In October 2007 a son was born to Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, and Larisa Trembovler, the divorcée and mother of four whom he had married by proxy while behind bars. The birth followed a series of controversial conjugal visits at the Ayalon Prison, where Amir was then incarcerated. These were in turn preceded by a lengthy court battle involving, at various times, the Israel Prison Service, the internal security service known as Shin Bet, various members of the Knesset, and the Amirs.
While Amir and his wife claimed that Yigal had the right to become a father despite his incarceration, the IPS and Shin Bet countered that conjugal visits would constitute a security threat, and the Knesset members then said that it would be immoral to allow the murderer of the prime minister to have children. They claimed that he had no right to start a family while in prison and that allowing him to do so was contrary to the natural rules of justice and gave no weight to the feelings of deep abhorrence felt by most Israeli citizens toward the despicable acts perpetrated by Amir.
In the end, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled for Amir, determining that, like all prisoners, he was entitled to certain basic human rights, including the right to bring children into the world and to have a family.
Granting conjugal rights to prisoners makes Israel somewhat unique. In federal prisons in the United States, and in prisons in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, prisoners are not allowed conjugal visits.
The extension of conjugal rights to Amir also contrasts with the Israeli courts’ consistent denial of his petitions to be moved out of solitary confinement, in which he has been held for more than 15 years. The courts justify this denial on the basis of preventing him from spreading his radical doctrine legitimizing violence against the state. The upshot is that Amir has spent more time in solitary confinement than any other prisoner in Israel. Some view this kind of long-term solitary confinement as a form of psychological torture. “It is forbidden by law to keep a person in solitary confinement for more than half a year, and in his case it’s already been 15 years, which is unprecedented,” Trembovler, Amir’s wife, told YNet, the Israeli news website. “Every six months the state gets an automatic approval. His conditions in solitary confinement are very difficult.”
On the surface this contrast—solitary confinement but conjugal rights—seems like a paradox. But it is in fact reflective of an exceptionally powerful pro-natalist ethos in Israeli society that is reflected in various official state policies and programs.
In the pre-state period of the Yishuv, or Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine, a Committee on Birthrate Problems was attached to the National Committee. It called upon David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister, to use both his moral and financial influence to increase the Jewish birthrate. It also asked for the establishment of a “childbirth regime” as “a cornerstone of our Zionist policy and as one of the main functions of our social and local offices; not less important than recruitment to the army, spreading the Hebrew language, purchasing land or maintaining the right for immigration.”
After the establishment of the state in May 1948, in an attempt to encourage an increase in the birth rate, Ben-Gurion introduced a birth prize awarding 100 lira, then the Israeli currency, and a signed letter to every woman on the birth of her 10th child. Though the amount itself was largely symbolic, the program received significant media attention and even became the subject of a popular dictum: “In honor of the motherland/ Ten boys to be born/ With grandeur we receive/ Ben-Gurion’s prize.”
In 1967 the Israeli demographic center was established to act systematically to realize a state policy directed at raising the Jewish birth rate. In 1968 the Fund for Encouraging Fertility was set up to offer subsidized housing loans for families with three or more children and in which one member had served in the Israel Defense Forces. The 1970 Veteran’s Child Allowance Scheme similarly provided child allowances to large families in which at least one member had served in the IDF or another national security service. Given that Jews are required to do military service—and Arabs exempt from it— some have argued these policies had a de facto discriminatory effect, supporting and encouraging an increase in specifically Jewish fertility.
Today, there are more fertility clinics per capita in Israel than in any other country in the world. Every Israeli, regardless of religion or marital status, is entitled to unlimited rounds of in-vitro fertilization treatment free of charge up to the birth of two live children (or even three, under some health insurance policies). In 1996 Israel passed the Embryo Carrying Agreements Law, making Israel the first country in the world to legalize surrogate mother agreements. According to a 2006 paper prepared for the Knesset, 1,800 IVF treatment cycles are performed each year per million people in Israel, compared to 240 in the United States. A 2010 article in Haaretz stated that Israel performs the highest ratio of fertility treatments among developed Western nations.
Israel is also taking the lead in posthumous reproduction. In 2003 Israel issued guidelines that allow a dead man’s wife or partner to access his sperm as long as he did not leave explicit instructions to the contrary. The parents of Ohad Ben-Yaakov, who died in 2010 following a work accident, are currently awaiting the decision of Israel’s attorney general on whether they can use his extracted sperm to create posthumous grandchildren.
In contrast to a range of policies that facilitate childbirth, Israel has a somewhat restrictive abortion policy, which limits access to abortion to only those who meet one of four criteria, such as the fetus having a defect or the continuation of the pregnancy threatening the woman’s life. Furthermore, women must acquire permission for an abortion from a termination committee consisting of two doctors and a social worker. Though the committees tend to approve most abortion requests, the complicated process of examinations and interrogations is nevertheless off-putting. Finally, most Israeli women have to pay for contraception, which, unlike more expensive IVF treatments, is not available for free on health insurance policies.
In the United Kingdom, by contrast, the fertility situation is reversed: While contraception is free for all through the National Health Service, those with fertility problems are only entitled to three rounds of IVF on the NHS, regardless of whether the treatment results in a child. The differences between the two cases highlight the exceptional pro-natalism of Israel’s fertility policies.
There are several possible explanations for Israel’s pro-natalism. Israel emerged in the shadow of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were systematically murdered. Some believe they have a duty to “make up the numbers,” and to ensure Jewish continuity by having as many children as possible.
Many Jews identify with the biblical commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” and value traditional families with large numbers of children. For observant Jews reproduction is even seen as a divine imperative. Susan Kahn, a Harvard anthropologist who has written about assisted conception in Israel, explains that the Bible presents barrenness as a tragic fate for a woman, from the childless matriarchs of Genesis to Hannah weeping over her inability to have children. Jewish men are commanded to procreate according to Jewish law, and childlessness thus prevents them from fulfilling an obligation of central importance in Judaism.
There is also the so-called “insurance policy” effect: In an uncertain situation in which the perceived threat of military and terrorist attacks looms large, many seek more than one child as an “insurance policy” against their possible death. “In a country where almost every family sees its children join the military, there’s a hunger for anything that might salve the anguish of losing a son or daughter,” says Tablet Magazine columnist Michelle Goldberg, who has written about the global struggle over control of fertility.
Finally there is intense demographic anxiety stemming from both the overall discrepancy in the size of the Jewish and non-Jewish populations and the specific fertility differential between the two groups. “For Israeli Jews the imperative to reproduce has deep political and historical roots as well,” says Kahn. “Some feel they must have children to counterbalance what they believe to be a demographic threat represented by Palestinian and Arab birthrates. Others believe they must produce soldiers to defend the fledgling state.”
The goal of establishing a Jewish state in a region populated predominantly by non-Jewish Arabs meant that ethnic composition has been a central concern for Zionists, who realized that the “population problem” was a major obstacle to the fulfillment of the Zionist dream of national self-determination. On the eve of statehood in 1948 the population was 1.9 million, of which 68 percent was Palestinian Arabs and 32 percent was Jews.
Several population policies altered the demographic balance, including population displacement during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the continued denial of the Right of Return to Palestinian refugees, the enactment of the Law of Return granting automatic citizenship to Jews, and demographically strategic territorial policies. These resulted in a dramatic demographic transformation. Israel’s population today is more than 7.5 million, of which approximately 75 percent are identified as Jewish and 20 percent Palestinian Arabs.
Within the context of this intense demographic anxiety, fertility acquired added political dimensions. Given that a Jew is usually defined as someone born to a Jewish mother, Jewish Israeli women have been central to the production of Jewish citizens for the state.
Yet Jewish women have tended to have far fewer children than Palestinian Arab women. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in the early 1960s the total fertility rate of non-Jews was more than double that of Jews: 7.13 versus 3.39. The Muslim fertility rate alone was 9.23. In 2008, the discrepancy was smaller—the fertility rate for Jews was 2.88 and for Muslims 3.84—but this still amounted to the average Muslim woman having one more child than the average Jewish woman.
From a Zionist perspective this fertility discrepancy represented a demographic time bomb. Consequently, there has been significant pressure on Israeli Jewish women to increase their fertility to ensure a Jewish majority through internal population growth, to render their wombs a national womb, or rechem leumi.
David Ben-Gurion was particularly outspoken on the importance of increasing Jewish fertility. “The increase of the Jewish birthrate is not an imperialistic need, but rather an essential component of the survival of the people,” he wrote in Haaretz in December 1967. “Any woman who does not have four children as much as it depends on her is betraying the Jewish mission.”
Roberto Bachi, the first director of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and an adviser to the Council for Demographic Problems, also advocated policies to increase Jewish fertility. “The demographical ‘competition’ between the Arabs and Jews in Israel will be decided not only by the number of immigrants we manage to bring to Israel, but first of all by the reproduction of Arabs and of Jews,” he wrote in a secret 1944 report. “Therefore, we must aspire to a bigger increase in the birthrate and in order to achieve it we must create a comfortable environment and appropriate conditions for a multitude of children.”
Other factors have also influenced the formulation of Israel’s fertility policies. Economic considerations may help explain why only some reproductive health treatments are subsidized: Contraception is used much more widely than IVF, and patients are already accustomed to paying for it, which in part explains its continued absence from the basic basket of health services. The medical establishment has also held significant sway over the formulation of various fertility policies. So, Israel’s fertility policies cannot be reduced to pure pro-natalism. Overall though, cultural and religious values have combined with political and demographic concerns to create an atmosphere in which having children is considered not only a basic individual right, but also a national duty.
It is within this context that the courts’ decision to allow Yigal Amir conjugal visits to enable him to father a child while denying his freedom from solitary confinement is best understood.
Rebecca Steinfeld is a doctoral candidate in politics at Oxford, where she is writing her dissertation, War of the Wombs: The History and Politics of Fertility Policies in Israel, 1948-2010.