My Word: Population density, people power and blessings

Israel is growing more crowded every year. The trick is to adapt and to find our strength – and happiness – in our numbers.

Israelis enjoy an Independence Day barbecue in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher last year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israelis enjoy an Independence Day barbecue in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher last year
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A staffer in the fertility clinic of a major Jerusalem hospital once told me that there is a surge in the numbers of new patients following the holy days at the start of the Jewish New Year.
“I think people who don’t have kids – married, single, straight and gay – all think to themselves, ‘I can’t go through another family meal surrounded by children and suffering from the questions and pressure of well-meaning relatives,’” she said.
Her observation came to mind recently as I read environmentalist Alon Tal’s The Land is Full, in which he tries to make the case that the country cannot sustain its current population growth and needs to take action to try to cut it.
As Tal notes, fertility treatment for the first two children in Israel is largely covered by the health funds to which all citizens belong.
Tal dedicates a large part of the book to topics such as state-paid child benefits and whether these encourage people to have large families, particularly in the Beduin and ultra-Orthodox communities.
The book is nicely written, well-researched, reasonably balanced and provides an interesting overview of Israeli history – worth reading even if you’re not particularly interested in demographic trends.
Nonetheless, I question its focus. The title would benefit from a question mark, and the subtitle, “Addressing Overpopulation in Israel,” shows that Tal approached the topic never doubting that there is a problem.
Tal notes some of the societal pressures that push people to have children. I understand why there is a rush after Rosh Hashana.
Nearly all Jewish Israeli families attend some kind of family meal during those days, where along with the apple dipped in honey to represent a sweet year, pomegranates are eaten, their seeds symbolizing fertility (and the 613 commandments found in the Bible, of which “Be fruitful and multiply” features very early on). A fish head is often placed on the table, again representing fertility. And the Rosh Hashana prayer service includes the biblical story of Hannah whose pain at being childless resonates even today.
We’re dealing with deep-rooted traditions here.
Indeed, the Central Bureau of Statistics released a report on September 27, ahead of the New Year, estimating that Israel’s population now stands at 8.585 million, some 10 times the figure when the state was established in 1948. Last year, according to the CBS figures, 178,723 children were born – a 1.3% increase on 2014. And although the average age of a mother having her first child rose from 25.1 years in 1994 to 27.6 years in 2015, last year the average woman in Israel had 3.09 children, compared to 3.08 children in 2014 and 3.8 in the first half of the 1970s.
Tal’s main thrust concerns the growing toll that population pressures are placing on quality of life and the environment in Israel.
“Israel is among the most crowded countries in the Western world,” he writes. “It is getting more so very quickly. Even without the obvious environmental and social side effects, there are psychological consequences, which we have long stopped noticing.”
In short, Tal says, the country is running out of space for both its human population and its wildlife.
Nonetheless, Israelis still score high every year in the happiness index of both the UN and the OECD. The major reason, according to most experts, is the high level of social interaction and sense of community.
Technion researcher and Jerusalem Report columnist Shlomo Maital in the Report’s latest issue posits: “I think there is another reason, too. Israel has the highest fertility rate among OECD countries. When there are lots of babies and children around, they give hope for the future.”
Having finished Tal’s book, I have something else on my reading list. In Prospect magazine’s July issue, Duncan Weldon reviews Ruchir Sharma’s The Rise and Fall of Nations: Ten Rules of Change in the Post-Crisis World. Weldon’s review notes the major factor in determining how poor nations become rich is a growing population.
Incidentally, despite China’s infamous One-Child policy, which helped stall population growth but led to many other social problems, the written word for “good” in Chinese is composed of the characters of a woman and child. Similarly, the common Hebrew phrase for a large family is “mishpaha bruchat yeladim,” a family blessed with children.
For a searingly honest look at Jewish attitudes to men and procreation it’s worth reading the book by my friend and former colleague Elliot Jager The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness.
Not having children can be a legitimate life choice – and never underestimate the role of an aunt/uncle or good unrelated adult mentor in a child’s life – but for those who want children and can’t have them, it is a tragedy. The decision to have children will never lie solely in the government tax breaks and direct payments to parents.
Tal argues that decisions taken today will determine whether the population in this tiny country will reach more than 20 million in the future and what the impact would be for the quality of life of our children and grandchildren, and how Israel’s already stressed “natural wonders” from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to the Gulf of Eilat will fare.
He notes that even the “miracle” of desalination and treatment and reuse of wastewater, fields in which Israel excels and that have helped the country overcome its fear of droughts, come at an environmental price.
I arrive at several similar conclusions to Tal, but from a different direction. For example, Tal says that with the growing population, classrooms and hospitals are crowded due to a lack of teachers, doctors and nurses. I believe the growing population, if handled properly, could keep unemployment at low levels.
Tal posits that empowering and educating women (particularly in the ultra-Orthodox and Beduin sectors where families are generally larger) and providing better and cheaper childcare would help bring the birthrate down as employed women tend to have fewer children (although I know educated mothers of six and more who work).
All these are good suggestions independent of their impact on population growth.
Given the scarcity of land resources, I believe that not only should taller buildings be constructed in urban centers, with landscape factors and recreational needs in mind, but also we should return to the days of smaller apartments.
Many, although not all, answers can be found in technology. Who knows where 3D printing and other as yet unknown technology will take us? A trend to make things more compact and to make better use of vertical space can help. Today’s solar panels require a lot of space; tomorrow’s might not. Possibly the best way to reduce environmental pressures is to adopt a vegetarian (if not vegan) diet.
Above all, using the greater number of people to share resources makes economic and environmental sense.
As Shimon Peres, who is being laid to rest today, always postulated, the future contains boundless possibilities.
The trick is to adapt and to find our strength – and happiness – in our numbers.
It’s the ultimate in people power.
[email protected]