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:

Women and climate change (good point, coupla bad facts)

This blog has been getting an unusual number of visits from Europe lately (especially from this page in Finnish), and thanks to a tip from a reader I discovered why: a European Parliament resolution on women and climate change. It looks like the resolution was adopted in April. The passage that has drawn Googlers was probably this:

1. Recognising that climate change exacerbates gender discrimination in addition to its other catastrophic effects, emphasises that averting dangerous climate change must be the highest priority of the EU both in domestic and external policy; … 24.  Underlines that 70 % of the world’s poorest are women, who carry out two-thirds of all work done but own less than 1% of all goods; notes that they are denied equal access to and control over resources, technology, services, land rights, credit and insurance systems and decision-making powers and are thus disproportionately vulnerable to, and affected by, climate change and have fewer opportunities to adapt; underlines that 85 % of people who die as a result of climate-induced natural disasters are women, that 75 % of environmental refugees are women, and that women are also more likely to be the unseen victims of resource wars and violence resulting from climate change…

There is no source given for the “1% of all goods” claim, which elsewhere in the document is “1% of all property.” But neither are true (as I explain in the links below).

The resolution has caused what in Europe they call a “row,” leading one MP to say:

Global warming is not some male plot to do women down. The climate is the same for males and females, so far as I know. When it rains we all get wet.

Being American, I don’t know anything about the European Parliament or what effect the resolution will have, such as its suggestion that at least 40% of the E.U.’s climate change negotiators be women. But except for those statistics that I know are erroneous, and any other factual errors, we should recognize the differential impacts of climate change and its attendant unnatural disasters.

Of course, it’s not true that everyone gets wet when it rains — that depends on the distribution of roofs, umbrellas, clothing, available transportation, and the division of labor required to keep people (especially children) dry.

On the parliament website they have a section for “explanations of votes,” and I liked this guy’s comment enough to Like his Facebook page*:

Raül Romeva i Rueda (Verts/ALE)in writing. − In favour!!!!! Climate change and its impacts are by no means gender neutral. Due to gendered roles, women’s impact on the environment is not the same as men’s, and their access to resources and ways to cope and adapt is severely affected by discrimination in terms of income, access to resources, political power, education and household responsibility. We therefore need to take women into account at every stage of our climate policies, and in the following aspects: adaptation policies, mitigation policies, financing of these policies and political representation of women. The proportion of women in climate change negotiations is still unsatisfactory, women account for only 12-15% of heads of delegation and around 30% of the delegates. Links between gender and climate, although they appear clearly in developing countries, also exist within the EU, e.g. in energy, transport and agricultural sectors. The future green economy relies on overwhelmingly male-dominated industries, which affects equal opportunities in occupation, education and training and encourages “male-only” business cultures incompatible with the implementation of gender equality.

For background on the 1% meme problem, here are the previous posts in the series:

* This is not an endorsement, but an unresearched impulse-like. If there’s something awful about this guy I didn’t notice, please let me know.

Unemployment’s greenjobs porn Google mind?

Imagine today’s recession

A blue-collar worker gets laid off. Maybe he or she reads an article in the Boston Globe with an image like this:

So he or shy types “wind energy jobs” into Google, and ends up at one of many websites promoting wind energy jobs, with an upbeat graph like this:

Was this a common pattern during the recession, during which Obama has promoted the idea of moving workers into the wind energy sector? Honestly, I never would have thought of that question if not for the results of today’s poking around.

Action in context

New kinds of data have the potential to open up vast new territory in the study of patterned individual behavior. Finding and understanding aggregate patterns in micro-level behavior is more feasible than before. My prior poking around has included tracking the relentless decline of the name Mary given to children born in the U.S., the search patterns associated with having a baby across millions of Google users leading up to the recession, or patterns of divorces across states according to their unemployment levels.

In each of these situations, individual behavior assumes a social form that emerges when the data are aggregated and analyzed in relation to other patterns or time periods. And in each case it appears that separate individuals are responding similarly to larger forces — allowing us to understand those forces in new ways.

In today’s exercise I plugged the weekly number of initial claims for unemployment into the Google Correlate tool, and asked it for the 100 search term trends that were most closely correlated with the unemployment trend since 2007.* On the list were “wind energy jobs” and “green jobs.” Beyond those, it was pretty easy to group the 100 search terms into categories: 38 of them were searches for songs and lyrics (especially MGMT lyrics), 17 were Internet/technology related (such as “roadrunner webmail login”). I have no explanation for those.

But the last large group was clearly recession-related: those about loan modifications (such as “loan modification,” “loan mod,” or “mortgage hardship.”) All of these were very highly correlated with the initial unemployment claims trend (.93 or higher on a scale of -1.0 to 1.0). Here they are, plotted by week since the start of 2007.

The Google search volumes are relative (on the right axis), so we don’t know how many people were doing these searches, only that they were doing it in the same weeks that unemployment claims occurred.

A final, small group of terms were related to porn. Maybe there are just so many porn search terms that something is correlated with any trend. But the search terms “snake tube,” “uncoached” and “coomclips” track initial unemployment claims very well, with correlations over .94. Here they are together:

Maybe some brave Sociological Images reader will explain why these particular terms might follow the unemployment trend. (It could just be that they were new sites that became popular and then tapered off in 2008-2009.)

What’s the point?

It’s not news to people interested in sociology that individual, intimate behavior follows common patterns, which are related to cultural forces. What’s interesting to me here is that capacity to find patterns we couldn’t before. For example, does losing a job lead to more porn consumption? Are those porn searchers different from the people typing in “green jobs”? I’m hoping that other people will dig further and turn these tools to productive uses.

* To avoid big seasonal spikes unrelated to unemployment, I used the seasonally-adjusted unemployment claims, which basically tamp down the big jump in layoffs after Christmas and when school gets out each summer.

Asthma, environment, inequality

It’s not surprising that local environment plays a role in asthma rates. But new research shows just how much the micro environment — specifically, living in a census tract near a highway or railway intersection — increases the risk of asthma for children.

Co-author Young Juhn says,

…children who lived in census tracts facing the intersection with major highways or railways had about 40 to 70 percent increased risk of developing childhood asthma. … What this tells us is that clinicians need to be concerned about neighborhood environment beyond home environment to understand the individual asthma case.

Once again, I’m not an expert on this, but I’m guessing this local environment connection might help explain both the run-up in asthma rates in the 1980s and 1990s…

And the income inequality in which children get asthma:

The new study is in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunologyhere.