SOUTH Africans take it for granted that they live in a large country where the population of 56 million fits easily into it, and they can drive for hours in the countryside and pass through only a few towns with few people. Not all residents live well; aside from the poisonous racial obsession, most are poor and unemployed. The country is not an unqualified success by most indicators.
But other countries which are regarded as eminently successful, such as Israel, have their own problems. The Zionist ideal of Jews going there to build a flourishing society has been immensely successful, but success depends on the criteria used to measure it. Demographers from Israeli universities quoted in Haaretz are united in the view that Israel’s changing demography within current borders poses extremely hard challenges which could undermine the successes. Israel is not the same country it was in the early days of Zionist pioneers, when it pleaded for Jews to come and help build the kibbutzim and cities, and South African Jews and others responded enthusiastically.
The figures are startling. Today Israel is, worldwide, the third most densely populated developed country, after the Netherlands and South Korea. It is growing so rapidly – 2% a year versus just 0.5% for OECD countries – that by 2035 it will be the most densely populated.
If its population, currently at 8 million, reaches 18 million by 2050, 98% of Israelis will have to live in massive apartment towers containing hundreds of units each – essentially tiny cities. Parts of Singapore and Hong Kong already live like that, but people there have small families. Israeli families average 3.1 children; Singapore and Hong Kong average one.
The implications of a dense population are apparent in daily life. Try driving on the roads, which are the most clogged up in the developed world, with more cars per paved street than Spain, which comes second. Medical care is stretched: at 94%, Israeli hospital emergency rooms have the highest occupancy rate in the developed world. One demographer says you can’t measure the standard of living without relating to quality of life, such as “the ability to spend time outdoors without being overwhelmed by the masses.” Lake Kinneret’s shores, for example, are closed during Passover when they reach full capacity.
This is where demographers enter contentious territory; they say excessive population growth relates to the widespread view in Israel that “children are a blessing.” It encourages childbirth with child allowances and gives discounts for large families. Many Israelis, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox sector, have very large families, sometimes more than 10 children. It is almost heretical to suggest a negative view of this. But it is contrary to most developed countries, who expect future populations to shrink – Japan has already begun to do this.
There is also sensitive politics involved; Jews still believe Israelis face being overwhelmed numerically by Palestinians. Yet birth-rates among Israeli Arabs dispute this: over the last three decades the Israeli Arab birth-rate has dropped from an average of nine per woman to three. This does not account for the larger political dimension – the future of the West Bank and its relation with Israel. The demographers assume a political agreement will be reached for two national entities.
These figures give much food for thought, but what do they mean practically for South African Jews, many of whose children are immigrating to western countries such as Australia? It is not clear. Perhaps their concept of city life, including Israeli cities, will change; other world cities where people live happily are also densely populated. Changing one’s view is not easy.