Israel’s Exceptional Fertility
Author: Alex Weinreb, Dov Chernichovsky, Aviv Brill Policy Research

It is widely known that fertility levels in Israel exceed fertility levels in all other developed countries, and that this is the main factor driving Israel’s unusually high rate of population growth.

However, Israel’s fertility is not only exceptional because it is high. It is exceptional because strong pronatalist norms cut across all educational classes and levels of religiosity, and because fertility has been increasing alongside increasing age at first birth and education—at least in the Jewish population. From an international perspective, these are atypical patterns.

Fertility levels and trends

Israel’s Period Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in 2015 was 3.1, which is unusually high, and well above the population “replacement level” of 2.1. While there have been widespread and recognizable reductions in fertility over the last 150 year – the “Fertility Transition” pulling TFR to around 2-3 children per woman, and the “Second Demographic Transition” pulling it below 2 since about the 1970s – Israel is unique among OECD countries in not having followed the second of these international trends.

Total fertility rates ENG

  • Israel’s TFR is the highest among the OECD countries, and is almost one full child above the next highest fertility countries, Mexico and Turkey. Israel’s TFR is also much higher than that of BRIC countries and other emerging economies.
  • Despite a magnitude of differences on a number of other characteristics, Israel’s fertility is closest to that of its direct geographic neighbors, and falls between that of Egypt and Syria.
  • Israel’s TFR has never dropped below 2.8 children, and actually increased by 0.2 children between 1995 and 2015. With the exception of Israel, every country with a TFR greater than 2.0 in 1995 experienced a reduction in fertility by 2015.

There is considerable heterogeneity in fertility across different subpopulations within Israel, and the rise in Israeli fertility by 0.2 children over the last two decades is largely driven by the secular and traditional populations.

  • Between 1960 and 2016, the TFR of Christians dropped from 4.7 to 2.1; Druze fertility fell from 7.3 to 2.3 between 1970 and 2010; and Muslim fertility also dropped precipitously from an estimated TFR of 9.2 in 1965 to 3.3 fifty years later.
  • Since 2005, national fertility levels have risen—even as Muslim and Druze fertility have fallen and Christian fertility has remained stable—because of increases in the fertility of Israeli Jews (whose fertility declined slightly between 1960 and the 1990s, but has since increased).
  • Among Jews, the TFR among Haredim has fluctuated around 7 children per woman since the 1980s, and around 2.5 children per woman among the secular and the traditional who identify as not religious. However, Haredi fertility in the 2007 to 2013 period was lower than in the 1990s, while fertility in the non-Haredi Jewish population has increased since then.
  • Even among Jewish women who self-identify as secular and traditional but not religious, the combined TFR exceeds 2.2, making it higher than the TFR in all other OECD countries.

Israel’s unique fertility profile

Israel’s fertility is exceptional in a number of characteristics, including those relating to non-marital fertility, age at first birth, childlessness, and education levels.

Non-marital fertility

  • Across the OECD and other developed countries, there is a positive correlation between TFR and the percentage of children born outside marriage. However, this is not true for Israel: Israel has high fertility despite having one of the lowest rates of non-marital fertility (less than 10%, compared to about 40% on average in the OECD).
  • Nonetheless, non-marital fertility in Israel is rising. Across all births to women aged 25-39, the percentage born to never-married women increased from about 3% in 2000 to about 5% in 2016. Among never-married women aged 40+, it rose from 7% to 17% of all births.

Age at first birth 

  • Age at first birth has continued to increase in the OECD—driven largely by improved access to effective contraception and rising levels of women’s education and employment – and is negatively correlated with fertility levels.
  • In Israel, between 1994 and 2016, age at first birth increased by about 3 years for Christians and Druze, and by 1 year for Muslims, accompanied by an overall reduction in TFR in these populations.
  • Among Jews, age at first birth increased by about 2.8 years between 1994 and 2016, even as non-Haredi Jewish women’s TFR rose by about 0.2 children. This means that gains to fertility at older ages have outweighed reductions in fertility at younger ages.

Childlessness

  • Across countries with high contraceptive prevalence, there is no clear relationship between prevalence of childlessness and TFR. Countries in Eastern Europe tend to have both lower levels of childlessness and lower TFR than countries in Western Europe and the US, Canada, and Australia.
  • Within Israel, childlessness is comparatively low, but is more prevalent among Israeli Arabs than among Israeli Jews: 13.7% of Israeli Arab women in the 45-59 age group compared to 6.4%.

Education

  • Women’s education has long been one of the most important determinants of fertility. Because educated women have largely continued to have lower fertility than their less educated peers, rising levels of education—desirable for many reasons at both the individual and societal level—impose a fertility “cost” on societies.
  • In most population groups in Israel, as education increases, fertility declines. However, the situation is different for two population groups. For non-Haredi Jewish men, the number of children among academics and those with lower levels of education is the same. Haredi women with an academic degree give birth to their first child at a relatively late age, but by their late thirties their fertility rates converge with those of Haredi women with lower levels of education.
    Fertility ENG

The main difference in fertility between Israel and other developed countries does not only stem from the fact that, in Israel, relatively educated families – who make up a large and increasing share of all Israeli families – are having more children than their counterparts in Europe.

It’s that the difference in fertility between college-educated Israelis and their European counterparts is much greater than the difference between non-educated Israelis and their Europeans counterparts. As a direct result of these fertility patterns, a higher percentage of children in Israel are born to older parents and to more-educated parents (compared to any other OECD country).