Israel is emerging as the most crowded country in the Western world, according to one of its leading environmentalists.
“The elephant in the room is over-population,” says Alon Tal, the former chairman of Israel’s Green Party and the founder of the Israeli Union for Environmental Defence and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
Tal, the head of Tel Aviv University’s department of public policy, delivered his unsettling message in a recent lecture at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. His talk was based on his latest book, The Land is Full, published by Yale University Press earlier this year.
He predicted that Israel’s current population of 8.6 million will double within 30 years and could well reach 20 million by 2060. At this rate, Israel may become more crowded than Japan. In 1950, he noted, Israel’s population stood at one million.
In a previous book, Pollution in the Promised Land, Tal warned that unbridled population growth is unsustainable. As he wrote:
“The most critical single factor in understanding the downside of Israel’s environmental history is population pressure: with an average increase of one million people a decade, the land soon became very crowded. Israel’s population density is now roughly 270 people per square kilometer. Eventually economics, water resources, noise and the general dysfunction caused by the unbearable density will push Israel into a confrontation with advocates of large families and mass immigration.”
The implications of over-population could be dire, he warned.
Israel’s rich flora and fauna may be the first to pay for human encroachment on a shrinking habitat. One-third of the 115 mammal species in Israel, including the iconic gazelle, are endangered because of a significant drop in open spaces. In the past few years, Israel has lost about 10 kilometres of such land annually. Of late, this figure has jumped to 20 kilometres per annum.
Greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise as Israel’s standard of living increases, he said. With more cars on the road, the carbon footprint will be bigger. Israelis bought 300,000 vehicles in 2016, but in 1960, only 70,000 Israelis drove cars.
The impact of over-population will be felt in every sector of society, he said.
Cities with high densities will experience higher crime rates.
A shortage of doctors, nurses and hospital beds will have a detrimental impact. “We can’t build enough infrastructure to meet demand,” he lamented.
There will be a shortage of teachers and classrooms, affordable housing will be scarcer than it is today, and traffic congestion will be more serious. The average motorist will spend almost one hour in a car daily.
The drivers of population growth in Israel are immigration and fertility rates, said Tal, who was born and raised in the United States.
Under the Law of Return, a response to antisemitism, Jews in the Diaspora are free to immigrate to Israel. In recent years, 20,0000 to 24,000 immigrants have settled in Israel per year. The Israeli emigration rate is significant, but immigration inflows are higher.
On average, Israeli mothers give birth to three children, one of the highest rates in the West. In the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, however, there are six children per family. Israel leads the world in fertility programs. “It’s not a rational policy,” he said.
Tal listed government economic incentives that encourage Israelis to procreate: child allowances, grants to new mothers, municipal tax discounts, scholarships and priority to public housing.
Population reduction would be an attainable goal if Israel empowered women in the ultra-Orthodox and Bedouin communities, he suggested. “If given the choice, women choose to have fewer children,” he said.
In a brief review of demographic trends outside of Israel, Tal said the world’s Jewish population has more or less reached 16 million, a figure equal to the number of Jews in 1939. “Soon there will be more Jews than in any time in history,” he said.