Israel’s population boom: Disaster or dream come true?

Israelis have been hearing a lot of doomsday calls lately about the future of our tiny land, with reports claiming that in as soon as 30 years, we’ll have run out of room.

A crowd of people covering their eyes. (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A crowd of people covering their eyes. (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The lines at the post office and Osher Ad supermarkets can sometimes drive one to near madness, but is Israel really on the way to becoming overpopulated to the point of uninhabitability?
 Israelis have been hearing a lot of doomsday calls lately about the future of our tiny land, with reports claiming that in as soon as 30 years, we’ll have run out of room, natural resources and green spaces. Life here will purportedly be one giant, unremitting traffic jam – and not just on the roads. Schools and hospitals will go from being overcrowded, as they are already, to crushed – by the surge of need. Beaches and parks will not suffice as recreational space for the outsize populace – projected to increase by as much as five million in the next 22 years – and will suffer environmental havoc under the strain, as will our native flora and fauna.
 Leading the charge against burgeoning nationwide reproduction is Alon Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University who directed a conference called “A Crowded Future” in October, and authored the recent book The Land Is Full. Responsibility – or rather, irresponsibility – is laid at the feet of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and Bedouin, but Tal also calls the government to task for incentivizing unfettered reproduction through subsidies and allowances that increase with each child, and of course, free in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. He advocates a cap on government payments after two children; couples would be free to have more, but not expect a congratulatory handout. (Tal, by the way, is the father of three.)
THERE IS much to debate and discuss about what the future will look like and how to approach it. For one thing, a review of various global population density rankings shows Israel at number 27, 31, or 34, depending upon which source you consult. Having read quite a few reports about Israel’s looming population crisis, I would have thought we’d already be higher up on the list.
The disparity in Israel’s rankings from different agencies underscores the variability of statistics. It’s no secret that studies are imperfect; findings vary depending upon methodology, underlying assumptions, data interpretation and more. Statistical predictions and projections about the future are even more unreliable (just ask Hillary Clinton).
 But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the experts’ predictions are correct and Israel is indeed headed for exponential population growth. Should we be concerned that this country will not be able to survive the explosion from within?
 It’s important to understand that high population density is not synonymous with overpopulation. Adding more people to the same plot of land increases population density, but does not necessarily result in overpopulation; conversely, it is possible to have a sparsely populated area that is still overpopulated.
Overpopulation exists when the population exceeds the so-called “carrying capacity” of the place – the level which that particular area can sustain. Singapore ranks near the top of every population density list, but thanks to careful urban planning and management, it is not overpopulated. India is far less densely populated, but suffers from overpopulation.
Israeli cities will likely become more crowded, and changes are on the horizon – indeed literally, as high-rise construction proliferates – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will face overpopulation. Israel’s continual ability to problem-solve, innovate and create more from less will surely help the country address the challenges of growth. Up is not the only way to build. There is much room for growth outside the big cities, particularly in Judea and Samaria.
AS A PERSON of faith, I have no doubt: The Jewish state, founded to restore the Jewish people to our ancient and eternal homeland, can carry us – now and in the future. However, Israel is not equipped to hold up a torch like Lady Liberty, welcoming into our borders all who seek sanctuary or opportunity. Our space and resources are far more limited, and our challenges more numerous, than most developed nations.
Yet activists like Tal, from the same left-wing, uber-environmentalist, mostly secular sector shuddering at the high haredi birth rate, are more than ready to fight to let illegal African migrants stay in Israel. Tal has called the Israeli government’s response to the asylum requests of 40,000 African infiltrators “[a]t best... obtuse and heartless. At worst... xenophobic and racist.” This is the same guy who wants to reduce the number of Jewish children being born here. If we don’t want Israel to be a free ride for some (from among our own), then it shouldn’t be a free ride for others (who are not our own).
The State of Israel is not merely an outgrowth of fortuitous historical conditions. Nor is the Promised Land just a catchy lyric coined by a troubadour. We are living God’s story here – the God who predates Tel Aviv, the kibbutz movement, settlements, BDS, the UN, Bayit Yehudi, Yesh Atid, Shas and all the Netanyahus. This is the place where our ancestors converged in myriads upon the Temple three times a year for the Jewish festivals – and somehow fit comfortably inside to prostrate themselves in worship.
Like climate change, Israel’s population boom might well necessitate some tough decisions. Those vexing realities should not, however, lead us to portend apocalyptic disaster. God’s word – not mine: The world, and Israel, are forever.
The writer is a contributing editor to The Jewish Press and a freelance writer and editor. She holds a J.D. from Fordham Law School and has worked as a court attorney and a magazine editor. A former New Yorker, she lives with her family in Jerusalem.