Israel has been regarded as having one of the highest fertility rates in the higher-income Western world, and this is true. However, the rate has been declining in the past decade. This is despite the fact that until the end of September 2023, the death rate was at a record low, and the immigration rate was higher than normal (and could rise even more due to antisemitism abroad and Jewish support for Israel after October 7).The reason for the decline in the rate of population growth is the long-term decline in fertility rates in all segments of the population and for all levels of religiosity, according to a 38-page report on Israeli demography issued by Jerusalem’s Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.
Where does Israel’s growth rate compare?
At the end of 2023, Israel’s population was 9.84 million, a growth rate of 1.86% since the end of 2022. Although this is a high rate of growth relative to other high-income countries, it is lower than the average rate in the past decade.Prof. Alex Weinreb, Taub’s demography area and research director, reviews these trends and the issues accompanying them, such as the increase in the birth rate among unmarried women and the continuing increase in the number of fertility treatments. His analysis appeared as a chapter in the Singer Annual Report Series’ State of the Nation Report: Society, Economy and Policy 2023. Until 2019, Weinreb was a professor in the Department of Sociology and the founding director of the Health and Society Undergraduate Major at the University of Texas in Austin. Prior to moving there, he was a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Since 2018 – except for a small increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, until 2022 – fertility rates in Israel have been on a steep downward trend. The drop in fertility is seen among Jews, Arabs, and others; however, the birth rates among the largest religious populations — both Jewish and Muslim — remain relatively high.
Between 2018 and 2022, the fertility rate among Jewish women dropped from 3.17 to 3.03 children. Among Muslim and Christian women, the drop was even more pronounced: from 3.20 to 2.91 among Muslims and from 2.06 to 1.68 among Christians. The fertility rate among Druze women also decreased, from 2.16 to 1.85.The downward trend in fertility intensified during the initial months of 2023, and between March and September, it was much lower than in the same period in any of the previous years. During the first nine months of 2023, the fertility rate among Jewish women was 3.6% lower than during the same period in 2022, while that of Arab women was 3.1% lower. For the first time since 2020, the pandemic did not affect the mortality rate in 2023.
APART FROM the normal seasonality in mortality, which tends to reach a peak in January and February and a low in the summer months, the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on the death rate in 2021 and 2022. During the initial months of 2021, Israel was in the midst of an accelerated vaccination campaign, which led to a rapid decline in deaths. Again, though, from August to September, there was a large wave of mortality. In January and February 2022, mortality was particularly high due to the spread of the newer Omicron variant; however, during the rest of the year, it was relatively normal. This return to the standard pattern of seasonality in mortality continued in 2023.Until the end of September 2023, Israel was on a path towards a lower-than-ever crude mortality rate – fewer than five deaths per 1,000 people. This figure implies that life expectancy in Israel is returning to the upward trend that characterized the pre-pandemic period. It remains to be seen, however, whether mortality during the current war will delay this process and, if so, for how long, Weinreb wrote. During the 2010s, immigration to Israel accounted for 20% of population growth each year. In 2022, this changed. The sharp increase in the number of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine since the outbreak of that war in February 2022 has increased the impact of immigration on population growth in Israel. The level of net migration in 2022 was 2.5 times the average during the five years preceding the pandemic. Thus, 39% of the increase in Israel’s population in 2022 was the result of net migration, which is double the normal rate. The total number of immigrants to Israel during the first half of 2023 was similar to that in 2022, as was their age profile. The largest age group among the immigrants in 2023 was 30 to 44. Weinreb noted that this constitutes a challenge to the absorption of immigrants in Israel, since it is more difficult for older immigrants to integrate into the labor market in their profession than it is for younger ones. The main difference between the immigrants in 2022 and those in 2023 is the lower rate of children and the elderly. This means that the wave of immigration in 2023 will cost Israel much less; fewer are of school age, and fewer will require hospitalization and other public health services. No doubt, the current war in Israel has brought the level of immigration to much lower levels during the final months of 2023. The latest figures show that the rate of immigration fell significantly in October. If the figures for November and December show a similar trend, the total number of immigrants entering Israel in 2023 will drop to its 2018-2019 level of around 35,000. However, applications for aliyah from Jews in France and North America are significantly up. Although the increase in Israel’s population is on a downward trend, in 2022, it was still high relative to other high-income countries.
Are religious communities of all faiths on the rise in Israel?
THE STUDY presents the rates of population growth for the period 2015-2022, according to source (natural increase or immigration) and religion.In 2022, the Jewish and Christian populations grew by 1.7% and 1.3%, respectively; the Druze population grew by 1.1%; and the Muslim population grew by twice as much. Net migration was responsible for about 25% of the growth of the Jewish population – far beyond its share of population growth in 2021 (16%) – due to the large number of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Ukraine that year. The total rate of growth in the Muslim population remained the highest despite the decline in fertility rates in this population group. Net migration was the source of only 7% of that growth. Among the Druze, migration did not contribute at all to population growth; the only source was natural increase. The rate of natural increase among Christians is the lowest among all the religious groups in Israel, as it has been for many years. This is particularly due to their previous drop in fertility. Nonetheless, their overall rate of population growth remained relatively high due to net migration (66% of the growth in 2022). The group referred to as “Other” (with no religious classification) is characterized by a different pattern of demographic growth and a different source of growth. Between 2015 and 2019, this group’s annual rate of population growth rose from 3.9% to 5.7%, making it the fastest-growing population group in Israel, including ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim). In 2022, the “Other” population shot up by 11.2%, which translates into 48,000 individuals. Given these numbers, it is not surprising that in most years, between 75% and 90% of their population growth has been the result of net migration. In 2022, net migration was the source of 97% of the growth in this group. Weinreb stressed that “Others” are a very productive population economically. Their rate of employment is higher, and their work hours are longer than any other group in Israel, including secular Jews. Consequently, they make a significant contribution to the Israeli economy, making “Others” a particularly desirable group among immigrants from an economic perspective. An interesting phenomenon in the context of fertility is the ongoing increase in the birth rate among unmarried Jewish women. Between 2012 and 2022, these births accounted for 8.5% of the total in Israel. This proportion is particularly low relative to women in Europe and North America, where the rates have been rising for many years. This phenomenon apparently exists primarily among secular Jews, since it can be assumed that the birth rate among unmarried women in the haredi, religious, and Muslim communities is negligible.
ANOTHER PHENOMENON worth mentioning is the consistent growth in fertility (in-vitro fertilization, or IVF) treatments in Israel. On a global level, there is a close association between plummeting fertility and the increase in age at first birth. This association reflects the long-term increase in the level of education among women, their economic independence, their aspirations, and their capabilities at work and in the family. However, there is also a simple biological component in the decline in “fertility ability,” namely that the likelihood of becoming pregnant after the age of 30 declines each year.The Health Ministry has approved a total of 26 IVF centers in Israel, and in 2020, they performed 50,680 treatment cycles. The number of IVF-assisted births in Israel continues to rise, and in 2019, the number was 9,176, or 5% of all live births. According to Weinreb, it is likely that this trend will continue since it is connected to late fertility or an increase in infertility, which is related to age or medical issues and the intensifying downward trend in male sperm count. “Although in recent years there has been a decline in live IVF-assisted births in North America, Australia, and Japan, in Israel, the number has been increasing since 2020. And since all of the treatments have significant economic implications, it can be said that it is the taxpayer who is, to a large extent, paying the price for the risk of delaying fertility.”