Posted by: sean | April 16, 2006

Isreal’s "demographic problem"

There has been a lot of talk about the demographics of Isreal, but most people outside of Israel are unaware of the statistics. In the London Review, Ilan Pappe talks about the various Israeli plans to deal with the ‘problem’.

Israel boosted its population with two massive Jewish immigrations, each of about a million people, in 1949 and in the 1980s. This kept the Palestinian proportion of the population down and today Palestinians account for nearly 20 per cent of the population of Israel (not counting the Occupied Territories). Ehud Olmert, the leader of Kadima and acting prime minister, thinks that if Israel stays in the Occupied Territories and its inhabitants are included in the Israeli population, Palestinians will outnumber Jews within 15 years. So he advocates hitkansut ? meaning ‘convergence’ or, better, ‘ingathering’ ? a policy that would leave several populous Palestinian areas outside direct Israeli control. But even if this consolidation takes place, there will still be a very large Palestinian population inside the 88 per cent of Palestine in which Olmert hopes to build the future, stable Jewish state. How large exactly we don’t know: demographers in Israel belonging to the centre or the left provide a low estimate, which makes disengagement seem a reasonable solution, while those on the right tend to exaggerate the figure. But they all seem to agree that the demographic balance will not stay the same, given the higher birth-rate of Palestinians compared to Jews. Thus Olmert may well come to the conclusion that pull-outs are not the solution.

Once the ‘Arabs’ in Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories came to be thought of in the West as ‘Muslims’ it was easy to elicit support for Israel’s demographic policies, at least where it counted: on Capitol Hill. But even in Europe there was no need, after 9/11, to explain why Israel has a ‘demographic problem’. On 2 February 2003 the popular daily Maariv carried a typical headline: ‘A quarter of the children in Israel are Muslims.’ The piece went on to describe this fact as Israel’s next ‘ticking bomb’. The increase in the ‘Muslim’ population — 2.4 per cent a year — was not a problem anymore, but a ‘danger’.

Recently, I was at a conference about the Israelo-Palestinian conflict, and they spoke of the two-state solution (in which the Palestinians had a “viable state”) as the only solution to the conflict.

I seem to be the only person that I know of, besides the late Edward Said, who is for a single-state solution. I agree with Pappe, but in the end, all he does is describe the demographic situation Israel. He does not mention (at least not explicitely) what seems to me to be the obvious result of such a “demographic problem.” If 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabic, and this proportion increases by 2.4 percent each year, it is only a matter of time (less than 15 years) before the majority of the population is Arab, or “non-Jewish” as the official statistics would call them.

This obviously means that even if we completely disregard the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Isreal will still have to decide between being a democratic state or a Jewish state: being both is impossible in the long run. Some Isrealis have decided that the answer to this is “populaiton transfer,” otherwise known as ethnic cleansing. In an interview by Haaretz (part 1 and part 2) the Israeli historian Benny Morris talks about the past and future of Israeli ethnic cleansing:

Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist.

…Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.

…There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.

…A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.

…Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.

…If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential.

…The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified.

So this is what it boils down to: the rationalization of ethnic cleansing. Isreali Jews will not want to accept being a minority in a mainly Arab state, but I’m not sure that they have much of an option, barring the extreme measures mentioned by Morris, which it would be difficult to imagine the US intervening to stop and equally difficult to imagine the international community letting happen.

At the end of the day, I think it would be better for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians to make an overture to the creation of a democratic binational state along the lines of Belgium (called Isreal in Hebrew and Palestine in Arabic), which would grant equal rights to both Arabs and Jews, rather than being forced to do so by the international community, much like South Africa was. Because in the end, if Israel goes down the road that South Africa did, she always runs the risk of ending up like Zimbabwe, where a long-opressed majority turns the tables and forces out the minority.


  1. I agree with Pappe, but in the end, all he does is describe the demographic situation Israel. He does not mention (at least not explicitely) what seems to me to be the obvious result of such a “demographic problem.” If 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabic, and this proportion increases by 2.4 percent each year, it is only a matter of time (less than 15 years) before the majority of the population is Arab, or “non-Jewish” as the official statistics would call them.


    If 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs, and this proportion increases by 2.4 percent each year, this means that in 15 years this proportion will increase by 6-7%. This is on condition of course that Arab birth rates will stop from falling which is very doubtful I would say.

  2. I have read your post and Asad Abu Khalil’s and i must say I have to side with Asad because he has stated repeatedly in his blog against censorship of any kind but for some reason or another you keep mixing apple with oranges, and that make your argument weak and unconvincing.

  3. […] if you read the Israeli press and government officials, you will often find that they fear the existence of the non-Jewish minority in Israel because it is projected to become a larger and larger…. Several “peace proposals” have involved transfer of non-Jews from Israel or […]

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