Save the Jews: don’t have an abortion
By imploring women to help boost the number of Jews, Israeli anti-abortion activists politicise personal choices.
For a country where political debate is heavily coloured by religion and demographics, abortion in Israel is a surprisingly non-contentious issue. In fact, Israel has a remarkably liberal approach to abortion – the law allows terminations right through the ninth month of pregnancy. Abortion is not the political wedge issue that it is in the US, and you won’t find ‘pro-lifers’ waving placards outside clinics.
Yet although it isn’t particularly shrill or engaged in political lobbying, there is an anti-abortion movement in Israel. And despite its outward focus on emotionalism, it is coloured by ideology and is tangled up with Israel’s culture wars. In Israel, the abortion debate, as far as it exists, is not just tempered by religion and the imperative to protect the unborn and the mental health of women. Also added to the mix is the perceived importance of preserving the Jewish character of the Israeli state and withstanding the spectre of Jews being outnumbered by Arabs.
Focusing on dissuading women from having abortions by offering them material and therapeutic support, anti-abortionists here in Israel see themselves as the true ‘pro-choice’ alternative. Two organisations that attempt to dissuade women from having abortions are Efrat and Be’ad Chaim. Based in Jerusalem, they are not associated with one another but both believe that if a woman receives sufficient information, emotional support and financial assistance she will be able to make a truly informed choice, and she will have a viable alternative to terminating her pregnancy.
Ruth Tidar, a trained social worker and an assistant director at Efrat, says abortion is a non-issue in Israel because her organisation – the largest one dealing with abortion issues in the country – has consciously focused on grassroots activism rather than lobbying for legal reform. Be’ad Chaim’s director, Sandy Shoshani, says that if she had the funds she’d ‘hire a lobbyist to spread awareness that abortion hurts women’, but her organisation also focuses on addressing women directly rather than petitioning lawmakers.
Shoshani tells me that high abortion rates are a hindrance to achieving a Jewish majority in Israel. ‘There have been two million abortions in Israel since 1948 [the year of the founding of the Israeli state]. Imagine how many more we’d be. We would have been able to populate the Golan Heights, the Negev…’
Likewise, Efrat, which works ‘to save Israel’s babies’ has said that ‘Israel has lost more than one-and-a-half million Jewish children to abortion since 1948. In a country of about 5.5million Jews, this number has great demographic significance. Imagine how much stronger Israel would have been today with one million more Jews. Imagine if we could create an “Inner Aliyah” [immigration to Israel] of 10 to 15,000 Jews a year.’
According to Efrat, ‘Israel is currently fighting a war for her very survival as a Jewish State… The Arab birth rate is about double the Jewish birth rate of 2.3. It is forecast that the Arabs will be the majority in Israel by the year 2020.’
Tidar, however, is reluctant to address the demographic question. ‘That’s just one, very small part of what we do and it’s less of interest to me than the fact that every woman has the right to decide’, she says. ‘I come to this question as a feminist and the women I meet couldn’t care less about demographics.’
True, emotionalism really is Efrat’s method of choice. But the overarching goal, despite Tidar’s self-proclaimed disinterest in the matter, is to encourage childbirth in the Jewish population in order to reverse Israel’s ‘demographic threat’. After all, Efrat’s founder, a Holocaust survivor, started the organisation in memory of the 1.5million children who perished in the Holocaust and in order to ‘increase the Jewish birth rate in Israel’.
You would think that Efrat’s message would resonate in wider Israeli society, where the demographic question is of widespread concern. But there also appears to be a reluctance here to politicise women’s wombs in this way. Last year, Israeli broadcasting authorities pulled a series of Efrat advertisements following a large wave of complaints from the public that they were preventing women from making their own choices.
According to recently released data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), of the 20,000 women who applied for a legal abortion in Israel in 2008, 98.6 per cent were approved. Currently, women looking to terminate a pregnancy in Israel must apply to a special hospital review committee and are approved under specific stipulations – in cases of rape, incest or adultery; if the woman is under 17 years of age or over 40; if the woman’s health is at risk; or if the baby is suspected to have a physical or mental handicap.
Efrat’s director, Dr Eli Schussheim, has claimed that the number of abortions each year in Israel could be up to 60,000, as many women turn to private doctors to perform the procedure, avoiding the review committees. However, some pro-choice activists believe the laws are not liberal enough and feel that going before a committee is a humiliating experience, requiring women to reveal intimate details of their personal lives to strangers and to seek their approval for a personal choice.
Beyond the demographic question, the abortion debate, when it does occasionally spring up, is also related to the debate about the separation of religion and the state. Efrat’s and Be’ad Chaim’s detractors believe they prey on women by using religious pressure. For instance, one critic has likened Efrat’s method of relying on a network of volunteers across the country – to spread their message and offer women support – to the proselytising of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There is more than a hint of religion in the campaigning work of anti-abortion organisations. For Shoshani, abortion is primarily ‘a private issue’. ‘I just really care about people, about saving lives’, she tells me. Yet as her organisation’s website states, Be’ad Chaim encourages men and women to pay heed to God’s command to ‘His people, Israel… to choose life’.
As for Tidar, a secular, American-born Jew, she suggests that Efrat does not sway women through political or religious reasoning. Instead, she says, ‘we deal with emotions’. Indeed, Efrat’s modest Jerusalem headquarters hardly comes across as a hotbed of religious wackiness. Although it is located in the orthodox neighbourhood of Givat Shaul and some of the volunteers working here are religious, the walls are plastered not with Biblical scripture or posters of rabbis, but with images of smiling ‘Efrat babies’ and letters from their grateful mothers.
In many cases, Be’ad Chayim and Efrat provide services that the Israeli state fails to give women. They offer a support network and material assistance, providing young, struggling families with essentials like diapers, baby wipes and formula milk. Yet there is a deeply insidious aspect to their work: not that they are ‘brainwashing’ young women, as many of those who try to prevent them from advertising their services seem to believe, but that they are obsessed with demographics.
What is worrying is the overarching goal to turn women into pawns in the culture wars. Even if making Jewish babies and outnumbering the Arabs are not the primary reasons that Efrat volunteers give women for ‘keeping a baby’, they do work against that backdrop. This politicisation of women’s wombs, this turning of what is essentially a private matter into a public duty, is a good reason to hope that the Israeli anti-abortion lobby doesn’t get a stronger hearing.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.