For Israel’s sake, time to stop being fruitful?

Environmentalist Alon Tal takes on one of the country’s most taboo subjects –- the high birthrate –- in an attempt to re-envision the meaning of Zionism

Illustrative: A newborn baby in an Israeli hospital. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Illustrative: A newborn baby in an Israeli hospital. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Israelis usually only think about overcrowding when a massive traffic jam is standing between them and an outing to their chosen park destination. They don’t think about the dynamics of demographics when faced with 40-plus students in every middle school class, or a six-month wait for a simple medical operation, or skyrocketing housing costs due to rising demand. But get between Israelis and their weekend on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or between them and a barbecue in a national park on Independence Day, and things can get ugly.

On high-demand holidays, the beaches at the Sea of Galilee can turn away thousands of people, with radio announcers warning people to stay away from the area.

There’s a simple reason for this, according to leading environmentalist Alon Tal, one of the founders of Adam Teva V’Din. As a country, Israel is simply too full.

In his new book, “The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel” which was released this month by Yale University Press, Tal lays out a terrifying future if Israel does not start to control the meteoric population growth. But Tal also knows that, while telling families to have fewer babies is imperative for Israel’s future, it is a difficult subject to address.

Israelis try to enjoy the crowded beaches of the Sea of Galilee during the Passover holiday on April 26, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israelis try to enjoy the crowded beaches of the Sea of Galilee during the Passover holiday on April 26, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I’ve been thinking about it for 15 years, but I never had the confidence,” said Tal, on the campus of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, where he teaches environmental law and policy. “There’s like this pathological fear from Israeli environmentalists. They have to step outside the consensus to talk about such a taboo issue.”

Tal knows that he couldn’t have written this book 10 or even five years ago, when Israel’s population was still hovering at the six million mark, the holy number so ensconced in the Jewish psyche. But according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s current population is 8.522 million people, having grown 2.2% over the previous year. By 2035, the population is expected to reach 11.3 million people.

Israel’s current population 8.522 million people. By 2035, the population is expected to reach 11.3 million people.

And suddenly, Israeli society is beginning to sit up and take notice. A crisis over lack of space for Independence Day barbecues forced reporters to seek out Tal, sparking widespread interest even before the book was published. “We’re here slowly but surely accepting a loss of quality of life,” said Tal.

Those mundane reminders of overcrowding — large classrooms, long waits, higher housing costs — are already life as usual. But when there’s no place to put the barbecue, well, that starts to get unacceptable. Tal is just glad that people are starting the discussion.

Playing Whack-A-Mole with development projects

As a long-time environmentalist, Tal has spent decades fighting housing and hotel developments that threaten Israel’s delicate ecosystem. Earlier this summer, he was part of a massive campaign, along with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and local activists in Jerusalem to stop a 1,435-unit housing project in Jerusalem’s last undeveloped space, south of Ramot.

Alon Tal in the Negev desert. (Courtesy Alon Tal)
Alon Tal in the Negev desert. (Courtesy Alon Tal)

“OK, so this year we won,” he said. “Every year in Israel, we have to build 60,000 new [housing] units. So at some point I realize, we’re suing this one and suing that one, and I’m like the Dutch boy putting his finger in the dike. At some point, you run out of fingers.”

Instead of going after each development that threatened environmental habitats, Tal reasoned, the more effective strategy is to stabilize the population so the country doesn’t need to keep building new apartments at such a voracious rate.

Babies ‘R’ Us

Unsurprisingly, Tal singles out two populations who are most guilty of perpetuating overpopulation: the ultra-Orthodox Haredim, and the Bedouin. The Haredi birthrate is about 5.5, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, though a report from the Technion put it closer to 6.5. The Bedouin birthrate is 5.7, which is exacerbated by high incidences of polygamy within the Bedouin community.

In November 2015, the Central Bureau of Statistics announced that the birthrates among Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations have come close to parity, a far cry from the major gap recorded a decade ago.

Israel’s fertility rate is the highest fertility rate in the OECD and nearly double the average rate.

On average, Jewish Israeli women give birth to 3.11 children, compared to 3.17 children among Arab Israeli women. At the beginning of the 2000s the figures stood at 4.3 children on average for Arab Israeli women and just 2.6 for Jewish Israeli women.

Today’s figures are nearly double the OECD fertility rate of 1.68. Israel has the highest fertility rate among OECD nations. The next highest fertility rate among OECD countries is Mexico, with 2.22 children per woman. The OECD calculates that a country should maintain a birthrate of approximately 2.1 to ensure a stable population.

Tal knows that the two target populations, the Bedouin and the Haredim, are unlikely to read his 350-page tome of meticulously researched material, or even be open to hearing the message. Instead, he hopes the book will act as a manifesto to encourage the rest of society to demand changes in public policy that will reward families who engage in what he calls “rational family planning.” Changes in public policy include completely removing government grants for child allowances and improving education opportunities.

“It pisses me off when bleeding heart liberals come after me and say ‘oh, you’re perpetuating poverty, you’re going to cancel the child allowances,’” said Tal. “And I’m like, me? Do you know what you’re doing? One out of every three Israeli children lives below the poverty line. This is a national disgrace. By incentivizing those large families, you are dooming those kids to a future without economic opportunities, without professional opportunities.”

“We need a thimbleful of foresight, not more, to realize that for someone who is addicted to cigarettes, you don’t incentivize buying cigarettes,” Tal continued. “You don’t subsidize alcohol for alcoholics. People shouldn’t be paid for having large families — it’s a bad public policy. I’m not saying we ban it, everyone can have as many kids as they want, I’m a liberal in terms of human rights. But society doesn’t need to pay for it.”

Tal said the current child allowance policies end up punishing families who work and choose to have fewer children, because they are the ones who are paying the taxes.

“Remember that Haredim had 2.5 to 2.6 kids in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said. “This whole aberration is a result of public policy. We created this monster starting in 1977 when Menachem Begin started all these ridiculous things.”

In 1977, as part of the coalition agreements with ultra-Orthodox party Agudath Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin expanded the exemption from military service for Haredi males studying in yeshivas, enabling Haredi families to continue receiving child allowances without joining the military or working.

An illustrative photo of yeshiva students in Israel (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of yeshiva students in Israel (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)


Using the carrot puree, not the stick

Even if the government is slow to respond, Tal hopes that other sectors will also act. “Delaying the age of marriage is something that we can really do,” he said. “If someone starts having kids when they’re 25 instead of 20, that’s 2 kids less on the whole.”

The best way to delay marriage, according to Tal? Education. This includes scholarships to make that education available to all members of society, even the most impoverished.

Education translates into employment, for both the ultra-Orthodox and Bedouin. According to the book, Haredi families with fathers who do not study in a yeshiva have one fewer child on average (5.5) than those whose fathers do (6.5).

“We have to provide positive reinforcement for people who do the right thing,” said Tal. “If you have two kids, yes, your kids and especially your daughters, will get a scholarship to college.” He also suggests prioritizing small families to receive the first available public housing, offering discounts on city taxes or big purchases like cars and appliances, like the country does to reward new immigrants.

An uphill climb for a downward trend

There are two major challenges that Tal encounters as he crisscrosses the country, giving a PowerPoint presentation to every group that will listen, repeating his one-line message, just like Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The first challenge is that people believe that Israeli ingenuity and technology will enable the country to evade the ills of overpopulation, while upholding the sacred law put down in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply.”

The second, and even larger, challenge is those who accuse Tal of anti-Zionism, convinced that Israel is a demographic war against an internal enemy, and every Jewish baby must be counted as a precious resource.

For those who believe technology will prevail, Tal says, there is partial truth to that. Water is the best example of this: desalination plants mean that Israel is no longer experiencing water shortages for drinking water, no matter how large the population grows. Drip irrigation means that the country produces an astonishing 20 times more fruit and three times more vegetables per person than in the early days of the State. But because there are so many more people to feed than in the 1950s, Israel is even less food independent than it was in the 1960s. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2013, just 45% of the calories Israelis ate were produced in-country, because there simply wasn’t enough land to feed all of the inhabitants. Israel was completely food-independent when the population hovered around 1.5 million, according to Tal.

First drip irrigation device in an old greenhouse, Kibbutz Hatzerim, Israel, 1967 (Courtesy Netafim)
First drip irrigation device in an old greenhouse, Kibbutz Hatzerim, Israel, 1967 (Courtesy Netafim)

Security concerns also pose a serious issue to relying solely on technological solutions. It would only take one or two Hezbollah rockets to completely destroy the desalination plants, putting Israel’s drinking water supply in serious jeopardy, Tal notes. When the country is dependent on importing food, shutting down Ben Gurion Airport, such as happened briefly during the 2014 Gaza War, casts the entire food supply chain in danger.

Thus far, no one has called Tal an “anti-Zionist” to his face, perhaps because serving on the board of the Jewish National Fund for 12 years is more burnished Zionist credentials than most people can claim. He says they prefer the term “post-Zionist,” which Tal still dislikes. “I know that we came here to bring a blessing to the land, and 50 million people cannot bring a blessing to this land; they can only bring destruction and devastation. That’s a reality,” he said.

“We should ask, do you want optimal density or maximum density? Because we’re going to be living our lives as factory farmed crowdedness for some sort of a Zionist notion which is no longer valid,” Tal said. “I wrote this book because I believe this is the new Zionism. There was a period of Zionism where obsessively bringing [Jews] to Israel was the national imperative and I would have been there, smuggling people in the 1950s and 1960s. I support it 100%, I went to the Soviet Union on behalf of Israel to try to convince people to come to Israel.”

But that has changed with the times.

“Today, Zionism’s great success is our nimble ability to realize when reality changes, we need to change too. We need to change a country’s objectives and visions. Anyone who is not willing to change is the anti-Zionist, because you are dragging this country off a cliff. We’re on the edgy of the abyss, environmentally and socially.”

Some of 221 North Americans arriving as immigrants to Israel, and greeted by Absorption Minister Ze'ev Elkin, July 14, 2015 (Courtesy)
Some of 221 North Americans arriving as immigrants to Israel, and greeted by Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin, July 14, 2015 (Courtesy)


Tal added that the number of new immigrants coming to Israel each year has now reached an equilibrium with the number of Israelis who leave the country to work and live abroad. Unlike the early days of the state, when Israel was absorbing millions of new immigrants in the space of a decade, it is unlikely that there are additional communities of Diaspora Jews who will move to Israel en masse over a short period of time. “It means we can retain our law of return, our open door policy, to welcome Jews everywhere in the world, as we should, as we do, and that’s something I’m proud of,” he said.

“With all due respect to the wonderful work of Nefesh B’Nefesh, 2,500 or 3,000 [American Jews] per year, that’s like a mediocre morning when the Russians were coming in the 1990s. So [the Diaspora Jews] are not going to come [en masse]. You know that. So what does it mean? It’s a blessing! It means finally we can stop what has been a self-righteous, almost insufferable Zionist superiority complex, which says to Jews around the world, your quality of life is deficient. You don’t have the Jewish integrity, being a Jew abroad is somehow fake.”

“My message is that because we’re full now, Israel doesn’t have to obsessively send shlichim [missionaries] around the world to tell people that their life is lousy and they need to come to Israel,” Tal said. “Send shlichim, by all means, send educators, Israel has a lot to offer people. And they have a lot to offer us — let’s bring in a bit of humility. And mostly we don’t have to tell people that Israel desperately needs you, because we don’t.”

Perhaps the most terrifying example of the dangers of overcrowding in Tal’s book is when he cites a 1958 experiment by John Calhoun, a behavioral ecologist at the National Institute of Mental Health near Washington, DC. In the experiment, Calhoun gave a couple of pregnant Norwegian rats an ideal environment, free from predators, and allowed them to multiply at will.

Population density began to increase and, with it, dissatisfaction among the rodents. Involuntary social interactions became unavoidable, creating considerable stress.

…Calhoun reported that aggressive behavior became much more conspicuous, especially among dominant males. Packs formed that attacked young pups and females. Mating patterns grew violent… Instinctual nurturing was abandoned. In little time, mothers stopped building nests properly, neglecting and eventually deserting their young. Some even attacked them. Infant mortality reached astonishing levels of 96 percent. Cannibalization grew common, and dead pups were ferociously devoured, even though there was no shortage of conventional food. Calhoun named the bizarre behavior “a behavioral sink.”

It did not take long for population levels in rat paradise to crash. Notwithstanding the abundance of food and water, females stopped giving birth. Many animals withdrew into a passive mode, manifesting extreme mental distress. When the experiment was officially called off, the few surviving rats were repatriated to normal rodent communities. They were described as “utterly withdrawn” and asexual, remaining “socially autistic” and dysfunctional until they died.

The Land is Full, p 246

That’s a sobering image about overcrowding, especially for a country that already lives in a geopolitical pressure-cooker.

“Let’s be responsible for this promised land we have taken on ourselves to be stewards for, because we’re screwing it up,” said Tal. “We’re uglifying the land. We’re destroying all the ecosystems, we’re ruining the water resources. If there were three million people here and the population was stable, none of that would be happening. We’d have the best schools in the world, we’d have the best hospitals in the world, we’d have the best highways in the world. It would be a different place to live.”

“Israel’s unsustainable population growth is the result of public policies,” Tal continued. “We created this mess, we can change it. And around the world, societies have decided they want to change demographic dynamics and they did so. So maybe it was a difficult transition, but they did it and their descendants will thank them. If we don’t, our descendants will curse us, because we were given a Land of Milk and Honey, and we turned it into an ecological and social disaster.”

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