If there is any other contentious issue in Israel that does not deal with politics or the Palestinians, it is the internal demographic issue and concern by some that the haredi sector will grow to more than half the total Jewish population of Israel in just a few short decades—with all the ramifications that entails.
While the Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that the haredi population will grow to be 50 percent of the total Jewish population by 2059, a new report by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) actually shows that between 2005 and 2016, there was a decrease in childbirth of exactly one child per haredi family, from 7.7 children per woman to 6.7 children per woman.
According to the IDI, “The share of haredim as a percentage of Israel’s total population is predicted to be 14% in 2024; 19% in 2039, and 27% in 2059. By that year, the haredi community is expected to constitute 35% of the Jewish population in Israel. According to forecasts, the fertility rate of the haredi community, which dropped from 7.5 children per woman to 6.9 between 2003 and 2014, is expected to continue to decline, reaching 5.5 children per woman by 2025 to 2029.”
This appears to negate the assumption that this sector is growing to the extent that it will constitute a significant change in the current balance.
Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the “Ultra-Orthodox in Israel” program at the IDI, told JNS, “Firstly, we see the peak was around 2002, which was around 7.5 children per woman. And it declined to 6.9 between 2012-14. Second, we have specific data referring to specific cities, and this is more updated as it is until 2016. We see this decrease is continuing. In Beitar Illit, it declines from 7.8 to 7.2; in Modi’in Illit, from 8.3 to 7.6. The mean is around one child [fewer] per family.”
Malach noted that a specific contribution to the decline in the haredi birthrate may have been a general change in child allowances in 2003, when state support of large families was reduced.
But he believes the cause in the lower birthrate is more broad.
“There is a connection between poverty in haredi society and support from the state, but more haredim are entering the labor market,” said Malach. “And it is interesting, but people who work and earn more money become more calculating in their behavior and decisions, and even though they have more money than other families under the poverty line, [they] will decide whether to have children or postpone that. In some cases, [they] are leaving their enclave and see the situation compared to other people in their workplace. Sometimes, the demands of the job require calculations, and they realize if they have more children they won’t be able to attain certain positions.”
He also pointed out that “in the last 10 years, we see the phenomenon of postponing marriage, even with girls. They or their families decide they will marry later, and this affects the amount of children couples will have. Girls are deciding to study toward a degree and are thus postponing marriage, which affects family size.”
Some of the roots of concern
Multiple issues exist in Israel as to why concerns center on this particular demographic.
For one, the majority of the population define themselves as secular—by Israeli standards, meaning that they tend to celebrate Jewish holidays and recognize Shabbat—even though religious authorities have a hold on certain aspects of daily life, including marriages, conversions and the ability for observant Jews to obtain a divorce.
Second is the issue of religious Jews being able to opt out of national military service, an exemption founding father and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, put into place. The debate has increased in intensity over the years, being called an inherent “unfairness” in who is responsible for the security of the Jewish state.
Third, the Jewish state has long grappled with the issue of overpopulation, being that for much of the history of the nation, its resources were limited. On the other hand, the higher Jewish birthrate of haredi Jews is somewhat viewed as countering the equally high birthrates among Israeli Arabs.
And there is, of course, the often-bitter debate about state financial support of the religious, effectively allowing entire communities to live in poverty and off a sort of institutional welfare (coupled with what many perceive as a subpar education in general studies and technology). That may slowly be changing, however, as more haredi men and women enter the workforce.
‘Not happening as quickly as people think’
Professor Uzi Rebhun, a demographer at Hebrew University and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, told JNS that it’s too early to determine whether there is an actual decline in birthrates, or that the numbers and slight change in lifestyle simply shows a postponement by couples to have children. “Even if there is a real decline in the average number of children per ultra-Orthodox woman, they have a low age structure. There are many young couples among this population, so they will produce a lot of children even if the number of children per family declines.”
According to Rebhun, the general population is expected to increase. If the adult population makes up 10 percent of the total population, the children make up an entire quarter of the population.
“In one generation from now, the ultra-Orthodox will account for 25 percent of the total population. If there is any effect, we will only see it in the third generation, 30 to 40 years from now,” explained Rebhun. “The general population will change dramatically in the coming decades. We will see an increase in proportion of haredim to the general population. It is not a game-changer. It is, however, more interesting since it reflects changes in their society, and that is somewhat connected to women joining the workforce.”
Alex Weinreb, principal researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, recently published a new study that refutes the assumption that the haredi population is growing to such an extent. He told JNS that it won’t happen—that he does not believe haredim will be more than 50 percent of the Israeli population because on an individual basis, more people leave that world than join.
“We’re just saying it’s not happening as quickly as many people think,” he said. “People seem to assume that the window is closing very quickly on this, and we’re staying, ‘no, slow down.’ The complexities of Israel’s population mean that this understanding doesn’t work for us.”
Weinreb agreed that haredi women are having fewer children these days.
He said that “as the age of marriage climbs slightly in that community, there isn’t really a lower rate of reproduction. It won’t come down to three or four children. It will be more like the 1950s, which saw around five children per family.”