Visiting Israel, with demography (this is not sustainable edition)

With audio, and photographs!

Israel’s trajectory is unsustainable in more ways than one.

The political situation is not the subject of this post, but it’s necessary to say at the beginning that the oppression of Palestinians by the state of Israel, made possible by the United States, is morally unacceptable and relative to all the other national oppression in the world rates pretty bad. For that reason, although I don’t endorse the movement for academics to boycott Israel, I oppose the movement to censor it.

So, last month I went to Israel for the first time since 1979. Since this is a blog I can include both academic and personal observations from that visit.

The Shuk Market, Jerusalem, on Friday afternoon (photo pnc:


The workshop I was invited to attend was a joint effort of colleagues at the University of Maryland and Tel Aviv University, with the Israel Forum for Population, Environment, and Society, called “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Culture and Sustainable Population Dynamics.” The main organizers were Alon Tal and Michele Gelfand. Tal has written a very good book called, The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel, which is both a demographic history and an ecological analysis, from which I learned a lot.

I’m not expert on the ecological stuff, but the demography is quite shocking on its own. (In the demography here, unless noted I’m talking about Israel within its pre-1967 borders, which is now most of these statistics are reported.) Israel is very densely populated, although everyone I talked to (besides demographers) was surprised to hear it. That may be because when you travel outward from the cities, it quickly looks like barren countryside — it’s just that the empty countryside doesn’t go on very far before you get to the sea or a border.

The population of about 1 million in 1950 is now almost 9 million, having doubled in the past 30 years. This figure shows the population density of countries with 5 million or greater population in 2016, with select countries labeled using World Bank codes and those with populations over 100 million circled. The 1986 density is on the x-axis and the 2016 density is on the y-axis, so to distance above the diagonal is the increase. That’s Israel way up at 200, 400 (click to enlarge).

Population density 1986-2016The rapid rise in population density in Israel will invariably exacerbate their problems with water, energy, transportation, housing, habitats, pollution, and — of course — politics. These are all pretty bad problems, which Tal explains at length.

Contrary to popular belief, since the wave of ex-USSR immigrants in the early 1990s, most of the population growth has been from births, not immigration. And contrary to other popular beliefs, the growth is now — and increasingly — driven not by the Arab or Muslim populations but by the so-called Ultra Orthodox or Haredi population. (Here I cite a paper by Barbara Okun, but we also heard from demographers Eliahu Ben Moshe and Ameed Saabneh, whose presentations I do not have to share.) This figure from Tal’s book shows the Jewish/Arab breakdown. Where in 1997 there were about 2.3 Jewish births for each Arab birth, in 2013 it was more than 3-to-1:


Overall, Arab and Muslim fertility have fallen a lot, and Jewish fertility has not (most but not all Arabs are Muslim; some Jews have Arab ancestry, but they don’t count as Arab). Here are the overall trends, using completed fertility by birth cohorts, from this paper by Barbara Okun:


The Arab/Muslim trend looks like a lot of poor countries, while the Jewish and total trends (Israel is about 80% Jewish) does not look like a lot of rich countries. As a result, Israel has the highest birth rate of all OECD countries, by a lot, and it’s now rising (runner-up Mexico shown for comparison):


Why is Israel’s birth rate rising? Increasingly, because of the Ultra-Orthodox population, among whom the most recent cohorts to reach age 40 have averaged about 7 children per woman:


Right now the Haredi population are 13% of the total Jewish population. Not-that-long story short, the Haredi will be the majority of Israeli Jews pretty soon (maybe 50 years). And because of population momentum (the next generation’s parents are already born), that is likely almost no matter what else happens.

As Ben Moshe pointed out, this process of rising ultra-orthodox dominance may be accelerated if the “secular” Jews (two-thirds of whom think having a religious wedding is “very important,” and 38% of whom fast on Yom Kippur) reduce their fertility rates to something more like the European norm. If that happens, it won’t do much to slow Israel’s population growth, but it will change the composition of the population. The math of this is pretty dramatic.

Postmodern premodernism. She wears a fashionable wig, he wears an old European-style hat and coat, the baby (girl, just guessing) wears pink. (photo pnc:

The idea of a policy to reduce birth rates — that is, Jewish birth rates — in Israel is so far a complete political non-starter. Even among secular Jews, Ben Moshe reports, 80% say they would like to have three children or more. State policy is very pro-natal. The national health insurance pays for unlimited IVF cycles, and Israel has more than 10-times as many IVF treatments per capita as the US does, and more than twice as many as the next highest country (as Daphna Carmeli reported). Same-sex couples can’t marry or adopt children, but they can produce and parent them with IVF or through surrogacy. Abortion is technically legal but discouraged. The state pays monthly child subsidies for each kid, and provides child care from age 3.

The Haredi population, which plays a pivotal role in the country’s parliamentary coalition, controls their own state-funded school curriculum, and they are exempt from the mandatory military service that most other Jews are required to perform. In addition to fostering resentment among the non-orthodox, this also means they get started on their childbearing earlier, since they don’t have military time after high school. Of course, these are not biologically distinct populations, and people can move in and out of the groups, but thus far the Haredi population is not experiencing much intergenerational defection, partly because of the institutional supports they have from the state.


Anyway, I had the chance at the workshop to offer remarks, which I present in edited form here, in a 15-minute audio clip.

One part is was a warning about “population policy” from Puerto Rico and China. And I commented on gender inequality, saying, “It’s indelicate to walk into a place and say that. On the other hand, if we look at the history of extremely high-fertility, very religiously-oriented, patriarchal societies, that’s what they are,” and talked about how education affects birth rates:

It’s one thing to increase an individual woman’s education and then see that she is less likely to have more children. But you’re not increasing her education when she’s 18, you’re increasing her educational opportunity when she’s 18, or her vision for herself 20 years in the future that’s going to change her behavior at age 18. If you say to an 18-year-old, “You live in a society where everybody goes to college, and women have good jobs when they come out,” then her behavior at age 18 is much less likely to be marriage and children right then. It’s more likely to be, “I will pursue this education, and then I’ll be in a better position to pursue my career, to bargain from a better position in terms of choosing a spouse,” and the behavior follows from that knowledge of the future.

Also some comments on the border situation, where I said, in a very roundabout way:

I think it’s interesting for the discussion of why do the secular Israel Jews still have such non-European fertility levels, and it partly is the context. Maybe it’s how religious were their parents, or their other relatives or their siblings, or maybe it’s their city or the culture they were brought up in in some way, or the policies of their government, but it’s also — in terms of the war and ethnic conflict — it may have to do with the political or ethnic or perceived national threat. And so in my idealistic world when we open all the borders, one source of conflict is actually reduced, and the people’s behavior is changed.

Here’s the talk:

There was a writeup on the workshop in the Jerusalem Post, here, which includes more from Alon Tal.

Entering the Western Wall Jewish area of the Old City in Jerusalem. (photo pnc:

Visiting Israel

As far as I’m concerned I’ve always been White in America, which is the dominant status. But once in a while being Jewish makes me feel I’m down a peg. Or even sometimes, for a fleeting minute, as the Nazis on Twitter like to tell me, that I’m not really White. Funny thing about being in Israel, for me, was that it felt kind of like being really White in America. My people were on top, as they usually are, but a little more specifically. Surprisingly, perhaps, this felt less morally compromising than I expected, at least in comparison to how I normally feel in America. It also reinforced my growing sense of Jewish as ethnicity rather than religion in the US context (I’m an atheist), which has of course been exacerbated by the current pro-Nazi regime and anti-Semitic attacks I get on Twitter since Trump took power.

Being a Jewish-American (the ethnic term) anti-Trump person on Twitter is odd. One of the weirder things I did not predict, but which I see very often, is the gotcha thing the anti-Semites give me when I speak out against Trump on xenophobia and the Mexican-border wall. For example, these are tweets I got from people I don’t know in response to posting this photo essay on the border wall in Contexts, without mentioning Israel.


Contrary to popular belief among Nazis, some Jews don’t support Israeli apartheid. (I wrote a post comparing the Israel/Palestine and US/Mexico borders, here.) Anyway, on top of that, I have family members in Israel whom I dearly love. And on top of that, some of those family members are Jews with whom I have the most in common about Israeli politics (and some, not much at all). So, it’s complicated.

On the bus in Jerusalem. (photo pnc: Also on the bus was a sign that read: “Anyone may sit anywhere (except places marked for disabled people). Harassment of a passenger on this matter may be a criminal offense.” This was to stop ulta-orthodox men from forcing women to sit in the back of the bus, and represented a victory for feminists.

Of course, the closer you look the more “nuanced” things become. To Haredi folks, for example, there are large, vital differences between different Haredi communities, that you or I would probably find hard to discern. And for another example, there are a lot of negative attitudes toward the Haredi people from some secular Jews in Israel, for living off government benefits, not serving in the military, not letting the buses run on Saturday, and subjugating women. And sometimes, maybe just because I’m more defensive about anti-Semitism these days, those attitudes have a slight anti-Semitic aftertaste. So they are simultaneously the “most” Jewish people in a “Jewish state,” with outsized political and cultural influence, but also something like a disparaged minority.

Anyways, I have no conclusion.

These photos, and others from the trip, are on Flickr under Creative Commons license:

11 thoughts on “Visiting Israel, with demography (this is not sustainable edition)

  1. The Palestinians have a right as a people to self determination and autonomy. Anyone who believes in human rights should support their cause, and not support Israel.


  2. This comment was submitted by Ezra Zuckerman Sivan:

    Since you seem to be seeking comments, Phil, here are notes/reactions to your interesting post:

    First a minor note: the caption on the first picture is a bit off. “Shuk” means (open-air) market (in both Hebrew and Arabic [well, ‘suq’ in Arabic]). Also, there are multiple shuks (really “shvakim”) in Jerusalem. The caption should read “Mahane Yehudah Shuk (market) in West Jerusalem,” or some such.

    (I’d also quibble a bit with your last caption too. The awful recurring cases where some Haredi men refuse to sit next to women [which has absolutely no basis in Jewish law] is widely reviled in Israeli [and wider Jewish] society, including by many people who [rightly or wrongly] would never define themselves as feminists. In particular, national religious/modern Orthodox Jews are horrified by this behavior, and I think it’s restricted to certain groups of Hasidim but not others, and not non-Hasidic Haredim at all.)

    Second, a more substantive note: I’m not sure what the intent is of your parenthetical remark that two-thirds of secular Israelis think having a religious wedding is important and that 38% fast on Yom Kippur. Perhaps you mean to suggest that they’re really not so secular? If so, I don’t think that’s quite right. On the one hand, Ashkenazi (northeastern European origin) secular Israelis tend to be deeply ignorant of basic aspects of Jewish law and practice to a degree that would shock even Hebrew School educated American Jews. On the other hand, many seemingly religious practices persist among secular Israelis because they live in a Jewish culture and there historically was no distinction (anywhere in the world) between Jewish culture and religion. For example, whereas in the US only the Orthodox (and a few highly observant Conservative and nondenominational) Jews tend to sit shiva in a traditional manner, my understanding (just double-checked with some Israeli friends) is that even secular Israelis tend to do so. This seems to stem from several related factors (a) there were never any serious religious reform movements in Israel to introduce alternatives to traditional shiva (or other practices); (b) Israelis of all kinds were used to observing traditional shiva; and (c) it (therefore) shaped expectations for how members of society coordinate with one another (whereas American Jews need to coordinate with a wider society that is organized around different cultural practices and was historically hostile to Jewish practices). Thus, in Israel, the expectation is that a Jew in mourning will sit shiva because that has always been the expectation in a Jewish society. As for Yom Kippur, some of this is simply because it is a national holiday the way Christmas is in the US. Schools are closed, businesses are closed, and there are no cars on the streets—which are instead filled in the evening with kids on skateboards and bikes [in violation of religious norms], creating a feeling of general freedom that is widely enjoyed. Some of these people may be fasting, but many are observing the day as part of civic religion. (They’re not in synagogue). As for weddings, a lot of this has to do with the (corrupt) monopoly of the religious affairs ministry over weddings. If you want a civil wedding, you have to fly to Cyprus (many do).

    (Note that above I’m eliding the difference between secular and ‘traditional’ Jews, the latter tending to derive from middle eastern backgrounds)

    Now as to the very high rates of Israeli fertility:

    First, building on the above, it is definitely incorrect that secular fertility rates can be explained by “how religious were their parents, or their other relatives or their siblings.” The majority of secular Israeli Jews did not grow up with parents who were religious. They tend to be two to four generations removed from religious culture.

    Second, I’m not sure what to make of your remark about “extremely high-fertility, very religiously-oriented, patriarchal societies” and then the follow-on remarks about education and jobs for women. If you mean Israel as a whole, it still isn’t “very religiously-oriented” (certainly not among the secular who, as you say, have unusually high birth rates compare to their counterparts in the West) and I don’t think it’s more patriarchal than comparable Western societies (by all the usual metrics– women’s education, labor force participation, etc). Even Haredim are complicated in this regard (and yes there is great variation within the community). They are all highly educated in a literacy sense even if they choose not to become educated in ways that are conducive to participation in the formal modern economy (though this is changing, perhaps increasingly rapidly). Interestingly also, it is the Haredi women who tend to participate in the economy rather than the men (where the ideal is to learn Torah instead of work), and this can lead to interesting household dynamics.

    Third, as to whether fertility competition with Arabs is relevant, that’s possible. On the other hand, you never hear anyone mentioning that as a factor, and Israeli culture’s main tenet is to avoid being a “freier”– essentially, a do-gooder who takes one for the team. So if it’s about having more kids for the national interest, that is a freier’s game. And if secular or “national religious” Israelis (the rough counterpart to modern “Orthodox Jews” in the US) were motivated by fertility competition, it might be with the Haredim, and they are nowhere near Haredi levels. But I concede that it’s possible. (One would have to ask then why Palestinians are no longer similarly motivated)

    As for what other factors might help solve the mystery, here are some thoughts beyond others you mentioned (state subsidies for kids, etc):

    * My sense is that scholars of Israeli society sometimes underestimate commonalities between Israeli Jews and Jews in the Diaspora, and thereby overemphasize the Israeliness of certain social patterns when they may be more broadly Jewish patterns. Note in particular that fertility rates among observant Jews in the US are also very high. Perhaps they’re a bit lower here, but the Haredi rates here (and in the few other concentrations in the world where they live) are probably comparable to the rates in Israel, and the rates among the modern Orthodox here (who have become on average highly educated and high-income) are comparable to the national religious in Israel. (My impression too is that expatriate secular Israelis abroad have birth rates that are equivalent to their counterparts who remained in Israel) These things need to be checked, but if I’m right, I think it’s part of a general cultural Jewish phenomenon (from which for the most part, non-Orthodox American Jews are an interesting exception) rather than a specifically Israeli one.

    * One element in the story may be that these communities have cultures that are very child-oriented. Parenthood and grandparenthood is a central part of people’s identities in all the communities mentioned. In Israel, you can see it in how kids are everywhere– and welcomed everywhere– at all times of day (not unusual to kids in strollers at restaurants late in the evening). Israelis also make room for family obligations to a degree that is unusual here. They are very forgiving of one another when they have to be home for sick kids, attend to family emergencies, etc. (Israeli culture in general tends to afford high degrees of improvisation and flexibility with very little of the advanced planning that Americans expect; leads to a lot of creative, but highly jury-rigged solutions that can be very frustrating to process-oriented folks like Americans [other than their President] tend to be)

    * Not being a demographer, I’ve always been curious about how demographers think about the interaction between exogenous and endogenous factors in explaining fertility. In particular, it seems to be that the most proximate factor for the high fertility rates in the aforementioned communities is simply that one’s peers’ fertility rates set norms to which couples respond. Israeli secular parents have 3 kids because in their circles it is very odd to have 2 and certainly to have just 1, and then it’s also odd to have five and certainly six. And in Haredi communities, they pray for you if you only have 3 or 4- something must be wrong if you’ve stopped there! (This happened to me; I found out that my Haredi cousin was praying for me when he heard that my wife and I — in the US– seemed stuck on 3 kids.)

    * Finally, I wonder about the role played by the memory of the Holocaust. While Israel may be facing a looming demographic/ecological crisis, until very recently the more salient demographic crisis was the decimation of a third of the Jewish people, with most of the remainder turned into refugees. The idea that any Jew would worry about there being too many Jews was unthinkable; to the contrary, I’ve often heard it said in Orthodox Jewish communities [in the US] that the Holocaust is a motivator for having large families. How much of a factor this is cannot be known of course. It’s also possible that in Israel, this factor has mixed with the ethnic competition factor you suggested. But again, that wouldn’t explain the high fertility rates among Orthodox communities in the US.

    Otherwise, and to your note on Twitter, I’ll just say that whatever one’s view of the political situation in Israel/Palestine, I can’t think of why that view would prevent sociologists and demographers from being interested in the question of Israeli Jews’ surprisingly high fertility rates. Certainly this will have bearing on how Jews and Arabs can ever figure out how to share the same land.


  3. Just a few points: The Jews originating in Arab countries are not Arabs, nor their grandparents were Arabs. They were always a persecuted minority in Arab countries. They were persecuted everywhere and expelled, example Egypt.
    Israel has totally solved the water supply problem. It is the only country in the area that has excess water. We are supplying Amman with water and are waiting for the political conditions to supply all the Middle East.
    As you may have noticed Israel is densely peopled and prospering – no signs of water, food, raw materials, nature reserves, etc. in sight.
    You sadly missed the deep desire of Israeli Jews – most of them second and third generation Holocaust survivors – to rebuild their lost families. And the daily losses to Palestinian terrorism . And more than few hundred idividuals killed, the constant fear of extermination that it causes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PS: I meant there are no signs of water, food, raw materials, wildlife, etc. penury here. There are absolutely no real (as against imaginary) signs of unsustainability. Public health indices such as longevity point to rapidly improving environment.


  4. How shockingly NAIVE, plainly wrong and misguided your article is:

    1. Please limit yourself to demographic analysis because your political views show ZERO knowledge of history of the Israel State. Peace was offered five times and refused by those WRONGLY CALLED “palestinians”. Why don’t you focus on Human Rights violation by Arabs instead of condemning the ONLY Democracy in the region, where Arabs, Christians, Blacks, Gays and Women HAVE AS MUCH RIGHTS as Men and have respected positions in society unlike what happens In Arab/Muslim countries. Shame on you! SHAME ON YOU. Such ignorance! Deliberately blind and anti-semitic, even been a Jew.

    2. Your lack of knowledge about Israel’s technology is appalling. The country has plenty of water, to share and to sell! The same with with food, a large part of which is EXPORTED, in spite of the antisemitic (disguised as anti-israeli) BDS movement. Much like your article.

    3. Most Jews in Israel ARE NOT descendents from Holocaust survivors (a large part has been in Israel for several generations, 70% of the sabras are more than 3 generation in Eretz Israel, some are more that 5 or 6), although many descend from the almost 1 million that survived ARAB persecution, forced conversions and massacres in the VAST Arab territory; and were lucky enough to make it on foot, to TINY Israel.

    4. Judaism and Israel is a children valued/oriented culture. It is NOT because one is religious. And China, who is also overpopulated and has abolished its one child politics because its population is ageing! The same reason Europe has opened its legas wide to muslim immigration.

    4. Most or al least a very large part of the Haredim, the so called Orthodoxes, DO NOT support mandatory separation of men and women in public spaces. Go do some research before writing!

    5. I could go on but I I doubt you will change your prejudices or research more or correct your article…

    Just to let you know, I am a woman, a Jew, a PhD and a University teacher as well. I am from South- America and I have lived and studied several years in Israel and in the US, and I have the knowledge and the authority to judge what you wrote. There is NO Israeli apartheid, this is plain antisemitic invention/bullshit that people like you perpetrate. Once again, shame on you.


      1. As expected, you lack arguments to refute and are too shallow to acknowledge the mistakes in the article, therefore “irony” seems to best way out.


        1. Look, I told you nicely in a private email that you had misnumbered your points, and yet you come here and disparage me again without acknowledging your error. And without so much as a foreleg, cheek and maw to show your respect. Shame.


  5. Great read. I enjoyed it. The average haredi woman has 7 kids? They should move to the suburbs of Chicago. Lots of 4 bedroom, 2.5 bath colonials on the market. American millennial women are not having many babies.


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