Overpopulation in Israel. Really?
Overpopulation in Israel. Really?

Last week a joint conference of the University of Maryland, Tel Aviv University and Zafuf, the Israel Forum for Population, Environment, and Society. took place in Tel Aviv. It was called “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Culture and Sustainable Population Dynamics.”

The conference was the first international gathering of academic experts to focus on the issue of overpopulation in Israel. Experts there claimed that Israel's rate of population growth is 'unsustainable' and that people must be encouraged to have smaller families - a radical change from the ongoing traditional Israeli policy of incentives for family growth in order to make the country strong and keep its majority Jewish. Just a few years ago, in fact, the big fear fostered by the left was that the Arab birth rate would cause the Israeli Arab population to outnumber the Jewish Israelis -  justifying their policy of giving parts of the countr to the Palestinian Arabs for their own state.

Today, it seems, there are 40.000 Arab births to 100,000 Jewish births per year and the average Jewish Israeli family has 3.1 chldren per family while the rest of the Western world's families have 1.7. 

Predictions that Israel’s population is expected to reach twenty million by the end of 2065 may be correct.  But should we fear this as a disaster?  It all depends upon whether one believes there is such a thing as “overpopulation" when referring to Jews.  After the Holocaust, overpopulation seems a desirable wish. Can there be such a thing as overpopulation for the Jewish State? The first ones to claim that there are too many Jews around were Pharaoh and Haman, the most recent were Hitler and the Ayatollahs. 

Warnings of overpopulation are based on its impact upon the environment, infrastructure,crowded classrooms, overworked hospitals, poverty and labelling a high birth-rate as unsustainable are simply wrong. There are other root causes of these issues, problems that most societies face today. and they are solvable..

It is barely a hundred years ago that most families had six, eight or ten offspring.  In Western countries this has been truncated to a standard of two children or less.  During the past sixty or eighty years we have seen a collapse of family values, the prevalence of wholesale selfishness, a significant percentage of people who never marry, an even larger percentage of those divorcing - and all this along with a switch to worshipping the holy shekel or dollar at the expense of a family with many children.

Since when has the Jewish people had to play by the rules of other societies?  We believe that G-d provides.  It may be through having more gas or oil revenues than some of the Gulf States, it may be through sales of hi-tech or a totally new form of wealth – from crypto-currency to totally new inventions.

It is the Government’s responsibility to share that wealth among the people, not to let it escape offshore and to reward the high birth-rate as a national priority.

The nay-sayers who forecast that the world would run out of food many years ago were wrong the same as those forecasting that population growth is unsustainable. We have found new ways to grow food, to quadruple harvests, to have productive greenhouses in barren areas and even to plant vertical gardens against hi-rise buildings.  

Was it conceivable years ago that Israel would have desalination plants in a country that used to be barren?  What is missing in the calculations of the great experts who predict doom and gloom is faith:  faith in ourselves to find solutions and faith in G-d.

It is a tragedy that abortions are common.  It is a tragedy that families honestly believe that buying hundreds of toys and clothes with labels plus a dog are what children need.  What they really need are brothers and sisters, the warmth of a family to grow up with, to share life’s experiences with both when they are young and when they are older, to lean on each other and to love each other. They also need to share the responsibility of care of the elderly.  Friends and neighbours come and go, but families are the backbone of a society.

China is a good example of where things went wrong.  The one-child policy introduced in 1979 now being phased out has had disastrous consequences.  Not only is there a dearth of females for men to marry as males are preferred in their culture, but the growing elderly population is too large to be supported by the smaller numbers of workers. Side effects have included theft of female babies and children, elderly people with no support systems and children who have grown up being extremely self-centred.  

European countries dropped their birth-rates again and again, and now have their cultures being replaced by migrants with totally different values to their own, together a very high birth-rate.

Solutions to overcrowded classrooms are only now being tackled in Israel, primarily aimed at the periphery with internet lessons by one teacher being beamed to students in large numbers. Schools are not babysitters but places of learning. The issue of forty children in a class needs a different approach.  Technology can easily take the burden off individual teachers with the bulk of education being delivered differently.  There is a lot to learn from the chavruta method as well as used for older children in yeshivot.  The present model does not have to be the optimum one and should not be part of the discussion of what is falsely labelled “overpopulation.”

The Land of Israel is mostly empty.  Places that were deserts seventy years ago are now blooming. There are vast tracts of land available for building, maybe not in the middle of Tel Aviv but in much of the country. The problem of slowing down housing developments is not the fault of the population. The demand is there and can easily be met as it was when millions of olim arrived in the great aliyot of last century.  Apartment buildings were put up as the ships docked and the planes landed.  As for damaging existing biodiversity it is now the norm to plan new building developments with green spaces and national parks.

Many years ago the Jewish Agency had the population figures of Jews of the World.  They drew a line through the figure for Russia, believing that within a few years those Jews would all assimilate and be lost.  They could not have been more wrong, with over a million Russian Jews suddenly arriving.  Israel has to expect influxes of Jews at all times, whether it be from Turkey or Ukraine today or the United States tomorrow. Jews have no guarantees of living safely anywhere except in Israel.

To say that it is unpatriotic to have many children does seem to be no more than a joke.  How can a tiny Israel surrounded by Arab countries with hundreds of millions with a phenomenal birth-rate even think of reducing its population?  This agenda runs contrary to the strategic understanding of a strong country, a country with a high percentage of youth under the age of fifteen underpinning the older population who in a few years will need their support.

The criticism of the high birth-rate in the Haredi sector must be examined in the light of the possibility that they will reach a significant proportion of the population in a few short years and that they will not have the same values as the secular community. This has been the actual policy of the administration since the days of Ben Gurion when socialism and modernism tried to overrule the traditional Jewish way of life and made it very difficult for traditional Jews to take part in power politics. It is no wonder that the secular decision-makers are aghast at the growing power of haredim and the wholesale demographic changes.

It is no accident that the birth-rate in Tel Aviv is lower than that of Beersheva, Ashdod or Kiryat Gat, not to mention Yehuda and Shomron.  

The poverty in haredi families can be improved. Affirmative action to include haredim in government jobs is just a beginning. Encouraging inclusion of maths and English studies in yeshivot to enable access to well-paid jobs is the next step. Poverty is not a problem that cannot be solved, but it will need cooperation and in particular respect.  

The threat of a dissolution of society is punctuated with pointing out the day-to-day difficulties of driving a car in overcrowded roads, the bane of many.  Is it too futuristic to believe that cars can be replaced by a totally different type of transport, possibly above ground?  Is it realistic to believe that everyone commuting to work may not necessary be doing so in fifty years?  The numbers of online businesspeople in the world who work from home offices are only the beginning of this trend.  Patterning our future developments on the new cities being developed in China can be one way that we can find other ways of transporting people and living our lives.  

Unfortunately, many of our experts have drawn conclusions and given opinions that are irrelevant for Israel.  The aim of the Government should be to use lateral solutions to address issues that have nothing to do with the birth-rate and to create wealth so that all citizens of Israel can live comfortably.