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April 17, 2014 | 17th Nisan 5774

The demographic threat

Galilee Diary #369, December 23, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

How many children must a man have to fulfill the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply?” One boy and one girl… Even if a man has fulfilled the mitzvah… he is commanded, according to the sages, not to stop begetting children as long as he is able, for anyone who adds another soul to the Jewish people is as if he had built the world…
-Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of marital relations, 15:4, 15:16

It is quite common to hear in Israel (and I suppose in a lot of other places as well) expressions of concern about the danger that the Other will use the weapon of the womb to defeat us. When we lived in Beersheba for a year in 1970, we had to listen to our Ashkenazi coworkers complain at social gatherings about the Moroccan immigrants who “multiply like rabbits.” And of course, it is common to hear, even in the highest levels of polite society in Israel today, people expressing concern about how Israel will be able to survive as a Jewish state if the Arab citizens use their natural growth rate to tip the balance to an Arab majority. That’s one reason that we need to find Jews wherever we can in the world and help them make aliyah (see previous Galilee Diary entry), to compensate for our low birthrate. Recently, someone told me that the reason that the ultra-Orthodox have such large families is in order to gain demographic superiority over the secular population who are currently the majority.

Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the even of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us…

We all know how Chapter 1 of Exodus continues – Pharaoh’s methods of “dealing shrewdly” included enslavement and the killing of male babies.

We of course have babies out of love or generativity. We would never use our wombs as weapons, bringing children into the world as a tool in the struggle for political dominance. Only Others would do a thing like that. They subjugate their normal parental instincts and concerns, their own personal fulfillment and economic wellbeing, to the long term need of their group for power.

I have to admit I’m skeptical of this line of reasoning. Indeed, perhaps I should have called this entry “The demagogic threat” instead of “The demographic threat.” Ratcheting up concern about the demographic threat makes certain assumptions about the inhumanity of the Other that are not constructive; worse, it raises the question, “What can we do about it?” the answers to which range from the bizarre (subsidize Jewish wombs by giving financial incentives to Jews who have large families) to the unmentionable.

A few weeks ago we hosted a small federation mission for an abbreviated version of our standard encounter program with Israeli Arabs. We met with a couple of 19 year old Arab women studying to be teachers at a local teachers’ seminary. Both of them defined themselves as religious Moslems, though only one wore a headscarf. Before we met them one of the guests had asked me my thoughts on the demographic threat. I suggested she check for anecdotal statistics during our visit. Indeed, one girl had 40 uncles and aunts, 5 siblings, and anticipated having no more than three children. Her friend showed the same trend, though with less extreme a history. I have done this exercise dozens of times with hundreds of middle class or aspiring-to-middle class Arabs, and never gotten a different result. And the Christian Arabs of Israel, who tend to be more westernized than the Moslems, already have a lower birthrate than the Jews.

It seems clear to me that the answer to the “demographic threat” in Israel is integration, educational opportunity, and economic advancement. But when I say that the answer to the “demographic threat” is college scholarships, people think they’re supposed to laugh at my joke.

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