You cannot understand Israel without recognizing that Israel is a country of children. A unique country in the Western world (if it really is a country of a Western world, which is another question), that is still a country of children. In many countries birth rates are already falling. In fact, according to the current forecast, the only continent where a population growth is expected later in the century as a result of births is the African continent. In all other regions birth rates go down or are on the way to go down. The number of adults who do not want children — or do not want more children — is rising. In China the number of children per family had been limited to one, and now the government must encourage families to have children because the population is aging. In Japan the population is already old. In countries like Italy there they have turned to importing immigrant workers, or the country will eventually come to a halt.
Israel is an exceptional place. Many explanations have been offered for this, the memory of the Holocaust being one (but if that’s the case, why do we not see a similar trend among Jewish Americans?). Wars also play a part. And Jewish culture (again – why not Jewish Americans?). It is not clear that Israel can continue at this rate of population growth for much longer. It is a complicated challenge in many ways, one that makes the country highly crowded. It is not clear nor certain that the current pace of childbirth will be maintained. Perhaps at some point the convention that manifests itself in other countries (education = fewer children; income = fewer children) will reach our shores too. But in the meantime, that’s not the case. The proportion of children per family (among Jews) remains stable, and high.
How many children does a person need? That’s a good question, so we decided to ask (in a poll). The findings teach us some things we knew, and some that we didn’t. What did we know? That there is a close connection between religiosity and birthrate. Religious families have more children. Religious respondents to the survey of Israelis told us that what they see as “the ideal family” includes more children. That’s the question we posed: what is the ideal number of children in a family? We gave some options for responses. One of them, quite popular, was that “there is no such thing as an ideal number of children in a family.” A perfectly legitimate position. But most of our respondents did point out a number.
Among ultra-Orthodox Jews, both those who already have large families and those who are too young to have them at this point, a clear majority believe that an ideal family has “five to seven” children, or “as many children as possible.” Among Zionist-religious respondents, most say “three to four children,” but there are still more than a few (about 25%) who say “five to seven.” Traditional and secular Israelis tend to say “three to four” by a large margin compared to all other options. So three of four children is the ideal of most Israeli Jews, which is perhaps not entirely surprising, because it is also what most Israelis end up with (the average number of kids per woman is a little over 3).
If you search for explanations as to why U.S. and Israeli communities are so different, maybe starting with politics or religious affiliations is the wrong path – start with the number of children.
How about people not wanting kids? There are almost no such Israelis. How about thinking that one boy or girl is the ideal number? There are almost no such Israelis. Israel isn’t Italy. It isn’t Japan. Jewish Israelis are not at all like Jewish Americans, who have 1.9 as their average of children. In fact, American Jewish women ages 40 to 59 are twice as likely as U.S. women overall to have no children. So if you search for explanations as to why these two communities are so different, maybe starting with politics or religious affiliations is the wrong path – start with the number of children.
Israelis want children. Those who are more religious want more, and those who have more want more. This too is not a completely surprising correlation, but it is interesting to see it in practice. And since the future is really what’s interesting, we looked a little more closely at what’s going on with the young. For older people, who have already fulfilled their ideal, or have not fulfilled it, there is often no going back. They have what they have. Younger people are the ones who will determine the number of children in Israel in the coming decades. So we searched for young Israelis who want no children, or just one. There is no such thing. A group not worthy of mentioning or counting. A clear majority of young people say that the ideal is a minimum of two and a maximum of four. And there is a non-negligible number of youngsters who want more than five. About one-fifth of 18- to 24-year-olds in the survey gave that answer.
What can we learn from this? That Israel needs better public transportation. That it needs more housing, and quickly. That neighborhoods with many kindergartens and schools must be planned. Also: that we can be more relaxed about Israelis who choose to move to other countries. Gone are the days of demographic apprehension. Gone are the days of getting upset because of someone leaving for Berlin, or Palo Alto, or Australia, because they are tired of the political situation. I mean, you can get upset, if you think that the best are the ones who leave. But if the numbers are what worries you, rest assured: there will probably be more than enough Israelis in Israel.
Something I wrote in Hebrew
The crisis in Ukraine is an event that does not bode well for Israel. This is because, in general, Israel has a developing problem that affects a great many areas. In a nutshell, it can be described as follows: Israel once had a clear and quite lucrative deal: Unconditional support for American policy, in return for unreserved American backing for Israel’s critical security needs. This deal is no longer available. The U.S., of course, still wants the unconditional support, but in return for less backing. This requires Jerusalem to tread carefully. The crisis in Ukraine is merely a small example of the big problem. The Americans pressure Israel to side with them. But the Russians have fighter jets in Syria, and Israel has no interest in upsetting them.
A week’s numbers
The article on the left-hand column explains these numbers. The bottom line: Young Israelis want more children than most westerners, if not all. The survey was conducted by themadad.com and represents the Israeli population (professional supervision by Prof. Camil Fuchs).
A reader’s response:
Yehuda Becker responded to my cover article on The Israeli Century with the following (chilling) words: “everything in the article is correct IF Israel manages to survive”.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.