(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The creation of large Jewish families has long been viewed by many as a patriotic duty in the country’s existential struggle.
With today’s population in excess of 8.7 million Jews and Arabs (74.5% and 20.9%, respectively) averaging 3.1 children per family, the nation could face an overpopulation crisis within 35 years exacerbated by a profoundly limited infrastructure, experts contend.
The issue took center stage Tuesday at a joint conference of the University of Maryland, Tel Aviv University and Zafuf: The Israel Forum for Population, Environment, and Society, called “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Culture and Sustainable Population Dynamics.”
Prof. Alon Tal, chairman of Tel Aviv University’s department of public policy, said the conference was the first international gathering of academic experts to focus on the issue of overpopulation in Israel.
“Most of our research about this issue has been limited to economics,” said Tal.
“Now, we’re really talking about the sociology and the culture of Israelis having lots of children, why they have lots of children, and what might be a strategy for changing the paradigm where people have less children for the good of the nation.”
According to Tal, Israel is the second-most densely populated country in the developed world and has the highest per capita rate of population growth.
He added that Israel’s population is growing by more than two million people each decade, with its average 3.1 children per family dwarfing normative rates within Western countries, most of which average 1.7 children.
“So we’re an outlier. And if people think there is a problem now, it is going to be catastrophic,” he cautioned. “We are basically on a treadmill that is running faster and faster, and the gap between infrastructure and demand is getting bigger and bigger.”
The good news, Tal said, is that Israelis are increasingly aware of the bad effects of high population density, including limited accessibility to resources; crowded hospitals, classrooms, and roads; depletion of biodiversity; and mounting greenhouse emissions.
“This is the result of public policies and cultural norms,” he explained.
While noting that there is no “magic number” as to when the population level will reach crisis proportions, Tal said if the growth rates for families do not slow down, within 35 years there will be roughly 15 million citizens.
“David Ben-Gurion encouraged people to have many children, but now we need to have a collective conversation as a nation and realize that while there was once a period in Israeli history when having lots of children was absolutely a patriotic thing to do, today it is an unpatriotic thing to do because it harms the common good,” he said.
Asked how to effectively address the issue without taking the draconian approach of China, Tal said society must cease incentivizing large families by emphasizing the limits of sustainable growth, making birth control more accessible and lessening abortion standards.
“We have to address this through public policy by making it clear there are physical limits, and teach children at a young age that having two children is the right number,” he said.
In terms of the wide-held belief that Jews must continue to outpace Arab birthrates in order to ensure a Jewish majority, Tal said that race has already been won.
“That used to be an absolutely valid argument, but today Arabs are averaging roughly 40,000 births a year and the Jews are averaging over 100,000. So if there was a demographic battle, it’s over,” he said.