a thing for the Jewish state?
Warnings of overpopulation and its impact upon the environment, infrastructure, crowded classrooms, overworked hospitals and poverty, and labeling a high birthrate as unsustainable are plain and simply wrong. There are other root causes of these issues that most societies face today.
It is barely a hundred years ago that most families had six, eight or 10 offspring. In Western countries this has been truncated to a standard of two children or less. During the past 60 or 80 years we have seen a collapse of family values, an increase in wholesale selfishness, a significant percentage of people never marrying, an even larger percentage of those who do divorcing, together with a switch to worshiping money at the expense of a raising large families.
Since when has the Jewish people had to play by the rules of other societies? We believe that God provides. It may be through having more gas or oil revenues than some of the Gulf States, it may be through sales of hi-tech or a totally new form of wealth – from crypto-currency to totally new inventions. It is the government’s responsibility to share that wealth among the people, not to let it escape offshore, and to reward high birthrate as a national priority. The nay-sayers who forecast that the world would run out of food many years ago were wrong, the same as those today forecasting that Israel’s population growth is unsustainable.
We have found new ways to grow food, to quadruple harvests, to have productive greenhouses in barren areas and even to plant vertical gardens against hi-rise buildings. Was it conceivable years ago that Israel would have desalination plants? What is missing in the calculations of the great experts who predict doom and gloom is faith: faith in ourselves to find solutions, and faith in God.
It is a tragedy that abortions are common. It is a tragedy that families honestly believe that hundreds of toys and brand-name clothing are what children need. What they really need are brothers and sisters, the warmth of a family to grow up with, to share life’s experiences with, both when they are young and when they are older, to lean on and to love each other. They also need to share the responsibility of care for their parents. Friends and neighbors come and go, but families are the backbone of society.
China is a good example of where things went wrong. The one-child policy introduced in 1979 and now being phased out has had disastrous consequences. Not only is there a dearth of women for men to marry, as males are preferred in Chinese culture, but the growing elderly population is too large to be supported by the smaller numbers of workers.
Side effects have included theft of female babies and children, elderly people with no support systems and children who have grown up extremely self-centered.
Some European countries dropped their birthrates again and again, and now have their cultures being replaced by migrants with totally different values to their own, together with a very high birthrate.
Solutions to overcrowded classrooms are only now being tackled in Israel, primarily aimed at the periphery, with Internet lessons being beamed to students in large numbers. Schools are not babysitters, but places of learning. The issue of 40 children in a class needs a different approach. Technology can easily take the burden off individual teachers, by delivering the bulk of education differently. There is a lot to learn from the havruta method used by older children in yeshivot. The present model does not have to be the optimum one and should not be part of the discussion of what is falsely labeled “overpopulation.”
The Land of Israel is mostly empty. Places that were deserts 70 years ago are now blooming. There are vast tracts of land available for building, maybe not in the middle of Tel Aviv but in much of the country. The problem of slowing housing development is not the fault of the population. The demand is there and can easily be met, as it was when millions of olim arrived in the great waves of immigration of the past century. Apartment buildings were put up as the ships docked and the planes landed. As for damaging existing biodiversity, it is now the norm to plan new building developments with green spaces and national parks.
Many years ago the Jewish Agency had population figures of Jews worldwide. They drew a line through the figure for Russia, believing that within a few years those Jews would all assimilate and be lost. They could not have been more wrong, with over a million Russian Jews suddenly arriving in Israel. Israel has to expect influxes of Jews at all times, whether it be from Turkey or Ukraine today, or the United States tomorrow. We Jews have no guarantees of safety anywhere except in Israel.
To say that it is unpatriotic to have many children does seem to be no more than a joke. How can a tiny Israel, surrounded by Arab countries with hundreds of millions of inhabitants and phenomenal birthrates, even think of reducing its population? This agenda runs contrary to the strategic interest of Israel, a country with a high percentage of citizens under the age of 15 underpinning the older population that in a few years will need their support.
The criticism of the high birthrate in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector must be examined in the light of fear that they will constitute a significant proportion of the population in a few short years and that they will not have the same values as the secular community. This has been the actual policy of the administration since the days of Ben-Gurion, when socialism and modernism tried to overrule the traditional Jewish way of life and made it very difficult for traditional Jews to take part in power politics.
It is no wonder that the secular decision-makers are aghast at the growing power of haredim and the wholesale demographic changes. It is no accident that the birthrate in Tel Aviv is lower than in Beersheva, Ashdod or Kiryat Gat, not to mention Yehuda and Shomron.
The poverty in haredi families can be alleviated. Affirmative action to include haredim in government jobs is just a beginning. Encouraging inclusion of maths and English studies in yeshivot to enable access to well-paid jobs is the next step. Poverty is not an unsolvable problem, but will require cooperation and in particular respect to tackle.
The threat of a dissolution of society is punctuated with pointing out the day-to-day difficulties of driving a car on overcrowded roads, the bane of many Israelis. Is it too futuristic to believe that cars can be replaced by a totally different type of transport? Is it realistic to believe that everyone commuting to work may not necessary be doing so in 50 years? The numbers of businesspeople in the world who work from home offices are only the beginning. Patterning our future developments on the new cities being developed in China can be one way that we can find other ways of transporting people and living our lives.
Unfortunately, many of our experts have drawn conclusions and given opinions that are irrelevant for Israel. The aim of the government should be to use lateral solutions to address issues that have nothing to do with the birthrate and to create wealth so that all citizens of Israel can live comfortably.The author is a mother of six and has an MBA.