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Why demographics are still a concern for some Israeli Jews

Nisreen Chayedri, 30, kisses her newborn baby boy in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on Feb. 10, 2011. (AP Photos/Dan Balilty)

January is often a popular time for news about population data, and this time around, there are few surprises: Out of Japan is a new report showing that its population declined by 212,000, the biggest drop on record and further evidence of the perils of its rapidly-aging, increasingly childless citizenry.

In Switzerland, a group called Ecopop has forced a national referendum that would put a limit on annual immigration to the country of 0.2 percent of the resident population -- an initiative prompted largely by the fact that the country's population is almost 25 percent foreign.

And in Israel, Jewish policymakers are heralding the fact that the country's Jewish population has passed the 6 million mark for the first time -- a historically significant number, they say, because that's the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

"It's a great joy to know there are more than 6 million Jews in Israel," Dina Porat, chief historian of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, told the Guardian.

It's cause for celebration, but the 6 million figure doesn't entirely put Israeli Jews at ease.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics released its own figures this week, predicting that the number of Arabs in Israel and Palestine will equal the number of Jews by 2016 and exceed it by 2020, buoyed in part by the Palestinians' overall higher birthrate.

There are 5.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and Israel, and "the number of Palestinians in historical Palestine will total 7.2 million compared to 6.9 Jews by the end of 2020," the Palestinian report proclaims.

That may be an overly rosy prediction -- other demographers have pegged the majority-Palestinian year at 2035 or even 2048 -- but the disparity between the number of Jewish and Palestinian births is interesting because it has been among Israel's main arguments against a one-state solution. If Palestinian population growth continues to outpace that of Israeli Jews, the thinking goes, Israel would no longer be a Jewish state, a problem some Jewish commentators have called a "demographic timebomb."

Of course, those are just projections, and a number of societal changes could keep Israel's demographics just as they are. The Palestinian birth rate is currently 4.4, compared with 3.0 for Jews, but it's possible the Palestinian rate could decrease as the country develops and modernizes.

Ben Moscovitch, the Israel blogger for the Foreign Policy Association, told the International Business Times that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have historically high birthrates, might also bolster the Jewish population there:

Excluding the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, I believe the Jewish birth rates fueled by ultra-Orthodox procreation practices, will continue to increase while the Arab-Israeli birth rates will drop as their villages are further developed.

Israel continues to aggressively encourage fertility, spending more than $60 million a year on publicly funded fertility treatments and operating more fertility clinics per capita than any other country in the world.

“Anyone who lives here is expected to have children,” Sigal Gooldin, a Hebrew University medical sociologist told the New York Times. “In casual conversation you will be asked how many children you have, and if you say one, people will ask why only one, and if you say two, why only two?”