Israel: Fertility Policy in Israel: The Politics of Religion, Gender, and Nation

Article excerpt

Fertility Policy in Israel: The Politics of Religion, Gender, and Nation, by Jacqueline Portugese. Westport, CT and London: Praeger Publishers, 1998. xv + 212 pages. Bibl. to p. 197. Index to p. 209. $59.95.

This book gives a comprehensive picture of its subject. It covers a wide range of works dealing with the politicization of women's reproduction in Israel, and presents many interesting documents and citations. The book contributes to the growing field of feminist analyses of reproductive politics in general and in Israel, in particular. The most convincing arguments of the book are those indicating that the lack of women's reproductive freedom is an essential element in the perpetuation of their oppression.

The main argument of the book is that, "despite the lack of an official policy on national fertility, the Israeli government has introduced numerous measures that taken as a whole constitute an "unofficial" policy designed to increase the Jewish fertility rate and decrease that of the Arabs" (p. x). Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel is a major issue and aim of all governments, left and right alike. However, the data do not demonstrate conclusively that governmental decisions are, or were, made with the intention of reducing fertility among Arab women and of raising it among Jewish women. The data presented indicate, as is well known, that some politicians and policy implementors had in the past, and still do, express racialist ideas about the "demographic danger" of a growing Arab population to a Jewish majority. The Israeli authorities' comprehensive discrimination against the Arab population since the founding of the State of Israel seems to explain governmental policies, fertility practices included, much better.

The real threat to the Jewish majority is a massive immigration of Arab refugees (as mentioned on p. 103) rather than the gap in fertility rates, which has been steady for the past two decades. Moreover, the main policy to preserve a Jewish majority, which the government has used since the establishment of Israel, and which the Jewish Agency also had used prior to 1948, is Jewish immigration.

The author argues that the allowances policy regarding large families (i.e., of four or more children) demonstrates the government's intention to raise the Jewish birth rate. Were this the case, such a policy would have required the introduction of various procedures to allow access to Jewish families only. However, Muslim Arab families also have a high rate of fertility, and the fertility rate of Christian Arabs is comparable to that of Jews. The allowances policy, which supports Arab, as well as Jewish, families, is, in fact, a welfare policy that emerged from political pressures such as those exerted by the Orthodox parties or the "black panthers" (i.e., "Mizrachi" Jews of Asian and African origin) rather than from Zionist and racialist ones. Furthermore, the Orthodox population is largely exempted from military service; therefore, if military considerations were significant in policies on fertility practices, financial incentives would have not been granted to them. Not less important are the economic considerations, which explain the cuts (in 1990) of children's allowance for the second child-during the period when large numbers of Russian immigrants arrived in the country. Another dubious argument is the author's claim that paying the children allowance to working women in the Occupied Territories is meaningless (as a true welfare practice) because of their small number.

The author also claims that abortion services in Israel reflect the pro-natalist policy among Jewish women. The author, herself, is "tempted to conclude that Israeli women enjoy relatively free access to abortion" (p. 145), but prefers to insist that the freedom to choose abortion is elusive. …