Fertility in Israel stands at 3.1 children per woman – the highest fertility rate in the OECD, and almost one full child above the next highest fertility countries, Mexico and Turkey. To put Israel’s fertility in historical perspective, among Western countries fertility was last as high as 3.1 in the US toward the end of the baby boom in the mid-1960s, in Italy in 1931, in Germany in 1914, in the UK in 1908, and in France in 1889.
Not only is Israel’s fertility high among developed countries, it is also higher than fertility rates in emerging economies. In fact, despite a magnitude of differences in other areas – including GDP – Israel’s fertility is most similar to that of its direct geographic neighbors: Egypt and Syria.
People often mention two factors that encourage Israel’s high fertility: the cultural aspect, which is anchored in the historical experience of the Jewish people, and particular policies that make it easier for Israeli women to balance work and family (such as leave for sick children, reduced working hours following the return from maternity leave (“nursing hour”), and part-time, flexible positions).
Yet these arguments are less convincing when we compare Jews in Israel to their counterparts elsewhere. Although they share the same history, fertility among Jews in every other developed country is considerably lower – including among Jews living in Europe, where welfare policies are more generous than in Israel.
Another argument is that Israel’s high fertility is driven by certain parts of the population, such as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women, having many children (the fertility rate of Haredi women is indeed quite high at around 7 children per woman).
However, the rise in Israel’s fertility over the last two decades has been largely driven by the secular and traditional Jewish populations, whose combined fertility rate is greater than 2.2, which is itself higher than the overall fertility in any other OECD country.
Among the Arab Israeli population, fertility trends have followed patterns similar to those in the rest of the modern world – decreasing significantly since the 1960s in conjunction with increased education levels and employment participation rates among women. As such, Israel’s fertility has risen in recent decades despite Haredi fertility remaining relatively stable and despite a decline in fertility among Arab Israelis.
Furthermore, Israel’s fertility is not only exceptional because it is high. It is also exceptional because strong pronatalist norms cut across all educational classes and levels of religiosity, and because fertility has been increasing alongside a rise in the age at which women first give birth and increasing education levels — at least in the Jewish population. From an international perspective, these are extremely unusual patterns.
For example, Israeli women are having more kids even though they are having them later in life and working more. In fact, non-Haredi Jewish women in Israel have higher employment rates than women in any other OECD country, except for Iceland. Around the world, both increased age at first birth and increased labor force participation are generally correlated with declining fertility, yet the trends in Israel do not follow suit.
Additionally, in almost every other developed country, more educated women have fewer children than less educated women. However, by age 40, Israeli women with a college degree have the same number of children as those whose highest level of education is high school.
To a large degree, the reasons behind Israel’s fertility trends remain a mystery. However, they will continue to impact Israeli society. As direct result of these fertility patterns, a higher percentage of children in Israel are being born to older and more-educated parents than is the case in other developed countries.
This has implications for education, social and health policy. Older parents tend to be wealthier and more financially stable, which influences their own children’s outcomes across a wide range of domains, and parent’s levels of education also have indirect effects on outcomes for other children in their neighborhoods, which allows for positive spillover effects.
As policy makers look into the future, these implications of Israel’s exceptional fertility profile need to be taken into account.