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Why the Time Has Finally Come to Talk about Stabilizing Israel’s Population

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, The Land Is Full author Alon Tal explained why Israel’s stunning population growth is no cause for celebration. He is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

For most of Israel’s history it was impossible to conduct a rational conversation about ensuring a sustainable and stable population. There were three fundamental reasons for this:

The first was the Holocaust. The Jewish people had lost more than a third of its numbers and it would take decades to replace them. The second reason involved the birthrate of Israeli Arabs: not only did Israel’s Arab citizens have the highest birth rate in the world during some years—peaking at 9.2 children per family in 1965—but Arab leaders openly declared their intention of defeating Israel demographically. Israel was in a battle for survival and large Jewish families were part of the “war effort,” and talking about long-term social and ecological implications seemed a bizarre affectation. Finally, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world faced persecution or economic hardship and were interested in moving to Israel. There was no room for questioning Israel’s raison d'etre: ingathering persecuted Jewish exiles and ensuring an open door policy for Jews everywhere through the law of return.

One of the central points of my new book The Land is Full, Addressing Overpopulation in Israel is that none of these three conditions are valid today. It is finally time for a frank discussion about how many people the country can hold and, more importantly, how many people it should hold.

The world’s Jewish population in 2016 is roughly 16 million people. This is slightly less than the estimated 16.7 million Jews living before the unspeakably horrible losses suffered during the Holocaust. Yet the momentum created by Israel’s young population and growing life expectancy means that the number of Jews will reach 20 million worldwide within a generation. For those who saw replacement of the six million as a sacred national duty, it is time to move on.

Additionally, the astonishing drop in Arab Israeli fertility during the past two decades has changed the political and demographic dynamics in Israel completely. Already, Israel’s Druze and Christian communities, who not long ago averaged 6 and 7 children per family, have birth rates that hover around 2.1 replacement levels. Israel’s Muslim citizens have seen a comparable drop. Indeed, were it not for the Bedouin communities in the Negev, theirs would be lower than Israel’s Jewish birth rates. There is a profound gap between the nationalistic, pro-natal rhetoric of Israeli Arab leaders and the practical aspirations of Israel’s Arab citizens to reach a better quality of life and improve the opportunities for their children. An extraordinary rise in education, especially among Arab women, has produced the same result that it has over the world: When given reproductive choice and autonomy, women choose to have smaller families.

Finally, the critical masses of Jews who immigrated to Israel faced unpleasant lives in their native lands and sought a better life. There are no significant communities facing such hardships today. Even during the recent outbreaks of French antisemitism, only 7,000 French Jews moved to Israel in 2015—and history teaches that many of them will leave. (A greater number moved to Montreal, Miami, and London.)

All told, Israel’s present net immigration balance is neutral. On the deficit side of the ledger, since 1990 on average 22,000 Israelis leave the country each year; on the plus side 26,000 Jews immigrated to Israel on average each year in the past decade. The immigration-emigration balance in Israel is stabilizing, and any gains or losses are trivial in relation to overall population size.

From the perspective of sustainability, this is an ideal situation. Sustainable growth, after all, is an oxymoron; stability is the ideal. If Israel’s paramount mission is to serve as a sanctuary for Jews around the world, present dynamics should in no way be considered a failure: the present equilibrium is a triumph. For sixty years, Israel served as a critical haven for persecuted Jews or for Jews facing economic privation. Despite occasional mistakes, the country carried out this assignment with distinction. Israel was a land of opportunity for immigrants. Veteran Israeli taxpayers, along with generous Jews from around the world, willingly footed the bill for associated absorption costs.

But this stage is now over. It is possible to move to the next phase in the Zionist evolution, which focuses on building an Israeli society that is a paragon of creativity, culture, tolerance, justice, and sustainability. It is also time to embrace a new, more mature relationship between Israel and the Jewish world, a relationship of mutual admiration and respect. There is no reason why Israel should not embrace a more deferential approach to North American Jews and to the other remarkable Jewish communities flourishing today around the world. Israel needs to seek a strategy to ensure that its population stabilizes as quickly as possible. It is time to focus on the ecological integrity of the Promised Land while creating an equitable and enlightened society that can indeed become a Light unto the Nations.

Ben Gurion University professor Alon Tal was founding director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Israel’s preeminent ecological advocacy organization, and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a Middle Eastern academic program. A member of the JNF-KKL board for over a decade, from 2010 to 2013 he chaired Israel’s Green Party.

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Israel’s Extraordinary Population Growth Is No Cause for Celebration

Monday, May 16, 2016 | Permalink

Founding directory of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense Alon Tal’s latest book, The Land Is Full, addresses the problems of overpopulation in Israel. He is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

There was a time when expanding the number of Israeli citizens was a critical national challenge. With less than a million people, a sparsely populated Third Jewish Commonwealth was vulnerable: economically, diplomatically and militarily. As we consider the Israel’s future today, however, it needs to be clear that those days are long over. The paramount domestic policy objective for a country with over eight million citizens in 2016 involves demographic stabilization.

Today, Israel is among the most crowded nations in the world, and it continues to experience demographic growth that is unrivaled in the West. Based on present trends, Israel’s population is expected to double within the next thirty years and reach 15 million people. At that point, Israel will be the most crowded developed country in the world. But the projected factory farm densities will not make life better. Meteoric increases in population size have profound implications on the quality of life in Israel, affecting all segments of society and our collective future.

Environmentally, the phenomena are self-evident. Israeli leaders promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “per capita” at the UN Paris summit, knowing full well that a 2% annual growth in population means that overall emissions are going to increase for the foreseeable future; the Dead Sea retreats into oblivion, deprived of its natural Jordan River waters which are tapped to provide water to Israel’s agriculture—even though Israeli farmers at best can only provide 45% of this expanded populace’s calories; the steady collapse of the country’s biodiversity 0151 the magnificent array of animals and plants—will continue as open spaces and habitat give way to the 60,000 housing units required every year to meet the growing demand. This tragedy may be the most irreversible part of Israel’s present ecological disaster.

The social dynamics are much the same. Gridlock on Israel’s roads is becoming unbearable, but the Ministry of Transportation sees no relief in sight. It predicts that within the next decade as the fleet expands, Israelis will spend an additional 50 minutes per day in their cars sitting in traffic jams. The courts are backlogged as cases wait longer and longer for judges to become available. Israel has the most crowded kindergartens in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and among the most crowded schools. We simply cannot expand infrastructure fast enough. The hospitals are the most crowded in the OECD as well. The housing crisis will never be solved solely by increasing supply; without stabilizing demand, most young Israelis will never be able to realize the dream of owning their own home.

Worst of all, because the high birth rates are largely found among Israel’s poorest population groups, the disgraceful gaps in income in the country continue to grow worse. Equality of opportunity, a central tenet of Israeli solidarity, becomes lip service when one of every three children lives below the poverty line. Indeed, a report this year confirms that Israel’s income gaps may be the worst in the developed world. But invariably, poverty is found among families with five or more children, where resources and parental attention will never be sufficient to allow these children to compete.

The population crisis is the result of public policies which provide powerful economic incentives to have children, especially for families with low incomes. It is the result of policies that create obstacles to abortion and contraception and do not insist on empowering women and granting them equal rights and “reproductive autonomy.” We can change these policies. Indeed we must.

That’s why I wrote The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel. As an Israeli environmentalist, I realized the futility of spending growth all my time and energy on symptoms. Anyone concerned about ensuring a healthy, environmentally strong and equitable third Jewish Commonwealth should consider Israel’s demographic dynamics. We must all ask hard questions if we care about Israel’s future: How many people do we want to live in our “New Jersey-sized” Jewish state? How can we ensure that all Israeli women, including Arabs and Haredis, be given a chance to realize their potential academically and join Israel’s workforce? How can we change Israel’s cultural fixation on having large families? Can Jewish tradition support a new view about sustainable population size? There are answers to all of these questions. But first we need to understand that our generation’s challenge is to create a society which focuses on quality of life rather than quantity of lives.

Ben Gurion University professor Alon Tal was founding director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Israel’s preeminent ecological advocacy organization, and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a Middle Eastern academic program. A member of the JNF-KKL board for over a decade, from 2010 to 2013 he chaired Israel’s Green Party.

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