Children of Israel
By SHMUEL ROSNER
TEL AVIV — Israel likes children and it wants more of them. It has high fertility rates — the highest, in fact, of all the states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: almost 3 children per household, compared with an O.E.C.D. average of just over 1.7. It invests a lot of money in making fertility clinics and treatments accessible to its citizens.
The main reason for this support is obvious: The Jewish people are small in number, and Israel is a small country surrounded by many enemies.
And yet, under a cut implemented last week, my household will now receive just under $140 a month in state subsidies for my four children, down from $250 a month.
Why? Because Israel’s concerns about demographics aren’t just about quantity.
Almost all Jewish Israelis want the country to remain a Jewish homeland, and so it must maintain a Jewish majority. They also want it to be a democracy, both liberal and economically strong.
And those goals may be threatened by the two Israeli sub-groups who have the most children — ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredis, and Arabs. The birthrate for Jewish women in Israel is almost 3, whereas it is 3.5 for Arabs and 6.5 for Haredis.
It's hard to get TFR estimates for Jewish Israeli women who aren't Ultras. My guess is that they are fairly high by OECD standards, but it would be nice to have a link. Anybody?
Israel’s Bureau of Statistics says that by 2019 a majority of school children will be either ultra-Orthodox or Arab. And these are just the groups whose participation in the work force is low and among whom the poverty rate is high.
What's the defection rate from the Ultras? I recall an article on a Brooklyn neighborhood, where somebody pointed out that if an ultra-Orthodox young man gets up one morning and trims his facial hair in a more ironic manner, well, he's now a hipster. And this happens not all that infrequently.
High fertility among these groups appears to have created an economic problem that is only exacerbated by state subsidies. Dan Meridor, a former finance minister known for his liberal views, formulated the problem this way back in 2010: “There are whole social classes in the population, especially where not everyone works, with many children born with the state’s encouragement.” ...
When the cuts became effective last week, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said: “It has been proven repeatedly that child allowances do not get people out of poverty. They perpetuate poverty.” If Arabs and Haredis received fewer subsidies, the thinking goes, they might enter the work force or have fewer children (or both), and so they might be less poor.
This is a reasonable line of thinking. Births among Arabs and Haredis remain high, but they have declined in recent years, possibly because of a previous round of cuts in subsidies. And more Haredis seem to be joining the work force because of growing social and economic pressure.
My hunch is the Israeli government generally views the Ultras as a demographic reserve: it subsidizes healthy men to sit around studying the Torah and procreating to boost the overall Jewish birth rate. But when the government decides they have enough Jews and thus turns off the welfare spigot, how fast can these guys go from tax consumers to tax contributors? (My guess is that the Israeli military has studied this kind of question in detail, but I don't know what answers they came up with.)
There are also political and cultural reasons behind the government’s move. Muslim Arabs and Haredis aren’t dreaming the Zionist dream of a secular Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. And for the Israelis who are, be they secular or Zionist-religious, Arabs make Israel feel less Jewish while Haredis make it feel too Jewish.
In other words, Israel’s love of children is conditional: It wants more only so long as having more advances its goals. Last week’s cuts in subsidies show that those allowances were always less a measure of social justice (supporting those in need) than a means of social planning (supporting desired demographic trends).
Deploying subsidies as incentives isn’t inherently bad, of course. And the need for both Haredis and Arabs to join the work force and better integrate into Israeli society is real, even urgent. But there’s something depressing about making them do that this way.
I can live without that $110 or so I’m losing, but I realize the cuts will really hurt some of the Haredis and Arabs they target. Yet do I worry about that? Well, that’s how the incentive is supposed to work. And however much this disturbs me, I must admit that, like many other Jewish Israelis, I have come to feel alienated from and impatient with Haredis and Arabs. As a result I see less the needs of their children than the burdens they’ve placed on Israel.
There is much that Americans can learn from Israelis.