Elliott Abrams: The Truth About Israel’s Birthrates

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Palestinian girls take part in a ballet course run by the Al-Qattan Center for Children, in Gaza City on November 25, 2015. Elliott Abrams writes that in Israel there’s been a sharp drop in Arab birthrates, while Jewish birthrates have been rising. Suhaib Salem/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Everyone knows that because Arab population growth rates in Israel and the West Bank far exceed Jewish ones, the percentage of the population that is not Jewish will rise steadily. The only problem with that statement is that it is not true.

As The Times of Israel has just reported:

The fertility rates of Jewish and Arab women were identical for the first time in Israeli history in 2015, according to figures released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday….Jewish and Arab women had given birth to an average of 3.13 children as of last year.

The explanation is a sharp drop in Arab-Israeli birthrates, while Jewish birthrates have been rising: “In 2000, the fertility among the country’s Arab population stood at 4.3 children per woman, while the fertility rate of Jewish women was 2.6. Since then the gap has narrowed as the Arab rate dropped off and the Jewish fertility rates steadily increased.”

This high fertility rate is not simply an artifact of Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox or Haredi population; the non-Haredi fertility rate is 2.6. (This is, by the way, a far higher fertility rate than that of American Jews, which is 1.9; the replacement rate is 2.3.) The overall Jewish-Israeli fertility rate, 3.13 also suggests that the population balance between Israel and the West Bank will not change:

Palestinian fertility on the West Bank has already fallen to the Israeli fertility rate of three children per woman, if we believe the Palestine Ministry of Health numbers rather than the highly suspect Central Bureau of Statistics data. In 1963, Israeli Arab women had eight or nine children; today they have three, about the same as Israeli Jews.

What are the political implications? Whatever they are, the debate must begin with facts rather than assumptions—including facts about population growth.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.