Jewish and Palestinian women wage “war of the cradles” in Israel

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For her PhD thesis, Anaïs Simard-Gendron compared the fertility of Palestinian and Jewish women in Israel and found they have more in common than they thought.

The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) once said that “the womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon.” He was referring, of course, to the demographic battle raging in the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in a territorial dispute for over 70 years. Anaïs Simard-Gendron, a PhD student in demography at Université de Montréal, has written a thesis that explores the demographic aspects of this conflict.

According to Simard-Gendron, “Palestinian women, despite their high level of education overall, are known to have the highest fertility rate in the Arab world, averaging over three births per woman.” However, she points out that “the total fertility rate in Israel, estimated at approximately three children per woman, masks significant regional disparities, including the case of Jewish women living in Israeli settlements, who have even more babies than Palestinians, the average being five. These women are aware of the political value of their fertility.”

In this first-ever comparative demographic study of Israeli and Palestinian women, Simard-Gendron observes that the usual determinants of fertility have little if any impact in this area of the world. Normally, fertility tends to decline in a wealthy and educated society, stabilizing below the population replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. However, despite a highly educated population of 8.5 million, the fertility rate among Jewish women in Israel is high, and even growing. And fertility continues to be strong among Israel’s Palestinian population of 5 million. In an article published in the 2017 Yearbook of International Religious Demography, Simard-Gendron explained that the exceptionally high fertility in the region contradicts traditional demographic transition theory, which predicts a decline in fertility when women’s level of education is high and infant mortality is low.

But the researcher also made another surprising discovery: despite a context of endemic conflict, Jewish women living in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories have reproductive behaviour closer to that of Palestinian women than other Jewish women. Indeed, Jewish women living in the settlements tend to marry younger, in greater numbers and have more children than their counterparts in Israel despite their high level of education.

Born into war

Anaïs Simard-Gendron knew she was tackling a sensitive issue when she decided to study fertility in Israel and Palestine in the early 2010s, first for her master’s and then for her PhD thesis. She had difficulty obtaining reliable data on fertility not only in the overall population, but also in the sub-regions she was interested in. “I encountered a lot of suspicion. People thought I had a hidden political agenda, which obviously was not the case,” she said.

Her sole objective was to research fertility behaviour in conflict zones: Israel and Palestine were obvious choices. “War is usually a brief, transitional moment and it is hard to study fertility in such periods. Here, we have a conflict that dates to the late 1940s and that the population has learned to live with. People raise their children and live their lives with the knowledge that deadly violence can erupt at any time,” she explained.

Simard-Gendron’s thesis, which was supervised by Simona Bignami, a professor in UdeM’s Department of Demography, is based on three articles, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the situation. The first article presents a comprehensive picture of the evolution of reproductive behaviour among Israelis and Palestinians over time and across regions, based on a series of fertility determinants.

In her second article, Simard-Gendron highlights the effects of religiosity and nationalism on the fertility behaviour of Jewish women living in Israel and those living in the settlements. While concluding that religiosity is an important determinant of Jewish fertility overall, she finds that religious settlers have more babies than Israeli women in general. She also determines that nationalism, measured in part by exposure to a mix of religions, also plays an important role in maintaining high fertility, although to a lesser degree than religiosity.

In her last article, Simard-Gendron is interested in the impact of the conflict on Palestinian fertility. Her findings reveal that the context has a significant, if limited, impact on fertility. While militarization and sporadic episodes of violence tend to cause a slight increase in fertility, partly due to the inaccessibility of family planning resources, a greater religious mix has a dampening effect on Palestinian fertility, while the opposite effect is observed among Jewish women. This may be attributable to the fact that the effects of the conflict are felt more strongly by the Palestinian population and lead to greater precariousness.

Anaïs Simard-Gendron sums up her research by noting that while Palestinian and Jewish women may place their wombs in the service of their respective nations, both groups attach greater importance to the traditional values of their cultures. “In an uncertain social and political climate, the one thing that unites people, regardless of their nationality, is family,” she concluded.

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