Seculars in a religious society: fertility of Jews in Israel

Barbara S. Okun, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Israel is a rare example of a modern, affluent democracy in which there is extensive overlap between civil and religious authorities, and in which the majority of the adult population characterizes itself as traditional or religious. Israel thus presents a fascinating case study of the role of religion and religiosity in demographic processes; in this paper, we examine the family demographic behavior of seculars within this religious society. We document that in many respects, this group, like most affluent national populations in Europe, N. America, Oceania and parts of Asia, exhibits patterns of behavior that are consistent with the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). However, we also demonstrate that native-born secular Jews have consistently maintained unusually high levels of fertility relative to these national populations, with the most recent data available suggesting that cohort and period fertility is at or above replacement-level. Strikingly, among native-born seculars with completed fertility, one-child families are very rare and three-child families are the mode; these are two characteristics which distinguish the 1960s birth cohorts of native-born secular Jews from analogous groups in the U.S. and all European countries considered. We suggest that two interrelated factors may be the proximate causes of the unusual parity distribution among native-born secular Jews with completed fertility: (1) high ideal family sizes and (2) low (albeit increasing) levels of marital dissolution and non-marriage. We suggest that the high ideal family size and the related centrality of marriage among seculars in Israel may be understood through a triple nexus of effects involving religion, familism and nationalism (Inglehart and Wezlel 2005), values which conflict with those associated with the low fertility common to SDT populations (Lesthaeghe 2010). In light of this discussion, we explore possible changes in the future fertility of native-born secular Jews in Israel.

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Presented in Session 47: Traces of second demographic transition