The data is impressive. Over the past five years, the number of births per thousand in Israel's Muslim community has dropped 13 percent, from 38 to 33. During the same period, the number of births per thousand in Israel's majority Jewish community has risen. The merger of these two facts is, at least on the surface, of great interest. The gap between the number of births per thousand in Israel's Muslim community and in the Jewish community has narrowed from 110 to 70 percent. Do these figures mark the end of Israel's "demographic headache"? Bottom-line answer: No.
The births-per-thousand figure, all demographers concur, is of very limited importance. It cannot be used to gauge fertility. Nonetheless, other figures bearing greater statistical importance point to the beginning of a change.
While the fertility rate among Israeli Jewish women has not declined and has even slightly risen, there are initial signs of a downward trend in that category among Israeli Muslim women. The figure to which demographers attach the greatest significance is the decline in the average number of children per female. According to Devorit Angel, the Central Bureau of Statistics' official responsible for the analysis of childbirth trends, after 15 years during which the fertility rate in Israel's Muslim population remained stable at 4.7 children per female, a slight decline has emerged in recent years and the figure in 2003 was 4.5.
Another way of looking at the data is to focus on the average increase in the number of births. Whereas the average annual increase in the number of births during most of the previous decade was 4 percent, the increase over the past five years was only 1.5 percent.
Could this be the beginning of a trend? According to Angel and Hebrew University of Jerusalem Demographics Prof. Dov Friedlander, a trend may be in the offing, "although these figures must be perceived from a perspective of eight to 10 years," notes Friedlander, "and they must be approached with great caution because they could skyrocket again next year."
Angel argues that the fertility decline trend was expected because there is a general tendency toward lower fertility in all modern societies. Furthermore, she states, "The decline can be viewed more effectively if we examine the Muslim population separately from the Bedouin population, where the fertility rate is very high - about nine children per female. Thus, for example, in Umm al-Fahm, the fertility rate declined from 4.4 children per female in 1996 to 4.0 in 2003. In contrast, the fertility rate rose in Taibeh from 3.8 to 4.1 children.
Prof. Naomi Carmon says that in Haifa, the Israeli city with the lowest fertility rate, the average number of children in 2001 per Muslim female was 3.08 and per Christian Arab female was 1.91. For comparison's sake, the average number of children per Israeli Jewish female is 2.7. "One reason for the city's low fertility rate is Haifa's lower rate of religiosity and its educational level, which is the highest in Israel," explains Carmon who heads the Center for Urban and Regional Studies in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
Israel's birth rate of three children per female is the highest of any of the world's developed nations and is actually closer to the rates for developing nations, such as India and Peru. It is higher than the birth rates for Algeria, Turkey, Lebanon and Brazil. The highest birth rate in Israel is to be found among ultra-Orthodox Jewish females (according to one estimate, nearly eight children per female) and Bedouin females (eight to nine children per female). However, among Bedouin females, the figures on paper are higher than what they are in reality because of inaccurate recording. Among Jewish settlers too, the fertility rate exceeds the national average and was 4.8 children per female in 2003.
The most dramatic drop has occurred among Israeli Druze women. Within a single decade, the average number of children per female plummeted from 4.1 to 2.9. According to Carmon, it seems reasonable to assume that the primary reason is the increase in educational level. Carmon: "Throughout the world, the most effective contraceptive is education for women. All other methods have failed. When the education level rises, the number of children decreases." In 1961, 50 percent of all Druze women had zero years of schooling, while, in 1990, only 13 percent had zero years of schooling - and these women were all elderly. All young Druze women today have had at least some schooling. "In fact," notes Carmon, "one would have naturally expected an even greater impact on fertility; however, because of such factors as cultural traditions and the proximity of young couples' homes to those of their families, the decline has been relatively slow."
The case of the Druze, points out Dr. Eliahu Ben-Moshe, a demographer with the CBS and a Hebrew University lecturer, demonstrates that "all that needs to be done is to integrate Arabs into society." Then the demographic problem (the threat to Israel's Jewish majority) will disappear.
Dr. Ilana Ziegler, executive director of the Israel Family Planning Association, notes that "the possibility of a decline in fertility rates among Druze women was opened up when they were given the opportunity to take control of their lives. A woman's having control of her own life is the first condition needed for a reduction in fertility. Education is a part of this but it is not the only component. She needs economic independence, she must be able to make a proper living, she must be free to love, to build her own life, and her health - including the promise that the embryo she is carrying will be born a healthy infant and will continue to live or that she can stop her pregnancy if she so decides - must be guaranteed."
Geography professor, Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva expresses scathing criticism for Israelis' "obsession" with fertility: "We are obsessive because we are afraid Jews will one day not constitute the majority in Israel." According to Yiftachel, "In democracies, there are usually no head-counts because, in a multicultural democracy, all citizens know that they have a place in the sun." In the view of both Yiftachel and Friedlander, the Arab minority constituted about a fifth of Israel's population during the 1950s. That situation has remained constant over the years and that is the state of affairs today as well. "Some countries," he observes, "have much larger minorities relatively speaking." For instance, nearly 30 percent of all Canadians are French-Canadian; 30 percent of Malaysia's citizens are Chinese, with a long history of hostility between Malaysians and Chinese in that country; and both Lithuania and Estonia have a hostile Russian minority.
Reproduced with permission from ©Haaretz