Is the world’s Promised Land running out of room?

Tel Aviv, September 25

Israel’s birth rate, the highest in the developed world and once seen as a survival tactic in a hostile region, could be its undoing unless measures are taken to reverse the trend.

The average Israeli woman has three babies in her lifetime, nearly double the fertility rate for the rest of the industrialised countries in the OECD. That, accompanied by heavy Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, has seen Israel’s population double in the last 25 years.

The birth rate is even higher among Israel’s Arab community and more than double among its ultra-Orthodox Jews, two groups that also have low participation in the workforce, dragging the economy down.

Today’s population of 8.4 million is forecast to reach 15.6 million by 2059 and 20.6 million in a high case scenario, meaning the small country could simply run out of room.

“Israel is on the road to an ecological, social and quality of life disaster because as the population density rises, it becomes more violent, congested and unpleasant to live in and with absolutely no room for any species other than humans,” said Alon Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University’s Institutes for Desert Research and founder of the Green Movement party.

Israel has 352 people per sq km, up from 215 in 1990, and forecast by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) to reach 501 to 880 in 2059.

Excluding nearly empty Negev desert, which occupies more than half of Israel, population density jumps to 980 people per sq km, just a little below Bangladesh.

Perhaps most troubling, activists say, is that there is no national discourse or recognition that a problem exists. On the contrary, government policies are geared to encouraging a high birth rate.

The reasons are various, from the biblical command ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ to the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust, to fears of being outnumbered by Arabs.

“Historically, Israeli demographic policy was formed by hysteria with regard to fear of an Arab demographic takeover, fuelled by rhetoric of politicians,” Tal said.

The number of Jews in the Holy Land is now roughly equal to the number of Palestinians — each around 6.3 million.

In case of Palestinians, that includes 1.75 million who are Israeli citizens and 4.55 million in Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. The occupied territories are also home to half a million Jewish settlers. Palestinian growth easily outpaces Israel’s, with average woman in Palestinian territories having four children.

Israeli government policy encourages population growth with benefits such as child allowances, free schooling from the age of three and funding for up to four in vitro fertility treatments a year.

It also offers incentives to Jews abroad and Israeli emigrants to move to Israel, measures needed when Israel was founded in 1948 but perhaps less crucial when the population is surging.

“We forecast not to predict disaster but how to see the cliff that is coming up ahead, and there’s a cliff if we don’t change our behaviour,” Ari Paltiel, CBS demographer,  said.

Often a fast-growing population spurs the economy. But in Israel’s case growth is in populations where employment rates are lowest. Among both Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, workforce participation is around 40 per cent, far lower than 61 per cent for Israelis overall.