Interesting Times: Israel's 'family values'

How the Jewish state is bucking the demographic trends of the rest of the free world.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
In Israel, kids are "in." They are even a status symbol. "If everyone has a Jeep, we will have one too; if everyone fills it with children they have brought into the world, why shouldn't we do the same?" This is how a feature in Haaretz by Galit Edut (September 1) describes the reigning societal norm among educated, double-income, secular Israelis. In virtually the entire modern world, increased wealth and education are linked with plummeting birthrates. The New York Times reported this week that Europe is "wrestling" with birthrates which have "reached a historic and prolonged low... straining pension plans and depleting the work force across the continent." The EU projects a shortfall of 20 million workers by 2030. In 1990, no European country had a fertility rate of less than 1.3 children per woman; by 2002, 15 countries did. The "birth dearth" has become a political issue in Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic. "Almost all countries are increasing baby bonuses," the article reports. While the US fertility rate currently hovers around the replacement level of 2.1, the rate among American Jews is considerably lower: 1.86. Israel is almost another world. The average fertility rate is 2.7 children per woman - by far the highest of any modern democracy in the world. Moreover, the average size of families with a high monthly income - above NIS 50,000 - is 4.3 people, compared to 3.7 for families with more modest salaries. What's going on here? ACCORDING TO demographer Sergio DellaPergola, we are different than Europe and America in our attitudes toward family size. "Here, people would like to have three children at least." If they don't, it is generally because of economic restraints, as demonstrated by the fact that, in Israel, the upper-middle class is associated with more children, not fewer. DellaPergola points out that the three variables affecting the decision couples make on their family size are societal norms, economic capability, and the cost of raising children. The power of societal norms is most dramatically seen in the remarkable birthrates among Orthodox Jews. In America, fertility rates among the modern Orthodox are 3.3 and among Haredim 6.6 children per woman, presumably with similar rates among the same communities in Israel. But even setting the Orthodox aside, there is a striking difference in the confluence of these variables between the non-Orthodox majorities of Jews in America and in Israel. Why is the norm regarding family size so much higher among Israelis, whose harried, secular, modern lifestyle seems so similar to their American Jewish counterparts? The answer seems to be that norms and economic factors influence and reenforce each other. It is easier and cheaper to raise children, particularly Jewish children, in Israel than America. Pro-children norms have shaped our society and economy, while this family-friendly structure, in turn, reenforces the norms that created it. The participation of Israeli Jewish women in the workforce is extremely high, but so is the assurance of fully paid maternity leave and the availability of affordable day care. Perhaps even more important are the intangible attitudes that surround parents at their workplace. It is understood that parents - women and men - will zip out of the office for all sorts of child-related reasons; from daily logistics, to emergencies, to school ceremonies. IT IS perhaps too great a generalization to say that family takes precedence over work in Israel. But there is no doubt that the balance between the two is skewed more toward family here than it is in most, maybe all, modern democracies. For those who want to give their children a Jewish education, the financial differences can also be significant. While Israelis complain about the few thousand shekels they must spend to supplement their children's "free" education, these sums pale beside the sums American Jews pay for Jewish day schools or other private schools. The same goes for university education. None of this is to say that American Jews must become Orthodox or move to Israel for Jewish demographic fortunes to reverse. In fact, what the Israeli experience shows is that the seemingly iron contradiction between modernity and above-replacement birthrates can be broken. What needs to happen is to copy, or adapt to American context, Israel's virtuous circle of pro-family norms and societal structure. If raising Jewish children is made more affordable, maybe it will also become more acceptable and desirable. THERE IS little point in lecturing people to have more children. The desire to sustain the Jewish people might become a small factor at the back of parents' minds. But what will really make a difference is if what is happening in Israel begins to happen in America: people seeing that families like them are having more kids. Israel should be a "light among the nations" in many ways, but it already is in a surprising one: demonstrating how to balance work and family in the modern world. Even in Israel, there is certainly room for improvement on this score. And it would not be simple for American Jews to somehow create a more family-friendly bubble within American society, one that goes beyond the "family values" that Americans often talk about, yet may not be fully reflected in the actual balance struck between work and home. Improving this balance is worth doing, aside from questions of Jewish survival; it's just a better way to live.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11