Does Israel have a demographic time-bomb? 

After the recent publication of the 2018 population statistics by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the subsequent publication of the error-ridden competing population statistics released by COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), the issue as to whether Israel is facing a time-bomb in terms of the future ratio of Israelis who are not Jewish and especially the Israeli Arabs, to Israeli Jews flared up again.

In the March 28 issue of Israpundit, Yoram Ettinger, a retired Israeli ambassador and blogger of, published an article titled “Demographic time bomb? Mistaken or misleading…” takes strong issue with the arguments and predictions of those who project the doomsday scenario into Israel’s demographic future.

After presenting a brief summary historical review of the predictions concerning Israel’s Jewish demographic profile and the methodological problems that affected the validity and reliability of the census figures (1882-1946), he jumps over years of fertility statistics to land in 2016. He wrote,

“[In] 2016, in defiance of the “demographic time bomb” concept, and for the first time ever, the Jewish fertility rate (3.16 births per woman) exceeded the Arab fertility rate (3.11). Notwithstanding the mild decline of the ultra-orthodox fertility rate, there was a surge in the number of Jewish births from 80,400 in 1995 to 140,000 in 2017, while the number of Arab births rose mildly from 36,000 to 43,500. The share of Jewish births out of total births was 69% in 1995, rising to 76.5% in 2017, reflecting the rise of Jewish optimism, patriotism, attachment to roots, collective responsibility and the significant decline in the number of abortions.” (Italics mine)

Then, turning to the 2018 figures, Ettinger points out that in the land comprising pre-1967 Israel, Judea and Samaria, the Jews enjoy a 65% majority, which in turn “benefits from a tailwind of fertility-mostly because of the secular sector- and a potential wave of Aliyah of hundreds thousands of Jews (requiring the reinstatement of a pro-active Aliyah policy by the Israeli government) from a number of countries stretching from Eurasia through Europe to Argentina.

He then proceeds to explain of the diminishing fertility rate of Arab women due to urbanisation and westernisation; their integration into the labour market and education systems; the surge of the wedding age above 20; the decline in teen pregnancy and the dramatic use of contraception. (Text edited without changing meaning).

On the basis of his analysis of the facts and trends on which he relies, Ettinger concludes: “Israel’s demographic surge, quantitatively and qualitatively, is bolstering the size of its future classes of military recruits and the labour force, which enhances reality-based optimism, militarily and economically. It also feeds a demographically confident national security policy since there is no lethal demographic threat, which could lead to a retreat from geography (the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria) in order to save demography. The concept that Israel is, ostensibly, facing a demographic time bomb is either dramatically mistaken or outrageously misleading.”

Two questions

First, is the “demographic time bomb hypothesis” a dramatically mistaken or outrageously misleading one?

Second, is the foregoing hypothesised demographic time-bomb the only one potentially or actually facing Israel?

Addressing the first question: The demographic time-bomb hypothesis based on the comparative fertility rates of Israeli Arab and Jewish women

The hypothesis was not mistaken or misleading until 2016.

Further, the tailwinds on which Ettinger sets store are not the only kinds of winds.  Among others, they also include dead winds and head winds. Further, the “potential” wave of Aliyah is just that: Potential. Hypothetical potentials hardly warrant Ettinger’s ultimate conclusion.

The common meaning of the term “surge” is a sudden rise to a higher rate or ratio.

Surely, the present rate of positive change in the comparative fertility rates and as importantly in the rate of the rate increases during a short time-frame (2016-2018), predicted to last longer, cannot be characterised as a surge, and at all events, does not guarantee the permanence of the surge. Nor does a demographic surge necessarily bolster or guarantee the availability of sufficient manpower to run the country without resorting to foreign labour or the size of its future classes of military recruits quantitatively without regard to the actual distribution of the increased fertility rate among various segments of the Jewish population and the socio-economic and cultural profile of each segment.

At all events, the factors/variables considered above and those identified by Ettinger to explain the decrease in the fertility rate among Arab women are neither exclusive to them nor exhaustive. Fertility rates are also affected by a wide range of additional factors. Among these, the variables that come readily to mind are environmental problems; regional wars, (not to think of total wars); severe economic downturns caused by local conditions or international ones resulting from economic, political and national security problems that would lead to the diminution of international free trade on which the Israeli economy thrives? All of these factors have been shown to cause a decrease in fertility rates of woman in the Western world of which Israel is an integral part.

Notwithstanding my reservations about Ettinger’s thesis and conclusions, in fairness, to the extent statistics and statistical forecasts tell the whole story all the way for the foreseeable future, his reading of that future with respect to the comparative fertility rates of Jewish and Arab women, appears to be statistically sustained.

Unfortunately, the facts and figures on which Ettinger’s relies do not tell the whole story. I address the rest of the story below.

Addressing the second question

Even if, for argument’s sake, one agrees with Ettinger’s ultimate conclusion with respect to the demographic Arab time–bomb, is this the only one facing the nation?

I suggest that there is a  time-bomb which is already ticking; a most tragic  one which, if not defused  successfully in a timely manner,  may well   toxic to Israel’s security and ultimately to its existence.

The ticking demographic time- bomb: The high fertility rates of the Haredi women compared to the non-Haredi ones

The 2018 census informs us that the average overall Jewish fertility rate is 3.1 children per woman; with a material portion of this rate being accounted for by the fertility rate of the Haredi women which is significantly higher than that of the non-Haredi ones; the Haredi rate reaching as high as 7.59 children per woman in one town with a population exceeding 10,000 people.

As a matter of fact, if Yoram Ettinger is able to debunk the hypothesis of the demographic time-bomb based, on what he calls, the myth of the Arab women having higher fertility rates than Jewish ones; that is so because the high fertility rate of the Haredi women boosts the overall fertility rate of Jewish women to where it is now.

According to the CBS, the Haredi population will keep growing and by 2043, it will surpass the size of the of Israel’s Arab population.

More dramatically, CBS’s  also forecasts that the total population of Israel in 2065, barely  47 years from now, will be 19.954 million; with  the non- Haredi Jews accounting for  barely 35% of the total population- a  dramatic decrease from  the current percentage, while  the Arab community will account for 15%  of it.

And here, in my respectful view, is where this demographic bomb will start ticking the loudest, as the Haredi will constitute  the absolute majority of the Israeli  population, unless of course intervening events defuse the bomb or if feasible or such a thing exists, reduce its potency, that is the fertility rate of the Haredi women.

The origins of the time-bomb

From my reading of the history of Israel and my understanding of it, (and I certainly do not profess to be a scholar of the subject) this time- bomb was originally set by the late Prime Minister Ben-Gurion who decided to grant the Hasidim, then a small group relative to the size of the Jewish population, special rights and privileges, in the expectation that living as they will in a modern Israel, their numbers will progressively diminish and ultimately becoming a fringe group of the Israeli society. Well, it did not quite work out that way.

Ben-Gurion’s decision, was a major blunder, as bad, if not, worse than the signing the Oslo agreements. In the process of waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, they may well end up as becoming, inadvertently or not, the Palestinian’s fifth column as a result of their on-going progressively more violent conflict with the other Jews, the IDF and the civil society in general.

The present day Israeli society

This past March 28, the staff of the Times of Israel  reported on the opinions  expressed by five former Israeli spymasters  concerning  the current state of political and religious affairs in Israel , in a piece titled Ex-Mossad chiefs: Israel ‘dangerously sick’ under Netanyahu leadership. Putting aside Netanyahu’s fads, foibles and alleged sins such as they may be, I want to touch upon the two inter-related points made by two of the chiefs.

The first  point was made by Shabtai  Shavit, who after identifying serious problems ailing the country he said: “As intelligence  people, our most important skill is being able to anticipate the future …So I ask myself what kind of country  will my grandchildren inherit, and I  cannot give an answer to that.”

The second point was made by Nahum Admoni. He identified his main concerns with today’s Israel to be “the growing rift between Israelis”, asserting that the divide between the religious and secular populations is “worse than it has ever been”. He lamented that “The divide just keeps growing.”

Based on Admoni’s analysis supported by empirical evidence, it is reasonable  to conclude that the Haredi rejection of the legitimacy of Israel; their communications to Palestinians of various ideological hues, including Hamas, and, if I remember correctly, to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the former President of Iran, accompanied by their apologies for the occupation and their earnest wishes to witness the establishment of the Palestinian state;  their violent resistance to letting their sons get drafted for military service (even when  the sons themselves are already engaged in the resistance and doing their best to avoid  conscription), cannot but inflame and further aggravate the deepening rift  in the Israeli society between non- Haredi and the Haredi Jews for the foreseeable future.

This state of affairs in turn raises the question as to whether Israelis think that their society is “broken”.

On this question, I refer the reader to the results of an international survey involving 23 countries comprising 13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies published in January by the Ipsos Mori research company under the headline “Six in 10 around the world think that their society is ‘broken’”.…/six-ten-around-world-think-their-society-brok.

The survey tends to lend credence to Shavit’s concerns. With respect to seven categories of institutions- international institutions (quite understandably), banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties,  the majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all  seven categories. In five of the categories more than 70% did so. Thus Israel ranked in the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category, and in most of the categories placed in the top six.

When it came to the summary question as whether “society was broken” Israel plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rating with only 32 percent of the Israelis agreeing that it is broken, putting the country at one above the bottom ranking country. (The foregoing narrative concerning the survey is taken, albeit in a slightly edited from Evelyn Gordon’s paper titled Israel proves exceptional yet again, published in Israpundit on April 12.

The problem with the conventional way of reading these kinds of aggregate statistics is the strong tendency, and for great many the habit, of looking at the percentage of the good news respondents particularly when the results are expected to be positive,

Instead, I think that looking first at the percentage of the respondents bearing bad news and analysing the specifics of it, is more important in order to identify the nature and scope of the issues and problems which the country is experiencing with respect to the matters addressed by the survey or study and which would need to be attended to with varying degrees of urgency.

Hence, on the summary question, 32 % (close to one third) of the population bearing bed news is not an insubstantial percentage, and the mere fact that 68% answered the question in the negative does not tell the story accurately, without first identifying the composition of the naysayers, on the first cut, in terms of their ethnic, religious and age profiles and political affiliations.

Based on current population figures, coincidentally or not, the 32% is fairly close to the combined populations of the Arab and the Haredi communities that comprise about 21% and 12% respectively of the total of population. Personally, I am inclined to think that the 32% would comprise substantial percentages of Haredi and Israeli Arabs and some of the Jewish population, possibly including some or all of the five spymasters to whom I referred above.

At all events, it is hard to know where and how all this will end, as the progressively increasing radicalisation and the mob behaviour of the Haredi seem to have no brakes. This is illustrated in the April 5 issue of the Times of Israel. It reported that a mob of Haredi, shouting at the volunteer medics of the ambulance carrying the body of an infant after it had undergone an autopsy, that they are “Zionists”, proceeded to beat one of them, open the door of the ambulance, snatch the infant’s body and placed it in their own vehicle which then brought the body to the burial grounds.

This raucous was caused by two events: first, a Court decision that a) denied the deceased infant’s parents petition to dismiss the application of the laws enforcement agency for an order to perform an autopsy on the infant, and b) to grant the said application in the context of an investigation of suspected foul-play by the infant’s parents under whose care the infant had been at the material times and their detention as suspects. And this was the just last day of the rubble-rousing that lasted 4 days. On the Monday night preceding the day of the autopsy and burial, the Haredi in Jerusalem and Ashod protested the investigation of the deceased infant’s parents and the possible autopsy, by temporarily blocking the traffic and the light rail system and clashing with the police. The demonstrations continued in Jerusalem on Tuesday and Wednesday.

If the Haredi resort to mob action at practically the drop of a hat deemed to be offensive to their religious sensitivities, not to mention to their pocket books, engage in unlawful behaviour and resort to extra-judicial punishment where and when they see fit when they constitute only 12% of the Israeli population, I shudder, as I suspect the rest of the Israeli Jews must, at the prospect of living in a country where the Haredi  population will command the absolute majority and enjoy privileges and financial aid denied to the rest of the population.

How can and  will Israel continue to exist when the majority of its inhabitants do not recognise  its legitimacy and refuse to take up arms to defend it and to help protect its  non-Haredi civilian population against enemies who wish to destroy the very state which happens to grant the Haredi special privileges and provide generous subsidises  to them and to their institutions from public treasury fed in good measure  by the non-Haredi taxpayers who are not  entitled to the same privileges and subsidies. The public treasury of the country whose legitimacy they deny: Religious hypocrisy at its summum.

Defusing the bomb

In order to deal with the problems posed by the Haredi community to the body politic and to the defence of the country, Israel needs a revolutionary charismatic person to lead a gutsy and tough government ready to deal with these problems, whose stability, longevity and ability to do what it takes does not depend on the ultra-orthodox vote unless the leader is a revolutionary Haredi that commands the respect and total loyalty of his or her community.

Having postulated that, based on the electoral history of Israel, the chances of getting such a leader and achieving the desired outcomes are nil, unless the Haredi leader can successfully claim to be the Messiah.

And barring developments of a miraculous nature, the chances of implementing the necessary reforms without risking some kind of civil war are also nil.

Another possible scenario would be a military coup d’état, although historical experience tells us that while the generals can make the trains run and make the meals served on time, if history  is to be believed save rare exceptions, if any, they are not particularly adept at making the country run in unison.

While on can think of a variety of strategies to get the Haredi to participate in the defence of the Realm, I cannot think of one or a combination of two or more strategies that will not inevitably lead to a complex catch-22 situation.

In the premises, we are left with the optimistic approach.

The optimistic approach (1): The Haredi rate of enrolment in the IDF

The optimists, by temperament or lack of alternative, point out to the incremental increases in the number of Haredi who join the IDF (despite the facts that their numbers are modest and even then, they fail to meet the established quota) to take heart from this and hold on to the belief that between now and 2065, the problem is sure to be solved.

The optimistic approach (2): Progressive integration of the Haredi into the mainstream labour market and higher education system

The optimists also set faith by the facts that an increasing number of Haredi are progressively integrating into the labour market, and are pursuing higher education in order to succeed in the labour market. This in turn raises the question as to whether the current trend in the pace of the integration will solve the problem by or before 2065.

I do not find this approach comforting.  As it has been already pointed out time and again, with abundant historical evidence to substantiate it, from the history of the Jewish people, for a Jew or Jews anywhere in the Diaspora and in Israel, faith in the future based on mere optimism is a luxury which they simply cannot afford.

A desperate approach with a bitter sense of humour

Some years back ,I recall reading a book (whose title I am unable to remember) where the author ( whose name I  do not  recall)  suggested in jest or seriously that the best way to deal with the problem at hand may well be to split the country into two; give the Haredi one part, where  they can live their way of life free of entanglements with the IDF and the secular society, and secure their security through their prayers to  and faith in G-d until the arrival of the Messiah.

Waiting for the Messiah

Then again, Jewish people’s historical experiences with messiahs have not been happy ones. To begin with the Christian era, starting with the  anti-Semitic preaching of Matthew in the year 90 A.C., it has been, a dark and bitter one accompanied by forced conversions, exclusion, oppression, brutality and genocides, albeit with some occasional and relatively brief sunshine and relief followed once again by  the return to pain and suffering.

And despite the contemporary reforms brought about by various Church leaders and the advent of new branches of Christianity friendly to Israel,  traditional anti-Semitism and the post-modern ones in various disguises, which are clever by half, are alive, well- cultivated, and thriving (if that’s the right word) in too many of  the European countries, not to mention the Middle-Eastern ones as well as in the United States under the banner of free-speech and in Canada which is quite reticent to enforce the hate-laws to the extent of being inert.

And it goes without saying, nor did  the Jewish people have happy experiences with those who appeared on the scene from time to time, claimed to be  the Messiah, by one count at least 14 of them, and  for a period of time were believed to  be so,  who caused mischief and often enough cruel disappointment.

As a matter of fact, one of them, Sabbatai Zevi (whose name has been spelled in a variety of ways) who lived and preached in the 17th century and when given the choice between conversion to Islam or hanging by the Ottoman Sultan, took the less painful alternative and in the process took along with him an indeterminate number of his Jewish followers who also converted.

Given this history, G-d only knows what will happen with the arrival of the Messiah whom the Haredi are waiting for, assuming that is, he does not turn out to be yet another a false one who, fearful of what the hostile Muslim might do to him may decide to buy an insurance policy as did Zevi, convert to Islam with his followers, join the Arab communities within and without Israel and, who knows, start the demographic bomb whose existence Yoram Ettinger dismissed out of hand, ticking.

At the end of the day

It may well be that when it comes to the problems caused by the Haredi for the defence of the Realm and the protection and security of the civilian population, the Jewish people have no choice but to enjoy the very luxury they can ill afford, while otherwise soldiering on as best as they possibly can. Then again, mercifully, when it comes to soldiering on, to date Israel has proven itself to be is exceptionally good at it, without having to rely on miracles.






About the Author
Doğan Akman immigrated to Canada with his family. In Canada, he taught university in sociology-criminology and social welfare policy and published articles in criminology journals After a stint as a Judge of the Provincial Court (criminal and family divisions) of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he joined the Federal Department of Justice as a Crown prosecutor, and then moved over to the to civil litigation branch . Since his retirement he has published articles in Sephardic Horizons and e-Sefarad and in an anthology edited by Rifat Bali titled "This is My New Homeland" published in Istanbul.
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