Dizengoff Street, a tree-lined corridor of commerce and pleasure, is Tel Aviv’s main artery. Squint a little, and you could easily imagine that you’re standing not in sunbaked Israel, a short drive from the Gaza Strip, but in Barcelona, say, or Berlin, or Manhattan. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll notice one distinct feature that sets this Israeli city apart from its cosmopolitan sisters: Amid the Apple stores, high-end fashion boutiques, and sidewalk cafés serving fifteen-dollar artisanal cocktails, you can see and hear, at all hours of the day and night, throngs and throngs of shouty, happy, maddeningly energetic children. They are to this town what pigeons are to London’s Trafalgar Square: the rightful owners taking possession of their turf, no matter the designs of flustered grown-ups watching from the sidelines.
The reign of children stamps everything in Israel. The Jewish state leads every other member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the umbrella group of industrialized nations, in births per family. Whereas South Koreans, on average, have just one child, New Zealanders 1.6, and Americans 1.8, Israelis boast an average of 3.1 children per woman—well above the total fertility rate of 2.1 required for “population replacement.” While the birthrate in America continues to decline—in 2021, for example, it slumped for the sixth consecutive year, reaching an all-time low—the fertility rate in Israel continues to rise, bucking global trends and baffling policy experts worldwide. Anyone interested in the question of children—why fewer people are having them, and what can be done to reverse this tragic and ubiquitous phenomenon—should look at Israel.
What does this tiny nation—with a population of fewer than ten million—do to encourage its citizens to fulfill the first commandment detailed in the Bible, which urges us to be fruitful and multiply? As hardened realists, we may be forgiven for first attempting to follow the money.
Examine the policies OECD members put in place to encourage people to have children, and you will see a slew of state-sponsored benefits. Thirteen Western countries give young parents tax breaks on an assortment of childcare expenses. Some nations, such as Sweden and France, even have a universal child benefit, which provides guaranteed monthly payments for each child. Israel does little of the above; it is only ahead of Mexico and the U.S. in terms of benefits for education and childcare.
So, if government funding isn’t spurring childbirth, might it be the free market itself, making life so pleasant and carefree that folks aren’t giving that third child a second thought? That, alas, isn’t the case. This year, Tel Aviv earned the dubious distinction of being crowned the OECD’s most expensive city, with cost-of-living expenses there—and throughout Israel—being, on average, 20 percent higher than in the rest of the developed world. Groceries, to name but one essential, eat up 4.65 percent of individual earnings, according to a study released this month, compared to just 1.97 percent in the Netherlands, for example. This is why the most significant Israeli social movement of recent decades was born to protest not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the price of Milky, a chocolate pudding popular with kids.
If material considerations can’t explain Israel’s high birthrate, what about culture? The Israeli Arab community, comprising about 20 percent of the nation’s population, has spent the last few decades investing heavily in careers and education. In 2018, for example, the Israeli government’s Council for Higher Education reported that the number of Arab students in Israeli colleges and universities shot up an astonishing 78.5 percent in just seven years—and the number continues to climb. At the same time, the fertility rate of Israel’s non-Jewish population took a nosedive: According to recent research from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, between 1960 and 2016, the rate of children per mother for Christian Israelis dropped from 4.7 to 2.1, and for Muslim Israelis it dropped from 9.2 in 1965 to 3.3 fifty years later. These numbers led a friend of mine, a leading Israeli Arab intellectual, to quip in a private conversation that if right-wing Jews wanted fewer Israeli Arabs living in the Jewish state, all they had to do is make sure Arabs receive a top-notch education and gain access to lucrative careers. That will stop them from having children.
Except that this apparently universal algorithm—the more educated and affluent the society, the fewer children it produces—isn’t valid when it comes to the Jewish majority in Israel. It is not only Haredi Jews, who live lives dictated by Torah values, that have large families, but secular Israelis as well. Israel is the OECD’s third most-educated country, and outranks the United States and South Korea in the percentage of citizens age twenty-five to sixty-four holding some sort of post-secondary degree.
Why, then, are so many Israelis having so many babies? Like all complex questions, this one, too, is probably too intricate to explain with a single observation. But you don’t have to be a seasoned demographer to offer up a pretty good theory for high fertility rates: tradition.
Dazzled by intense economic growth—the last decade alone saw the country’s GDP jump from $257.18 billion to $401.95 billion—Israeli Jews spent the last twenty years or so debating what sort of society they wanted to have and, repeatedly, decided that there was no inherent contradiction between modernity’s engines of growth and tradition’s rooting power. They encouraged their children to study hard, but made sure that their schools spent considerable time talking not only about science and math but also about Jewish holidays and history. They produced thrilling new pop stars—and cheered as these artists looked for inspiration in the Scriptures. More notable, perhaps, is the fact that they increasingly realized that big, loud, American-style culture wars often lead to nothing but exhaustion. Matters of faith and practice are too fluid and too beautiful to be left to zealots or, worse, lawmakers. In Israel, Jewish practice, like traditional forms of prayer, is a hyper-local affair, negotiated in small groups of friends and neighbors dedicated to its preservation. Thus, in Israel, even the most avowed atheist will recite the Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, when a parent passes away, and an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews who identify as secular still partake in traditional rites like Friday night family dinners. Faith in Israel isn’t just practiced or observed; it’s embodied.
Faith, as our rabbis and priests have been telling us for quite some time now, is a mighty source of renewable energy. It is an asset greater than a flush portfolio or fancy graduate degree. No doubt a large home, a big budget, two nannies, and a PhD might make rearing kids a bit easier. But the demographic evidence throughout the rich world clearly shows that these material goods don’t give you a reason to have kids in the first place. Modernity champions material progress. This metric of well-being teaches us to see children as a burden on our resources. Treating children as liabilities is hideously explicit in the language the climate cultists now use, as they argue that not having children is the best way to fight global warming.
In Israel, the argument goes in exactly the opposite direction. Judaism commands Masorah, the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. The Ethics of the Fathers, one of the seminal texts of Talmudic wisdom that contains the core teachings of the ancient rabbis, begins with a detailed breakdown of the Torah’s transmission from Moses himself down to every generation. To be able to hand on the noble vocation of Torah observance requires not only having more children, but also raising them to take interest and pride in their roles in the great drama that extends back to Sinai. In this adventure of faithfulness from generation to generation, God’s commandments are not a solemn duty, a burden, or the subject of legal and political battles. They adumbrate a way of life that is dynamic and joyous and generative, an opportunity to preserve the past while at the same time making a claim on the future. And in this way of life, children are integral to the Torah’s joy-giving power.
We are buffeted by modernity’s false claims about the hostility of faith to reason, and we are seduced by its remarkable ability to produce material abundance. This can make Masorah a hard task. But Israelis are succeeding; just ask any five-year-old you happen to meet on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.