Israel loves children.
Well, maybe not each individual child, but the idea of children. Ours is a child-centered and child-oriented society, with a key part of the country’s ethos since its founding having been “the more children, the merrier.”
“Children are happiness,” the iconic band Habreira Hativit sang in the 1970s in a song poking fun at how the country encourages more children. “Children are a blessing.”
The nation has taken that motto to heart, as well as the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. Israel’s population has roughly doubled in the past 30 years, going from 4.6 million in 1990 to some 9.3 million today.
Israel’s current fertility rate of some 3.1 children per woman is the highest, by far, of any country in the 37-member OECD.
And it is not only the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and the National-Religious having large families. Recent studies show that a rise in Israeli fertility over the past 20 years is attributed to increased births among women who self-identify as secular or traditional.
Most Israelis view this as a very positive and healthy trend that should be welcomed and encouraged. Some see it as the fulfillment of a historic imperative to replenish the Jewish people after the Holocaust, and as a stunning victory over those throughout the centuries who yearned for its destruction.
Others view this rise in fertility as necessary to offset Arab fertility trends, and to put an end to the idea that Israel will ultimately be overrun as a result of the galloping birth rate in the Arab world.
Precisely because having children, and a lot of them, is a strong Jewish value ingrained in the Zionist ethos, words uttered by Agriculture Minister Alon Schuster (Blue and White) this week at an election panel were so jarring.
“Population density and the fertility rate in Israel are among the highest in the developed world,” he said, prefacing his remarks by saying that the issue is “sensitive” but something he wanted to put on the agenda.
Population density creates pressure, he said, adding that “there is a great debate about the extent of the legitimate area for expansion and settlement in the State of Israel. Density will increase, so the question of the birth rate in Israel must be put on the table for the next generation.”
Schuster said that “every child is wonderful, and I want lots of grandchildren. I also want my great-grandchildren to have a good world in which they live in peace with their environment.”
Schuster is both right and wrong. He is right in sounding the alarm about population density. But he is wrong about the remedy.
The remedy is not to put Israel’s birth rate on the table and perhaps try to convince people not to have large families, or reconsider government policies that encourage and enable them to do so. Rather, the remedy is for the government to do something Israeli governments do not necessarily do particularly well: plan for the long term.
If the figures show that the country’s population could swell to 15.7 million by 2050, then the government should now begin developing creative and attractive ways to distribute the population so that not every other person lives in that small sliver of land between Hadera and Gedera.
Even though Israel is geographically small, there do remain wide expanses of open land in the Negev and in the Galilee. Rather than trying to convince people who want big families not to have them, try instead to convince those families to move out to the periphery. One way would be through the building of better infrastructure to improve the quality of life there and make those areas more attractive and livable.
Is Israel getting crowded? Yes. Is the solution trying to cap the population? Most definitely not. The solution is to come up with innovative ideas and encourage wider dispersion of the population throughout the country.
Israel’s strength – nay, its secret – is its human capital. That is the country’s gold, its added value, the key to its vibrancy and energy. No country committed to its future would ever stop mining its principal resource, especially if it knew that resource was endless. To do so would be sheer folly.