Hadas Levinger, my heroine in Hill of Secrets, is childfree by choice. It was important to me to represent such a figure in one of my books. Although, worldwide, childfree people are in the minority, in Israel they’re considered real freaks.
Jewish/Israeli education is so pro-parenting that, if you told an average Israeli that a person (especially a woman) has no children by choice, he’d refuse to believe it.
A few years ago, a man came into my office and when he saw the pictures of my son decorating the wall, he asked how many children I have. I answered: “One.”
"Why?" he asked.
"Because I don't want any more children," I replied.
"There’s no such thing as don't want to… maybe it’s can't have," he corrected me.
To be honest, I really couldn't. I have fertility problems - and here, in Israel, those who really want children, even if they do have problems, will have a child. And I, probably, didn't really want another child.
A few weeks later, I met up with my sisters and their children. My youngest niece, who was six-and-a-half, asked me sensitively, "Michal, why don't you have any more children?" I told her I couldn't. And then, this six-year-old, who hasn't even been in the Israeli education system all that long, said: "There’s no such thing as can't, there’s don't want to!"
This child was so right…
My husband and I are unusual in the Israeli cultural landscape. We are a married couple with only one child. Setting aside the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, which generally have at least six or seven children, the average Israeli family has three children (four children, in recent years, has become the ‘new three’), which is well above the average for Western countries.
The basis of this national aspiration to have big families lies in demographic issues. The Israeli establishment encouraged a high Jewish birthrate right from the establishment of the State of Israel. I can understand the rationale behind this ambition in a developing country, but this policy has long since lost all sense of proportion, in my opinion.
Israel is the world leader in fertility treatment. We lead in terms of the number of treatments, but not, unfortunately, in the percentage of successes. The reason is simple: while fertility treatment (which is, of course, extremely expensive) in other countries is undertaken at the patient’s expense, in Israel, these treatments are at the expense of the state. Hence the low success rate. People get free treatment, so they take more and more of it, even if the chances of success are low. Where treatment is at the patient’s own expense, he'll think twice before undergoing treatment with a low chance of success.
My dear, much loved child was created by my first fertility treatment. When he was two years old, I had another two fertility treatments, which failed, so I stopped trying. I could have gone on and on until I was successful, and would have got there in the end, but my mental and physical health was important to me, too.
The issue of the right to conceive is so entrenched in Israeli culture that any change in policy leads to harsh criticism. A few years ago, it was proposed to lower the upper age limit for eligibility for fertility treatment from 45 to 44 (about 40 being considered the age at which the chances of conception drop). Following a great outcry, the amendment didn't pass.
I, personally, am disgruntled about this policy. Israel, like any country in the world, has its share of the handicapped, the sick and the elderly. There are neglected children and other social injustices. Many parents are crying out for the short Maternity Leave – just 14 weeks. The Israeli education system is struggling with some of the largest class sizes in the Western world. Supporting a large family is expensive and very difficult for some families. Parents of sick children can't necessarily provide their children with the appropriate medical care, because the treatment isn’t included in the health budget - the same health budget that funds unlimited fertility treatment. Instead of investing in people who are alive, we invest major capital in embryos whose chances of developing into human beings is very low.
I am the exception in Israel, certainly among people with fertility problems. I am entitled (still) to fertility treatment, but I decline. Not only do I refuse to get fertility treatment, but I really object to the extent that it’s encouraged in Israel. Since I, myself, am entitled to treatment, no one can tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about - because I’ve experienced the grief involved in infertility. Thus, I’m considered persona non grata among infertility patients.
This policy of encouraging high birthrates is making the family of three children the social norm. Israelis are so entrenched in this pattern that very few stop and ask themselves whether they really want to be parents, or if they want to be parents to more than one or two children. The State of Israel is a Western country - children aren’t born to help parents support the family, or because there’s no access to contraception. Children in Israel are status symbols. If you don't have at least two, you’re not considered normal.
I want to finish this post with a song that gets right to the point. The song title, like this post is, Children are Happiness. The song was first performed by a band called Natural Selection in 1976:
Children are Happiness
Lyrics: Yehoshua Sobol
Music: Shlomo Bar
Get two, get three,
Get four children.
You get a condo with entrance and kitchen
And two small rooms.
Get four, get five,
Get six children.
You’ll get pleasure and honor from relatives.
You like children.
Children are happiness,
Children are a blessing.
And you have a heart of gold.
It's written in the Torah,
Perhaps in the Gemara.
Go ask the rabbi
Get six, get seven,
Get eight children.
This is no joke.
The country needs a lot of nice, young people.
Get a dozen, or why not eighteen?
Get twenty children.
God will give
The welfare as well,
What we need is children,
God is great.
It's hard for him to bear
That one gets it all.
So to one, he gives money, power and fun,
And to you - he gives children.
Children are happiness ...