Posted by: sean | March 2, 2010

Kramer and Heinsohn, the superfluous men

"superfluous sons" of Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Stephen Walt has highlighted some nasty comments made by Martin Kramer in Israel recently, where he implied a causal relationship between the “youth bulge” in Gaza and the violence that we have seen there. His solution, which is identical to that of Gunnar Heinsohn of the Raphael Lemkin Institute for Xenophobia and Genocide Research at the University of Bremen, is that the West should cut off support for UNRWA, which is the UN agency that keeps Palestinian refugees, be they in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere, from starving. It also provides elementary education to Palestinian children.

First, the question of the “youth bulge” is not a new one. It has been proposed by Huntington and Zakaria, for example, as well as social scientists examining different factors of violence. What separates Kramer’s and Heinsohn’s comments from actual research in the social sciences is twofold: simplicity and conclusions.

First, both Kramer and Heinsohn make it sound as if the age of a population is the sole determinant of its likelihood for violence, whereas no serious researcher of violence has made that claim. The current research of Collier, for example, stresses a variety of factors of civil wars, mainly high primary commodity exports, low income (independent of income inequality),  slow national growth, and the domination of one ethnic group by another.

Let us take a look, then, at the median ages that bother Kramer and Heinsohn so much. I’ve compiled a list of countries or territories with median male ages below 18 from the World Factbook:

Countries with median male ages below 18:

Afghanistan: 17.6
Benin: 16.8
Burkina Faso: 16.6
Burundi: 16.5
Chad: 15.3
DRC: 16.2
Congo, Brazzaville: 16.6
Ethiopia: 16.6
Gambia: 17.8
Gaza: 17.2
Malawi: 16.8
Mali: 15.5
Mozambique: 17
Niger: 14.9
Sao Tome & Principe: 15.9
Sierra Leone: 17.2
Somalia: 17.4
Tanzania: 17.8
Uganda: 14.9
Western Sahara: 16.8
Yemen: 16.7
Zambia: 16.9
Zimbabwe: 16.3

As we can see, Gaza is accompanied by many countries. Uganda and Niger, for example, have the lowest median age (14.9) of any country in the world. So how can we explain that some of these countries are host to violent conflict whereas others are not? What is the difference between Tanzania and Afghanistan? They both have nearly the same median age, but the former is stable whereas the latter is rife with civil and inter-state war. If the youth bulge were really the only factor here, we would expect all of the countries on the list above to be beset by violence of one sort or another.

That’s because social science is not two-dimensional. Human beings are complex, and their behavior involves a complicated interaction of multiple variables. As such, no one variable is enough to explain or predict human behavior. Kramer and Heinsohn could have just as easily focused on another factor of violence. According to Collier:

[I]n societies characterized by ethnic dominance, the majority probably has both the power and the interest to exploit the minority. The minority may become sufficiently fearful of permanent exploitation that it decides to fight.

The factor of ethnic or religious dominance (as opposed to ethnic or religious diversity) is one that even those like Collier who use an economic analysis to explain violence agree is an objective grievance (as opposed to greed, which he claims is generally more important) that fuels conflict.

Now I’m of the firm belief that those who focus solely on grievance as opposed to greed and other structural factors are missing as much of the picture as Kramer and Heinsohn. Demographic, political, geographical and social factors are all important, and ignoring the rest of them to focus on one that suits your political agenda should be taken no more seriously than the propaganda put out by a belligerent in a civil war.

Up to now, my problem with Kramer and Heinsohn can be chalked up to their sloppy, or overtly partisan, thinking. But what really concerns me is their solution to this demographic “problem.”


Aging populations reject radical agendas, and the Middle East is no different. Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians too, but it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status.


If we seriously want to avoid another generation of war in Gaza, we must have the courage to tell the Gazans that they will have to start looking after their children themselves, without UNRWA’s help. This would force Palestinians to focus on building an economy instead of freeing them up to wage war. Of course, every baby lured into the world by our money up to now would still have our assistance.

If we make this urgently needed reform, then by at least 2025 many boys in Gaza — like in Algeria — would enter puberty as only sons. They would be able to look forward to a more secure future in a less violent society.

If the West prefers calm around Gaza even before 2025, it may consider offering immigration to those young Palestinians only born because of the West’s well-meant but cruelly misguided aid. In the decades to come, North America and Europe will have to take in tens of millions of immigrants anyway to slow the aging of their populations. If, say, 200,000 of them are taken from the 360,000 boys coming of age in Gaza in the next 15 years, that would be a negligible move for the big democracies but a quantum leap for peace in the Near East.

Many of Gaza’s young — like in much of the Muslim world — dream of leaving anyway. Who would not want to get out of that strip of land but the international NGOs and social workers whose careers depend on perpetuating Gaza’s misery?

Children in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem, who depend on UNRWA

This is the equivalent of supporters of the Sudanese government calling for an end to UNHCR support for Darfuri refugees and internally displaced people, or supporters of the Moroccan government to call for an end to UNHCR support for Western Saharan refugees in Algeria.

In an act of man-made Malthusian circumstances, and under the name of Lemkin no less, Heinsohn is calling for imposing measures meant to greatly decrease births within the Gazan population — “demographic disarmament,” as he so charmingly calls it. He then goes on to say that western countries should offer to take in the unwanted Palestinians, correctly noting that given their current living conditions as refugees under an air, land and sea blockade and after his proposed de-funding of the UN agency that stops them from starving to death, many Gazans would choose to leave.

How is it that the name of Lemkin in the case of Heinsohn and Harvard in the case of Kramer are being used to call for starving a population to force a decrease in its birth rate and transfer hundreds of thousands of the group to a place where their ethnicity isn’t such a “demographic problem”?

While I agree with Walt that “the word ‘genocide’ has become a loaded term that gets tossed around too loosely,” it is difficult to separate what they are calling for from what is explicitly defined as genocide in the 1948 convention:

The Convention defines genocide as any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Now whether or not one wants to engage in the genocide debate here, it is clear that their thinking is both sloppy and offensive. And while they certainly have the right to expound such repulsive feculence, thinking people (and even just those with a modicum of empathy or ethical scruples) should shake their heads in disgust when faced with the dreck spouted by such intellectually and morally superfluous men.



  1. Yes, yes, yes, but…

    The article you link to, by Henrik Urdal, provides evidence that supports the “youth bulge -> violence” thesis, at least for internal conflict. From abstract:

    “Within two prominent theoretical frameworks in the study of civil war, youth bulges are argued to potentially increase both opportunities and motives for political violence. This claim is empirically tested in a time-series cross-national statistical model for internal armed conflict for the period 1950–2000, and for event data for terrorism and rioting for the years 1984–1995. The expectation that youth bulges should increase the risk of political violence receives robust support for all three forms of violence. The results are consistent both with an expectation that youth bulges provide greater opportunities for violence through the abundant supply of youths with low opportunity costs, and with an expectation that stronger motives for violence may arise as youth bulges are more likely to experience institutional crowding, in particular unemployment. Some contextual factors have been suggested to potentially enhance the effect of youth bulges. In an empirical test of these propositions, the study suggests that youth bulges are particularly associated with an increasing risk of internal armed conflict in starkly autocratic regimes, but a similar effect is also found for highly democratic countries.”

    (By the way, this gives more hope to the Middle East than “Islam is the problem.” An improvement of a sort.)

  2. If you read the entire article, they discuss the youth bulge as part of a system of other variables, including: economic growth, dependency ratios, political regime types, urbanization, total populations sizes, expansion of higher education, etc.

    Like I said, there is definitely a case to be made for the effect of a “youth bulge” on different types of violence, but it is absurd to point to it in a vacuum, as if many other factors weren’t also involved.

  3. […] other news, my buddy Sean has written an excellent piece about Martin Kramer’s proposal to force Palestinians to stop having […]

  4. Sean,
    Very thoughtful and well put response to that goes above the obvious revulsion to Kramers comments.
    I wonder, if it wasn’t said in Israel and wasn’t said about Palestinians, how much more coverage would this have got?

    Lets say Seans time and research was for nothing and you are right – Youth + deprevation = violence.

    Are you condoning the act of starving a population to death?

  5. Thanks, Mo. And I agree: if this were a call to cut UNHCR aid to Darfuri IDPs and refugees, it would likely be more of a scandal…

  6. the youth bulge is a strategy currently being used in Lebanon as well as palestinian west bank and gaza . Refer to many speeches of Hassan Nasrallah encouraging youth bulge, as an alternative to a forceful take over in Lebanon ? at least that’s what Nassrallah said. I a speech back in 2007 Nassrallah said, ” I’m asking our men to increase the production, and we will then leave it up to the numbers. We are in no hurry, it may take us another 10 to 15 even 50 years we’re in no hurry because we will get there anyway, and I am confident such a plan would only succeed”. Unfortunatelly he was right and it will not take longer than 15 years. What works in Lebanon especially if promoted by Hizbullah is copied by fans in Gaza and the West bank. However I don’t think it will lead to a peaceful take over in the occupied territory .

  7. Do you mind linking to the text or a video of that speech, Abdo?

  8. […] then, do Heinsohn and Kramer see this as a problem? Would they qualify the young Hasedim as “superfluous sons,” or is that a distinction that is reserved for […]

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