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Quebec demographer surprised by Mideast conflict’s effect on fertility

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The Hadassah Medical Center maternity ward in 1945.

A young Quebecer with no personal interest in Middle East politics has become an authority on an issue that preoccupies both Israelis and Palestinians: who will win the demographic war?

Anaïs Simard-Gendron, a Université de Montréal demographer, has spent the past 10 years researching fertility rates among the two peoples, as well as comparing Jews living in pre-1967 Israel with those in the settlements, and Arab-Israelis with residents of the Palestinian territories, going back to 1995.

Her conclusion is that the usual determinants of fertility do not apply in the region.

“I wanted to find out if the conflict influences fertility. The answer is yes for both Jews and Arabs, but not in the same way,” she said.

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Simard-Gendron earned her PhD last year, after completing a thesis on the topic. Her master’s thesis compared the fertility rates of Jewish women living in Israel and the West Bank.

She has delivered papers on the subject internationally, including in such diverse locales as Budapest, South Korea and Berlin. She published her findings in the latest edition of the Yearbook of International Religious Demography.

Her work couldn’t be more timely with Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola’s recent confirmation that the Jewish and Arab populations are nearing parity in the combined area of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The fertility rate among Jewish women has risen considerably since 2000 and now matches that of Arab women, whose birthrates have declined. Both groups now have an average of 3.13 children.

Anaïs Simard-Gendron (Université de Montréal photo)

When she started out, Simard-Gendron simply wanted to know why both peoples had such high birthrates, despite the almost continuous violence that surrounded them.

“No one was talking about this,” she said. “I think some (scholars) were reluctant to do so because of the political aspect related to it.”

Historically, the Palestinians have had the highest birthrate in the Arab world, giving truth to former PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s boast that, “The womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon.”

Israel’s fertility rate is the highest among OECD countries, contradicting the general theory that births fall as education and standards of living rise. Palestinian women, overall, are among the best educated in the Arab world.

A woman sits with her baby in the Palestinian city of Hebron. (Lisa Nessan/CC BY 2.0)

She wanted to know how nationalism and religiosity affects these decisions.

Simard-Gendron said that the birthrate among Jews in the settlements is significantly higher than among those in Israel proper. Even more striking is the fact that they have been having more babies than the Palestinians, she said.

“These women are aware of the political value of their fertility,” she concluded, but the strength of religious identity across the board trumps nationalism.

“Normally, fertility declines as a society’s level of education and wealth increases,” she continued, “stabilizing below the population replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.”

Simard-Gendron’s takeaway from all this is that, while both Jewish and Palestinian women are conscious of the ticking demographic clock, both attach greater importance to traditional values.

“In an uncertain social and political climate, the one thing that unites people, regardless of nationality, is family,” said Simard-Gendron.

She posits that the declining Palestinian birthrate may be due to the conflict more directly impacting that population, both in practical terms and in heightening their sense of insecurity.

Just how sensitive the whole subject is became clear to Simard-Gendron early on in her research. Accessing reliable data on other side was not easy. The Israelis were protective of some information and the Palestinians did not have the same means of compiling statistics, she said.

In an uncertain social and political climate, the one thing that unites people, regardless of nationality, is family.
– Anaïs Simard-Gendron

“I encountered a lot of suspicion. People thought I had a hidden political agenda, which obviously is not the case.”

Working from a distance was also a complication, as she never visited the region. Simard-Gendron tried to form academic partnerships there, but none of them panned out.

The very length of the conflict offers a rare opportunity to test demographic dogma. War is usually relatively brief, making it hard to do longitudinal studies of its effect on fertility, she pointed out.

“Here we have a conflict that dates back 70 years. People have learned to live with it, raising their children in the knowledge that deadly violence could erupt at any time,” she said.

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