Birthrate Politics in Zion: Judaism, Nationalism, and Modernity under the British Mandate

Birthrate Politics in Zion: Judaism, Nationalism, and Modernity under the British Mandate

by Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman


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Despite both national and traditional imperatives to have many children, the birthrate of the Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine declined steadily from 1920-1948. During these years Jews were caught in contradictions between political and social objectives, religion, culture, and individual needs. Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman takes a deep and detailed look at these diverse and decisive issues, including births and abortions during this period, the discourse about birthrate, and practical attempts to implement policies to counter the low birthrate. Themes that emerge include the effect of the Holocaust, economics, ethnicity, efforts by public figures to increase birthrate, and the understanding that women in the society were viewed as entirely responsible for procreation. Providing a deep examination of the day-to-day lives of Jewish families in British Mandate Palestine, this book shows how political objectives are not only achieved by political agreements, public debates, and battlefields, but also by the activities of ordinary men, women, and families.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253028983
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/09/2017
Series: Perspectives on Israel Studies
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman is a historian and Associate Professor of the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Read an Excerpt


"Collective Self-Suicide"

The Decline in the Yishuv's Birthrate


"The statistics speak a cruel language," wrote a Yishuv newspaper, Hamashkif, in 1941. The Jewish birthrate in British-ruled Palestine had reached a nadir, while the local Arab population was producing children at an exceptionally high rate. The figures were from the previous year, which had set a record for both a nadir of births and an acme of abortions until 1941 came and broke it. Yet the Yishuv had been keeping its birthrate low for years.

A census was conducted by the British Mandate administration in 1922, but it was a limited operation. From that year onward there are partial figures regarding the number of births in Palestine. The first comprehensive census was conducted in 1931; presumably, another such census would have been done in 1941, in keeping with the ten-year census cycle that was common practice throughout the British Empire, had World War II not intervened. The Statistical Department of the Zionist Executive was founded in 1924, in recognition of the crucial importance of quantitative statistical data collection and analysis for the realization of the Zionist idea and the Yishuv's development. The Statistical Department conducted its own surveys, designed to provide precise snapshots of the Yishuv over several dimensions, among them population, immigration, birthrate, death rate, agriculture, and manufacturing. Its first statistical compendium on the Yishuv, which set the template for those that followed, was published in 1929 by David Gurevich, who had headed the department from its inception. But its data collection project provided the Yishuv's governing bodies with only some of the figures they needed. There were difficulties, most centrally the relative scantiness of raw statistical material about births, and all the more so about abortions carried out outside the law. Two other problems required special attention. The first was that the Yishuv was a young population. The percentage of young people of childbearing age was unusually high, much more so than in European countries. As a result, there were, relatively, a large number of births, more than in societies with a more balanced age distribution. The statistician had to take this into account in seeking out "the true intensity of births and deaths," as the Yishuv's senior statistician and demographer, Roberto Bachi, put it. The second problem was the multifarious nature of the Jewish population. True, the Yishuv was small and young, but it also was extremely varied in its origins and included a large number of subcultures and communities. That being the case, an authentic portrayal of the Yishuv's birthrate and birth prevention could not be drawn simply by examining the data regarding the Yishuv as a whole. It was necessary to analyze the demographic information in depth and see how it broke down in relation to the social divisions that were salient characteristics of the Jewish population.

On the eve of World War I, a typical Jewish family in Palestine brought an average of five children into the world. The marriage rate was high and the marriage age relatively young. Very few marriages were childless. On the face of it, this situation might have been expected to continue following the war and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine. But over the course of the Mandate, from 1920 to 1948, the birthrate steadily declined. The story of the Yishuv's birthrate is presented in this chapter as a story of decline. That decline's varied causes are analyzed in the chapter that follows.

The figures in table 2 show the birthrate declining from the 1920s onward. This decline is especially pronounced given the significant nominal growth in the Yishuv's population from successive waves of Jewish immigration (411,000 immigrants during the years 1920–1946). The absolute number of births also needs to be considered in light of the notable increase in the population. For example, while in the years 1936–1942 the number of births remains almost the same, the fact that the size of the Yishuv increased significantly means the birthrate was actually declining, as the figures in the second column show. Furthermore, the numbers provided by the Mandate administration, on which the Yishuv's statisticians based their calculations, showed the Jewish birthrate declining year by year. But the rate was computed on the basis of the number of Jews who immigrated legally and were thus registered with the Mandate administration. They did not take into account the number of illegal immigrants, which rose steadily during the 1930s. If these were included, the Yishuv birthrate was even lower than table 2 shows. Such considerations provide the basis for the full picture presented in this chapter.

For most of the 1920s, the percentage of births in the Yishuv was relatively high, twice that in Western countries and three times as high as that of the Jews in those countries. The year 1924 marked the beginning of a large wave of immigration and a period of economic optimism and relative calm in Jewish-Arab relations. In that year, the Yishuv recorded the highest birthrate of the 1920s. The maternity ward of Hadassah hospital in Tel Aviv, in danger of not being able to serve enough people with a deluge of births, desperately asked for more beds, equipment, and midwives. Two years later, the hospital's director, Dr. Mechulam Levontin, warned the Hadassah executive in Jerusalem that the situation in the maternity ward was no less than a catastrophe. No more women could be admitted; there simply was not enough space. The ward's medical staff complained daily about overcrowding when, at the end of 1927, between twenty-three and twenty-five women were admitted each day. The doctors and nurses warned that the crush was a health hazard. "We are sorry, but also happy, to note that during the month of December our maternity ward has suffered from a huge bout of women in labor," the hospital cautioned in a report, even as it rejoiced in the high birthrate.

The relatively high fertility of the 1920s could be attributed not only to the Torah's command to "be fruitful and multiply," which Dr. Avraham Katzenelson, a member of the Zionist leadership, claimed "is the Hebrew nation's oldest instinct," but also to the young profile of the Jewish immigrants to Palestine, the high marriage rate, and in particular the relatively high proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews (today called Haredim, but then referred to as the Old Yishuv) and of Jews from the Islamic world (Sephardim or Oriental Jews, today usually referred to as Mizrahim). Both these populations were noted for their high birthrates.

In 1929 the trend began to reverse and the first signs of a declining birthrate became evident. It is known that Europeans of a certain strata seek to reduce their number of births, Katzenelson remarked at the time. The trend continued in the years that followed, when, with the growth in the Jewish population, the birthrate declined. It was especially notable in Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, founded in 1909, which attracted tens of thousands of immigrants and grew rapidly as a result. (In 1914, Tel Aviv had 3,600 inhabitants; by 1925 there were 34,000, and in 1936 the city's population reached 120,000.) Yet the number of births actually declined, from 1,500 in 1929 to 1,200 in 1931. The number continued to shrink in the years that followed, and the ebb in births grew more pronounced by the year, as the figures in table 3 show.

Some 280,000 Jews settled in Palestine in the 1930s, but this did not quell Bachi's demographic fears. The Yishuv, including a large swathe of both the new immigrants and the veteran population, was, in his words, "committing collective suicide." All those cognizant of the problem were aware in 1939 that the birthrate was insufficient to keep the population at its current level. Yet the trend continued and grew even worse. The lowest point seems to have come in 1941, when less than 10,000 babies were born in a Yishuv that numbered 475,000 inhabitants. The number of births was virtually identical to that in 1935, when only 320,000 Jews were living in Palestine.

In 1941 the Hebrew press reported that the birthrate in the Yishuv's "modern" settlements was as low as in the European countries with the most meager fertility figures. "Among the Jews, a fourth child is an exception. Even a third and second child are rare," one newspaper item related. Dr. Tova Berman-Yeshurun, a public health professional and advocate for larger families, reported that, among a sample of 2,180, a full 10 percent were childless, 45 percent had one child, 30 percent had two, and only 15 percent had more than two children. Her figures are consistent with Bachi's more comprehensive findings of 1943, according to which half of all families were childless or had one child only, a quarter had two children, and only a quarter had more than two children.

Bachi was pessimistic about the Yishuv's future. According his statistical model, the Yishuv's rate of natural increase in 1927 was 40 percent per generation (13 percent per year), while in 1941 the rate of natural increase was negative — he predicted an 11 percent decline in population over a generation (14 percent a year). Bachi termed this a threat to the Yishuv's development. Demographers were not the only ones concerned. "Even a person unfamiliar with the numbers," wrote Yocheved Bat-Rachel, a kibbutz member and a leadership figure in the Yishuv and the Women Workers' Movement, "can see the peril in this situation."

The number of births rose somewhat in 1943. On average, that year families in the Yishuv had 2.96 children. In this year, natural increase (births minus deaths) rose to 21 per 1,000. The previous year it had been 14. The birthrate per 1,000 Jews rose from 23 in 1942 to 29 in 1943.31 But the demographic alarm did not diminish; it continued through 1944. Given the growth in the Arab population, the feeling was that it was not sufficient for the Yishuv to maintain its population. It had to expand. The general consensus was that, to guarantee the Yishuv's future, each of its families had to have at least three children. Immigration had dwindled considerably and could no longer be depended on to make up the difference. In the face of the Holocaust, Bachi argued, the Yishuv could not "live on the precipice of the frighteningly swift demographic attenuation of what remains of the Diaspora." In other words, the Jewish population in Palestine could no longer look to immigration to increase its numbers. It could accomplish that only itself, by having more children.

The birthrate recovery continued in 1945. More than 14,000 babies were born, and the average number of children per woman rose to 3.3. That was not enough, however, to cause optimism among those fearful of the Yishuv's demographic future. In 1946, the Committee on Birthrate Problems established by the Yishuv leadership in 1943, argued that the rise was not a long-range phenomenon. There was reason for concern that any economic downturn or political problem would again send the birthrate careening down a slippery slope. Articles in the Hebrew press argued that the upswing in the birthrate was anomalous, a product of specific circumstances rather than a fundamental change. Some writers argued that the increased birthrate did not, in fact, signal any improvement in the demographic situation. After all, the rate had merely equaled that of ten years previously, meaning that it was far from guaranteeing a significant increase in the Jewish population.

They were right; the recovery was short lived. Hatzofeh, the newspaper of the religious Zionist movement, reported in June 1945 that the birthrate was declining again. In the first half of 1946 it was lower than it had been in the comparable part of 1945. The decline continued in 1947 and 1948, years in which thousands of young people died in Israel's long War of Independence. Concern about the Yishuv's future only grew more acute.

The Ethnic and Communal Breakdown

The picture offered so far is a general one. But the birthrate varied widely within the subgroups that made up the Yishuv. The economist Yitzhak Kanievsky offered a detailed breakdown of this sort in 1944. It showed that, with the exception of mothers of Russian origin, all Yishuv mothers of European (Ashkenazi) origin had less than two children. Small families were largely an Ashkenazi phenomenon. In 1941, Ashkenazi mothers had, on average, fewer children than any other sector — only 1.7. Yet even within the Ashkenazi community there were differences. Families of Austrian extraction held the record for the fewest children, 1.38 on the average. These were followed by Germans, who had an average of 1.47 children, while families from Czechoslovakia had an average of 1.49 children.

These low numbers stood in stark contrast to those of Mizrahi families, who in the same period had an average of four to five children. Again, there were differences of degree between countries of origin (see table 4). Hedwig Gellner, a well-known social worker in Austria who settled in Palestine and headed the Tel Aviv municipal Department of Social Welfare, reported at the beginning of the 1940s that many Mizrahi families caring for large numbers of children required assistance. Yemenite families were more than once singled out as having record large families. One newspaper claimed that they were the only community that strictly observed the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Of the five women who were awarded a procreation prize in 1945, three were Mizrahim who had given birth to more than ten children. The other two were Ashkenazi women of the Old Yishuv.

In contrast to religious Zionists, who practiced birth control, the Haredim of the Old Yishuv were characterized by high birthrate. The Haredim lived primarily in the four "holy cities" of Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and Tiberias. In addition to strict observance of Jewish law, the men of these families devoted themselves to Torah study. This sector, in general, opposed the Zionist political project of establishing a Jewish state.

When general figures were discussed, the high birthrate among Mizrahim and Haredim, which in 1943 meant that each woman in these groups had an average of five children, often ameliorated the extremely low birthrate of the Zionist community, or New Yishuv. Yet these two groups still did not have enough children to keep the total Yishuv birthrate up. In other words, the birthrate deficit in the New Yishuv, where most of the women of childbearing age were of European extraction, was huge. Furthermore, at the beginning of the 1940s it became evident that Mizrahim who assimilated into the New Yishuv adopted Ashkenazi birthrate profiles. "There are clear signs that these strata are beginning to imitate the New Yishuv and restrict their childbearing," Bachi argued in 1944. Indeed, the fertility of Mizrahi women displayed a gentle downward trend during the Mandate period. On the whole, however, this trend was milder than it was among Ashkenazi women.

Further insights can be gained from the figures for the Yishuv's birthrate per family figures in the years 1939–1941, the high point of birth control, when they are broken up according to the mother's origin, the father's profession, and place of residence.

Table 4 shows huge ethnic, geographic, and class disparities in the birthrate. Jews from North Africa and Asia have the most children, while those of European background are the most successful practitioners of birth control. But even within these groups there are shadings — Eastern Europeans have more children than Western Europeans, and there are pronounced differences among the Mizrahim as well.

The numbers also show that white-collar professionals restricted the number of children, a phenomenon well known from other Western countries as well, while porters and peddlers, most of whom were Mizrahim, had many. Unsurprisingly, so did Jews engaging in religious professions, who were presumably strictly observant of the obligation to propagate. Other data, beyond those in the table, indicate that among the Mizrahim there were large differences between the socioeconomically well-off and the poor. Mizrahim on the lower social rungs had an average of 5.7 children, while those higher up the ladder had a birthrate approaching those of the Ashkenazim, 2.8 children per family. But such class disparities were not apparent among the Ashkenazim, who had small numbers of children no matter what their socioeconomic level. This included farmers, who in many other countries served as the most important demographic reserve for the maintenance and growth of the population.


Excerpted from "Birthrate Politics in Zion"
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Copyright © 2017 Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman.
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Table of Contents

Note on Translation
1. "Collective Self-Suicide": The Decline in the Yishuv’s Birthrate
2. The Parents’ Rebellion: Economic Factors
3. The Parents’ Rebellion: Social and Psychological Factors
4. Abortions in Practice
5. Low Birthrate, High Abortion Rate: Responses
6. Making More Babies
Conclusion: The Birthrate Issue as a Portrait of the Yishuv

What People are Saying About This

Pioneers and Homemakers: Jewish Women in Pre-State Israel - Deborah Bernstein

The issue of birthrate and its numerous ramifications has hardly been discussed. Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman not only raises an issue which has so far been ignored, but also, and most importantly, shows the way in which birthrate reflects many aspects of the small yet exceedingly complex Israeli society.

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Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman gives a penetrating understanding both of the day-to-day lives of Jewish families in Mandatory Palestine, shedding new light on one of the Yishuv's major problems: internal population growth.

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