Battle of the Wombs


JAFFA—My husband is bugging me to clean out our shelter. That’s the thick-walled concrete room you’ll find in just about every house in Israel. If Saddam Hussein lets loose with biological weapons or worse, we are supposed to huddle inside wearing gas masks and listening for the all clear on the radio.

I rolled up my sleeves the other day to tackle the chore, but after opening the shelter door I lost heart and went back to playing Freecell. The shelter is packed, floor to ceiling, with suitcases, old lamps, dusty wedding presents, and boxes stuffed with memorabilia from my first-grade report card to my abandoned Ph.D. dissertation.

I haven’t seen the gas masks in five years and have no idea where I stuck them.

I wouldn’t wear mine, anyway. They are really uncomfortable, especially if you try to smoke with one on. Actually, I consider myself prepared, having stocked up on diet cola and several cartons of chocolate chip cookies.

Anyway, the “biological bomb” that Israelis are biting their fingernails over these days does not belong to Saddam. It belongs to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat. He boasts about it all the time.

“The womb of the Arab woman,” Arafat says smugly, promising ultimate victory over the Jews, “is my strongest weapon.”

The updated CIA 2002 factbooks on Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip suggest Arafat is not making an idle boast.

There are 6 million Israelis, the CIA says, 4.8 million of them Jews and 1.2 million Arabs. In the territories, there are 3.4 million Palestinians, 2.2 million on the West Bank and 1.2 million in Gaza.

Do the math. A total of 4.8 million Jews and 4.6 million Arabs live on this tiny sliver of embattled land.

Oh, you say, there are more Jews than Arabs. Well, honey, not for long.

For one thing, Israelis are old, and getting older. Only 27 percent of Israelis are below the age of 15, while 63 percent are between 15 and 64. Nearly 10 percent are 65 and older.

An astonishing 45 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are below the age of 15, and 52 percent are between 15 and 64. A tiny 3.6 percent is over 65.

Israel’s population growth rate is a mere 1.48 percent. The Palestinians enjoy a growth rate of about 3.5 percent.

But here’s the clincher. The fertility rate is 2.54 children for a woman in Israel, 4.77 kids for our sisters in the West Bank, and 6.29 babies for our beleaguered cousins in the Gaza Strip.

Those figures make the hair stand up on the heads of many Israeli politicians and keep researchers busy calculating future population statistics.

Demographic experts groan over the population growth rates in both Israel and the territories, which they say are among the highest in the world. They estimate that the population will double here every 17 years.

They warn that such unchecked growth could have a horrific impact on the quality of life and that we may see future generations fleeing the prophesied “Calcutta environment.”

By 2015, the experts say, Israel’s population will have increased 20 percent, the West Bank’s by a hefty 56 percent, and Gaza’s by an astounding 72 percent. That’s a lot of babies.

A leading Israeli population authority, Arnon Sofer of Haifa University, calculates that by 2020 there will be 6.4 million Jews and 8.8 million Arabs in the area comprising Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. That means a 58 percent Arab majority.

While Arafat puts his faith in the Arab womb, Israelis have counted on Jewish immigration to keep Israel a Jewish state. The arrival here of nearly a million Russian Jews has provided some demographic breathing space, but hardly enough to alter the inevitable.

Unless there is a new wave of anti-Semitism, it is doubtful Israel will see another such influx. The majority of Jewish communities outside Israel are flourishing and many Jews in the Diaspora are totally assimilated.

All this gives the Israeli right wing hives. For many, the demography battle is Israel’s most urgent problem, far more important than Saddam’s Scuds, war with the Palestinians, the economic crisis, or the coming elections.

In September, the long-dormant, government-sponsored Public Council for Demography sprang back to life, thanks to the minister for labor and social affairs, Shlomo Benizri, a member of the ultra-religious, right-wing Shas Party.

The Council had been convened and disbanded over the years amid complaints from women’s groups and charges of racism. Now it is back, with a mandate to encourage Jewish women to have more children. It wants to use government grants, housing benefits, tax breaks, and other incentives.

The mere existence of the Council infuriates the leading women’s organizations, which complain that the panel’s aim is to keep women at home churning out babies. They also worry that the panel will seek to limit the right to abortion.

Other critics point to newly released, official statistics that show nearly one in five Israelis living below the poverty line. What Israel needs, they say, is not more babies but a decent life for the children we already have.

According to statistics compiled by the National Insurance Institute and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, 1.17 million Israelis (19.6 percent of the population) are poverty-stricken. Of that number, 531,000 are children—a horrifying 26.9 percent of all Israeli children.

“Hopefully the Council will meet a much needed death,” said Naomi Chazan, a member of the Knesset from the opposition Meretz Party. “It revives the notion of a womb for hire—I thought that went out with bodices. It is tangibly, patently racist.”

For Naomi, the solution to Israel’s demographic problems is not to try to defeat the Arabs in a battle of wombs. The answer, she says, is the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“We would not have to worry about being outnumbered if there were two states,” she said. “If we want to keep democracy and a Jewish state then we need a Palestinian state. We should be investing in coexistence and not in distorting birth patterns.”

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