In Israel, Demography is Destiny

Israel’s Independence Day is an occasion for statistics – which as Mark Twain told us can sometimes be akin to lies and damned lies. This year, we learn from the Central Bureau of Statistics that Israel’s population was just over 8 million, of whom are three quarters are Jewish.

This sounds quite reassuring but of course it leaves out the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, Jews had already fallen below 50 percent of the population living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River back in 2010.

DellaPergola argues that if Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and if current fertility rates among Jews and Arabs remain largely unchanged, Jews will constitute only 54 percent of the population living on that land by 2030 and only 45 percent by 2048, the 100th anniversary of Israel’s rebirth as an independent nation.

At some point well before that day, Israel will face a crucial choice between remaining a Jewish state and remaining a democracy. But it will not be able to do both.

In recent months, a slew of articles by right-wing Israelis and some of their American allies have challenged that view, arguing that Jews should not fear becoming a minority even if it keeps control of the West Bank in perpetuity.

Their argument goes something like this: Birth rates among Jews in Israel are rising while among Palestinians they are falling. Depending on how the trends work themselves out, the Jewish proportion of the total population may fall only slightly at worst – and could even inch up a percentage point or two.

In other words, these pundits argue, Israel can easily keep all of the occupied land and retain its Jewish majority. It can have its cake and eat it too.

“Anyone suggesting that Jews are doomed to become a minority west of the Jordan River is either dramatically mistaken or outrageously misleading,” wrote Yoram Ettinger in Israel HaYom last week, the latest of several articles citing the same data and often using the same language.

This argument obviously masks a much deeper rift between those who would like Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and those who would like to annex it.  Interestingly, the figures thrown about by both sides conveniently leave out of the equation entirely the approximately 1.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza, who while not under Israeli rule surely play a role in the political destiny of the territory.

But even if one leaves out Gaza, the case of the annexationists is not convincing. Take for example the fastest-growing segment of the Israeli population, namely the Haredi or ultra-orthodox. If this community loses its ability to garner generous state benefits that have permitted many of its members to have very large families without having to work to support them, they may well have fewer children.

Interestingly, data released last June by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, found that Haredi women were averaging one fewer babies in 2010 than in 2005 – 6.5 instead of 7.5.

Ettinger tries to take this into account in his article: “The surge in fertility is produced by Israel’s secular Jews, and mostly by the yuppies around Tel Aviv and the immigrants from the former USSR,” he writes. However the Central Bureau of Statistics finds only a slight increase in birthrates among secular Jewish women of 0.15, which does not nearly make up the difference and certainly cannot be termed a “surge.”

Another Hebrew University demographer Dov Friedlander believes that Arab birth rates will continue to outstrip the rate among Jews even if the gap between them narrows, which he does not think will happen. Moreover, since the median age of Arabs is just over 21 compared to almost 32 for Jews, their proportion of the population will grow.

At the end of the day, the demographic debate, though interesting, does not answer the key point which is, what kind of Israel do we want? Arguing about whether or not Jews can remain an arithmetical majority misses the point.

Unless there is an Israeli withdrawal, millions of Palestinians will remain living under a military occupation they despise without equal democratic rights. And generations of young Israelis will spend their military service enforcing the occupation.

Whether Jews comprise 48 percent or 52 percent of the total population will not change that reality.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.