Unexpected expectancy

Why is life expectancy in violence-ridden, tense Israel the 10th highest in the world?

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 78.8 years.

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 communities.
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.
Are there 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 Arabs.
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 gloat.
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.