An article in the Guardian (“The women who wish they weren’t mothers: ‘An unwanted pregnancy lasts a lifetime’”, July 16) provides stories of “women from across the world who felt pressured to have children”, in the context of the US Supreme Court overturning of Roe v Wade.
The article (an edited extract from the book ‘Undo Motherhood’ by Diana Karklin) included one story from Israel, which opened thusly:
Here, a woman who doesn’t want to have children is a threat to the social order. The reasoning goes: in order to have a bigger population than the Arabs, you need to have more Jewish babies. If you aren’t a mother, you are betraying your homeland.
The message conveyed by the quote seems clear: there’s immense social pressure put upon Israeli women to have children, motivated, in large measure, by the racist attitudes towards Arabs. This may be the opinion of one Israeli, but it also comports to the Guardian’s narrative of the Jewish state, one that doesn’t even remotely resemble reality.
First, based on comparative analyses and surveys, Israel ranks very high in the area of gender equality – which measures women’s participation in political and corporate leadership, gender wage gaps, legal support, maternity leave, etc. Further, any understanding of Israeli social phenomena relating to women must take into account their agency: As such, anyone who lives in the country, or has spent a serious amount of time here, would also know that, by and large, Israeli women are empowered, confident and make their own decisions – often independent of others’ expectations or other outside social factors.
Nonetheless, let’s address some of these externalities.
First, while in Haredi communities, motherhood is indeed seen as religious duty, the reason why Israel has the highest fertility rate in the OECD (at 3.1 children per women) is likely based on many factors. These include: an efficient healthcare system which prioritises pre-natal care, thus producing very low infant mortality rates; heavily subsidised fertility treatments and in-vitro fertilisation, paid maternity leave; workplaces which adopt family friendly policies, and subsidized pre-school which has results in a higher enrollment rates than the OEDC average.
But, there are likely other non-economic reasons why Israel is at odds with demographic trends in Western countries, such as the continued downward shift of fertility to levels far below the 2.1 “replacement level”. After all, many EU countries have health benefits for mothers and expecting mothers that exceed what Israel offers, yet have a birthrates half of that of the Jewish state. (In fact, Israel is the only developed country where, over the last 20 years, fertility has increased from an already high level.)
Israeli academic Barbara Okun, a specialist on Israeli demography, has listed some of these non-economic factors: “a family system in which parents provide significant financial and caregiving aid to their adult children; relatively egalitarian gender-role attitudes and household behaviour; the continuing importance of familist ideology and of marriage as a social institution”.
Okun also mentions, as one additional possible non-economic factor, “the role of Jewish nationalism and collective behaviour in a religious society characterized by ethno-national conflict”. However, contrary to the framing of the Israeli quoted in the Guardian, the role of the Holocaust, as well as the existential threat to the state’s existence by hostile Arab neighbors for the first several decades of statehood, in influencing Israeli decisions to have children, seems understandable, and indeed quite rational.
Let’s also remember that, in the context of high fertility as an ethno-national goal, it was none other than Yasser Arafat who reportedly boasted about “the womb of the Palestinian woman,” as the “strongest weapon against Zionism”.
But, now we’ll add one more possible factor for the country’s high fertility rate: Israeli happiness.
The most recent world happiness report ranked Israel 9th happiest country in the world, a ranking that’s similar to that of previous years. Though this strikes some as counter-intuitive, it actually makes sense if you understand the word “happiness” in a broader sense: finding meaning in your life, enjoying the freedom to express your religious and/or ethnic identity unencumbered by de facto or de jour restrictions, and a confidence in the imperative of your state’s national endeavor.
As such, there is some research that suggests that people who are happier tend to have more children than those who aren’t. The article by the British Psychological Society included this:
“data showed that people who reported more happiness at the first time point tended to have more children at the second time point. This…survey also had the advantage that it looked at different forms of happiness. Life satisfaction, more positive emotions, and more purpose and meaning in life were all independently associated with having more children, even after accounting for other factors like income, age and gender.
The current studies suggest that children may not only serve as a source of happiness, but happiness itself is linked to future reproduction.”
Finally, is it at least somewhat true that there are social pressures put upon Israelis to have more children? Well, yes and no.
To recount an experience that’s likely not unique in Israel: this writer was registering for a pension some years ago, when the pension rep asked, while going through the necessary paperwork, ‘how many children do you have’? At the time, I had one, and told him so. His response: ‘Oh, you need to have more!’. I laughed, and cateogorised the chutzpah of a man who I didn’t know as simply an ‘Israeli moment’ – Israelis (who often, for better or worse, treat everyone as if they’re part of their extended family) being far more likely than people in other countries to ask personal questions and give completely unsolicited advice to complete strangers.
So, yes, there was ‘pressure’, but not in any serious way. The pension rep didn’t follow up with threatening phone calls or texts to make sure I followed his advice, accuse me of being insufficiently Zionist or report me to authorities. I didn’t face the prospect of being socially ostracised or losing my job if I insisted on having only one child, or none at all. Israel is, after all, a liberal democracy where, despite strongly pronatalist policies and attitudes, individuals are free to make their own decisions regarding family, children and other purely personal matters which belong outside the civic arena.