The Human Spirit: Israeli Jewish women and demography

From 1995 to 2013, the annual number of Israeli Jewish births surged by 65 percent – from 80,400 to 132,000

Baby undergoes circumcision R 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Baby undergoes circumcision R 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former ambassador Yoram Ettinger needs to change our appointment. He has to go out of town to babysit for his grandchildren. Working grandparents in Israel these day have to balance their workweek with grandparenting responsibilities.
Feel familiar? When we do meet for coffee, the reason for Etthinger’s postponement turns out to be germane. We’re having the background conversation for a late-night, Hadassah-sponsored, over-the-Internet lecture on “Defining Zionism in the 21st Century for America.” He’s the speaker and I’m the facilitator.
I expect us to discuss Diaspora-Israel relations, but instead we talk mostly about babies – who is having them and why.
When it comes to Middle East demography, Ettinger maintains that most of us have our facts backwards. We’ve become so accustomed to thinking we’re sitting on a demographic time bomb that will implode when Jews are outnumbered, that we’ve failed to follow the latest statistics.
Indeed, Ettinger’s ideas are counterintuitive for all of us who have long believed that the demographics of our region are pitted strongly against us.
Having heard scholarly lectures reinforcing this point of view, I admit I’m initially skeptical and need to be convinced.
He has lots of new statistics. It turns out that in 2014, we Israeli Jewish women, like our biblical foremothers, are extremely prolific.
According to Ettinger, from 1995 to 2013, the annual number of Israeli Jewish births surged by 65 percent – from 80,400 to 132,000. In 2013, the Jewish fertility rate was 3.04 births per woman – and trending upwards. It’s 3.04 births when both spouses are Israeli-born, no matter where their parents were born.
“Trending upwards” is the operational term here. There are many factors, including population age, which are important in predicting future population growth or shrinkage. But, taking all these factors into consideration, the Jewish population is growing fast, and will grow even faster.
That’s counterintuitive, if you’ve read all the literature about “sub-replacement levels” of society. Family size has been traditionally linked to the number of children it takes to run a farm or support an elderly parent. But as women become more educated, move to cities and have other economic resources, they have fewer babies. At least that’s the theory.
A CBS report earlier this year, citing UN estimates, shows there’s been a drop in family size among Muslims throughout the region. The most fertile Arab nation, Jordan, has a projected 2035 fertility rate of 2.41 children. Israeli Muslims are projected to decline from 3.37 to 2.71. This is consistent with the greater education and urbanization.
But it doesn’t hold for Israeli Jews.
Says Ettinger, “Israel’s Jewish fertility rate is currently higher than any Arab country, other than Yemen, Iraq and Jordan, which are rapidly declining. The Jewish population is also growing relatively younger, which bodes well for Israel’s economy and national security.”
The swell in Jewish population, in contrast to the downward trend among the region’s Muslims, has major implications for the geopolitics of our area, of course. But this is not the subject of this discourse.
I’m wondering why we have this surprising increase in population. It’s not from immigration.
Innately Jewish? Unhappily, this fertility pattern isn’t true for our American sisters. According to the most widely quoted survey, the National Jewish Population Survey 2001-2002, the average number of children born to Jewish women was less than 1.9. The so-called “effective Jewish birthrate” is below 1.9 children per Jewish woman.
More recent studies don’t dispute this trend. You need 2.1 children per woman to get to replacement rate. (The average total fertility rate in the European Union was calculated at 1.59 children per woman in 2009.)
Lest you think I’m about to crow about this being the result of the Orthodox population to which I belong, Ettinger says “wrong, wrong, wrong.” He attributes the surge in fertility to Israel’s secular Jews, mostly thanks to the “yuppies around Tel Aviv” and immigrants from the former Soviet Union! Russia has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, closer to one than two per couple. But when the million former Soviet Jews came to Israel, their children immediately took on Israeli baby-producing habits.
Ettinger, an only child who has three daughters, says that both Tel Aviv Sabras and Russian immigrants have opted to have larger families than their parents.
I know it’s risky to compare statistics to one’s anecdotal experience, but how can you help it? I started to think of the families I know, not just in Jerusalem where I live.
Almost all the married couples I am acquainted with have more than two children, whether they are traditional or less traditional families. Single women are opting to have babies on their own with the help of hospital-based artificial insemination programs. Single- gender families are having babies via surrogates, artificial insemination and adoption from abroad, and women are having babies into their 30s and 40s. I know two single-gender couples who have three children and are considering more. I know three women who had babies into their 50s! Why are we having so many babies? This is currently an area for speculation, not statistics. Ettinger names the following factors: a sense of the collective and community patriotism; attachment to religious, cultural and historical roots; and optimism.
I’m not sure I can accept his first line of reasoning. Devoted Zionist though I am, I still can’t imagine anyone deciding to get up at night to deal with a crying baby, enduring decades of parent- teacher conferences and waiting up late for rambunctious teens out of patriotism. Certainly not to produce soldiers. Every Israeli’s first prayer over newborns is that we should have peace in the coming 18 years, so they won’t have to put their lives on the line.
Optimism is the answer that resonates for me. Despite the many challenges of living here, the low-frills lifestyles in contrast to the members of the OECD whom we lead in fertility, we believe in the future and want to share it with a new generation. Just as the Israelite women prior to the Exodus convinced their husbands they needed to have more children, so we believe we can overcome hurdles.
Optimism, yes, and obsessive love of family. But living here also assumes an unquantifiable willingness to make the personal sacrifices of time, money and sleep that child-rearing requires. Or grandchild-rearing for that matter.
It has to do with setting priorities and deciding what’s really important: our children. Sometimes outsiders don’t get that about us. Or why we care so much when they are missing.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.