Newborn babies (file)
Newborn babies (file)Israel news photo: Flash 90

Israel’s latest population figures, released as is traditional ahead of Israeli Independence Day, cite a population that added 176,000 babies, 32,000 new immigrants and has reached an estimated total of 8.345 million people. Israel is a regional power despite its relatively small population versus countries like Turkey, Iran and Egypt who approach 80 or 90 million people. Yet this growth was not necessarily guaranteed in yesteryear. That rate of 176,000 new children is demonstrative of an increasing birthrate across all sectors except one: the Israeli Arab community.

“The most significant statistic has to do with the annual number of Jewish and Arab births - we're talking about 136,000 Jewish births and 40,000 Arab births,” says Ambassador Yoram Ettinger, who has followed Israeli and Palestinian population statistics for over a decade. “Compared to 1995, when you find that there were 80,000 Jewish births and 36,000 Arab births, there has been significant growth on the one hand and significant stagnation on the other.”

These numbers alone are encouraging for the Ambassador. In his opinion, the birthrates alone should be cause to attack the widely held notion that the Arab population of Israel is a “demographic time bomb.” This does not cover the disputed areas of Judea and Samaria, but nonetheless should be encouraging enough news to understand Israel’s Jewish population is not stagnant as the commonly held notion would have people believe.

“There has been a 68% Jewish surge in the birthrate and that is the most significant symptom of the robust, unprecedented Jewish demographic tailwind.”

Ettinger’s argument is reflected in numbers from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, which does record a similar pattern in Jewish and Arab births.

Between 2000 and 2013, the Arab total of live births ranged between 38,801 and 41,440. In 2013, that number was 39,190. This contrasts immensely with the “Jewish and others” birthrate, which consistently grows every year from 95,559 in 2000 all the way up to 132,254 in 2013.

Citing also a new emigration of Arabs from Judea and Samaria, he says that there are a number of factors converging that are putting a dent in the demographic time bomb argument.

“It is unprecedented this robust Jewish demographic tailwind in fertility and the increasing Arab net emigration from Judea and Samaria. That's the bottom line of the demographic balance of Jews and Arabs. Again, there is no time bomb but there is a robust tailwind.”

Ettinger feels that very different cultural dynamics and socioeconomic phenomena are driving the two populations to buck the trends that have informed on political policy for the last several decades. For Jews, it is a combination of major generational changes in the different sectors of the Jewish population of Israel. For Arabs, it is a combination of economic opportunity and Westernization.

For Arabs in Israel and Judea and Samaria, the numbers had been perceivably growing enormously for years. But the Palestinians have seen a slowdown. That is not attributable to any economic disputes with Israel, but reflective of a major cultural shift that is happening across the Arab world, says Ettinger.

“It's a combination. Not only in Judea and Samaria but all over the Muslim world, there is a Westernization phenomenon where people are approaching not the Israeli numbers, but the European numbers in children. He cites downward demographic trends in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and beyond while Israel’s Jewish population is actually gaining in terms of average number of children per woman.

According to the World Bank, the birthrate in Judea, Samaria and Gaza has declines from as high as 6.5 in 1990 down to about 4.0 today.

In Morocco and Saudi Arabia, the number was as high as 7.0 in 1960, but now hovers around 2.8 today. If one includes Iran (not an Arab country) and the United Arab Emirates, one sees a more dramatic dip from about 7.0 to just below 2.0.

Ettinger cites expanded education for women as a positive, yet overlooked development in Arab society that has had a major impact on the size of families. Women with more education tend to have fewer kids.

“Instead of having kids as early as 15, they are waiting until their mid-20s and that number is approaching age 30.”

But also, “family planning has proliferated throughout the Muslim world – possibly because of economic reasons but maybe also the increased standard of living,” says Ettinger.

Generally speaking, it is important to emphasize according to Ettinger that there “is an aim to become more and more Western” in these societies.

A United Nations survey of multiple studies found increased use of condoms in the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria (the study refers to these areas as the “State of Palestine”). A separate survey cites a figure as high as 50% of Palestinian women between ages of 15 and 49 using some form of contraception, with 39% using modern methods (page 15).

For Israelis, he says there is more of a convergence in the size of family when comparing different sectors. As more haredi Jews enter the job market – including women – the fertility rate is going down. But it is the other sectors of the population that are picking up. As opposed to 20 years ago when secular “yuppies” in the greater Tel Aviv area might have been having one or two kids, Ettinger says that number has grown to three or four. Additionally, the birthrate among Russian olim has also expanded in similar numbers with those arrivals’ second generation.

“The surge in Jewish fertility has to do with communal responsibility, patriotism and roots,” says Ettinger.