How does it stand with the people Israel in the new year 5770?
As James Kugel (a Harvard scholar of the Hebrew Bible) explained in a lecture at my synagogue earlier this year on Israel’s Independence Day, for most of Jewish history independence was an alien idea. Except for a few decades of the Davidic kingdom, the Jewish commonwealth always paid tribute to the surrounding powers—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, or Rome. Israel still faces an existential threat, but this should not obscure the fact that the position of the Jewish people today is at least strong as ever before. Jews who have kept the faith in Israel as well as in the Diaspora have reason to look happily toward the new year.
Israel’s detractors, including defeatists in the American Jewish left, tell a tale of woe in support of one-sided Israeli concessions to Palestinian opponents whose main interest in gaining territory appears to be to fire more rockets at Israeli cities. In the absence of a permanent peace settlement, they say, Israelis will eventually abandon the country in despair, its economy will collapse under the weight of military expenditures, and the higher Arab birthrate will turn Israel into an apartheid island in a Muslim sea. But this gloomy view is wrong.
Israeli fertility, at nearly 3 children per woman, is by far the highest in the industrial world. It has stabilized at a high level, moreover, while the fertility of its Muslim neighbors is in free fall.
Total Fertility, Israel and Selected Muslim Countries
Source: United Nations
No data exist for West Bank demographics, for the Palestine Authority has invented more than a million “refugees” who do not exist, either because they never were born or because they have emigrated. It is a fair supposition that the West Bank birthrate also is in free fall. For poor countries, a sudden transition from ten-person to four-person families implies a coming social catastrophe in which a smaller base of young people will have to support a huge aging population. No nation in the world has suffered this kind of demographic shock, and the prognosis for political stability in such countries is not good. Israel, by contrast, has the healthiest population pyramid in the industrial world.
Fears that immigration to Israel would dry up or even reverse, moreover, seem fanciful in light of the recently available 2008 data. Net immigration to Israel has recovered and is rising.
Net Immigration to Israel (Migrants Per 1,000 Population)
Source: Government of Israel
Israelis come to Israel, stay, and raise families because they love life. Some time ago I constructed (in my Spengler column at Asia Times Online) a “Love of Life” index, which consists of a simple comparison of the fertility rate vs. the suicide rate. People who love life have babies; people who don’t kill themselves. In fact, there is a statistically significant relationship between the two variables (the higher the fertility rate, the lower the suicide rate among the industrial nations).
“Love of Life” Index: Fertility Rate vs. Suicide Rate for Industrial Countries
Source: United Nations
Israel lies in a region of its own. Only Greece has a lower suicide rate, but Greece also has a fertility rate of only 1.3. Why the Jews love life and hate death more than other peoples can be argued. Goethe’s devil said it best, perhaps, in his exchange with Faust, as I reported in a recent study of Goethe’s tragedy and the Book of Job (“Hast Thou Considered My Servant Faust?,” First Things, August/September 2009). Life as such, with its messy birth, fears, uncertainties, and painful death, doesn’t really appeal to human beings: “It was made for a god,” as Mephistopheles said. What makes life enjoyable is the sanctification of life, and the Jews, whose religion consists of bringing what is holy into the smallest acts of everyday life, seem to like life the best.
Contrary to what Israel’s detractors foreign as well as homegrown have claimed, time is on Israel’s side. The population data suggest that its Muslim adversaries (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) are going from infancy to senescence without passing through maturity. They are going directly from the rigid world of traditional society to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that so appeal to the infertile young people of Iran. Israel’s economy is a source of astonishment, a high-tech miracle that draws more private-equity investment than all of Europe.
None of this can erase the fact that Israel is under existential threat, above all from Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza. But Israel has always been under existential threat. There were a couple of years, immediately after the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and while Iran and Iraq were at war with each other, in which the Jewish State could breathe easier, but the threat never really diminished. There is something about living on the land bridge between Europe, Africa, and Asia that creates insecurity.
Earlier this month I visited Australia to assist the United Israel Appeal in fundraising. No Jew can go to Australia without thinking that if Moses had led us there, they would never have found us. God evidently did not want to ensconce us in peaceful obscurity, but to put us in the line of fire, where we could perform our mission as a light unto the nations.
Israel’s military position seemed all the more uncertain for the Obama administration’s unexpected demand that Israel freeze all “settlement” construction, including apartments in Israel’s capital city. In doing so the White House betrayed the Bush administration’s quid pro quo with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, which gave Israel flexibility in West Bank settlements in return for its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. That President Obama did this while publicly embracing the Arab myth of Israel’s founding (that the Jews were imposed on the region as a result of the Holocaust), and while pursuing dialogue with Iran to the point of humiliation, made this all the worse.
That Israel is a military mini-superpower is not in question. During the past week, Israel’s power and potential independence from its main patron, the United States, underwent its first drill—a drill, that is, rather than the real thing. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, made an unannounced trip to Moscow September 7—secret would be the wrong word, for his government made sure the press found out later—which produced a minor panic in Washington. Four billion dollars in American aid locks Israel into American weapons purchases. That’s about 2 percent of Israel’s GDP, not insignificant, but not a decisive sum for a country whose economy grew by 4.2 percent last year.
Contrary to the assertions of self-styled foreign-policy realists, it well may be the case that America benefits more from its relationship with Israel, by far the most powerful force in the region, than Israel benefits from the United States. Netanyahu’s talks with the Russians—whatever the may have entailed—seem to have prompted some scrambling in Washington, including the sudden shift in American support for anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe, a longstanding annoyance to the Russians. Without guessing as to the precise content of some sensitive diplomacy, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Israel may have called Obama’s bluff. The president of the United States does not want to wake up one morning and see on CNN that Israel, Russia, and India have agreed to jointly develop a new fighter.
Perhaps the most encouraging change is occurring slowly and almost imperceptibly in the Jewish people itself. Israel was founded by strident secularists with little support from Europe’s Orthodox rabbinate, which for the most part failed to foresee the dimensions of the Nazi threat. Israeli nationhood and Jewish religious faith seemed forever separated a generation ago. But a great shift has occurred in the past generation. The Torah-observant community in the Diaspora has established close ties with the State of Israel, while secular Jews have fallen away. The great rift between secular and religious continues to be the bane of Israeli life, but the trend, at least, is in the right direction. The modern Orthodox are raising three or four children per family, and the Haredi seven or eight. And while modern Orthodoxy is already secure in the mainstream of Western society, the Haredi are increasingly engaging the modern world.
As America loses its secular Jews to intermarriage and apathy, Jewish nationhood and Jewish faith well may converge over the next generation. And that, as my grandmother would have said, is good for the Jews—and for Christians as well.
David Goldman is associate editor of First Things.