Myths and Misconceptions, Lies and Libel – Israeli Demographics

Time and time again, I have come across baseless accusations against Israel that are not only rooted in a lack of basic education concerning the country, but in many cases are willingly disseminated with a malicious intent. These claims are not only confined to the darkest corners of the internet, they have a propensity to find their way into mainstream discussions as well, in an attempt to construct a false narrative regarding the history of Israel and the Zionist movement. As the Arab-Israeli conflict rages on, it is important to have as proper a historical understanding of Israel as possible, in order to let civil, informed dialogue prevail amid the sea of hatred we currently face. I am sure there are other false statements about Israel to be examined, but I have chosen the ones that, to me, are the most outrageous and worthy of dispelling.

Israelis are “European colonists” 

This claim alleges that Israelis are nothing more than Eastern European Jews who “colonized” the land over the past century. In an ongoing effort to portray Israel as on par with Apartheid-era South Africa, this charge is commonly leveled to equate the citizens of Israel with the Boers and English South Africans. Those white Europeans had no ancestral, ethnic or cultural connection to South Africa when they began colonizing the land in the 1600s. By portraying Israelis in the same vein as other European colonists, the country’s detractors seek to delegitimize Israel’s claim to be the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. In addition, this narrative appeals to the post-colonial nations of Africa and Asia who suffered at the hands of European imperialists for centuries; to them, Israelis get placed on the same level as Dutch South Africans, Italian Libyans, Belgian Congolese, and French Algerians.

Unfortunately for said detractors, this allegation is nothing more than an inductive fallacy which can be disproved by easily obtainable demographic and genetic data. Let’s examine the demographic makeup of Israel’s population: in 2013, there were an estimated 8,157,300 citizens according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Of these citizens, 6,119,000, or 75%, are Jewish. 1,688,600, or 20.7%, are Arabs, and the remaining 349,700 are a combination of Argentinians, Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Assyrians, Samaritans, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Romani, naturalized foreign workers, and others. Because Israel is a pluralistic, democratic nation, all of these non-Jewish citizens hold the same civil, religious, economic, political, legal and social rights as Jewish Israelis. So right from the get-go, the claim of Israelis being “European colonists” either willfully or ignorantly excludes 25% of Israelis; that’s 1 out of every 4 citizens of Israel.

Now let’s focus on the historical demographic makeup of Jewish Israelis. In 1948, the year Israel was declared an independent state, there were approximately 758,000 Jews. Most of these were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who had made aliyah (ascent, immigration to the land of Israel) over the previous 60 years since the Zionist movement began. Rather than conquering the land in a colonial war, or forcing the local rulers to sign agreements that diminished their sovereignty, these olim (one who has made aliyah) simply purchased plots of land from the absentee Ottoman Turks that had ruled the province of Syria-Palestina for centuries.

However, there was a population of some 25,000 Jews (the Old Yishuv) living in the Land of Israel before the Zionist movement began. This seems small, but there are a few reasons for that. The overall population of the Ottoman Palestina province was small itself, considered for the most part to be an inhospitable backwater at the time due to a lack of entrenched cultivation of the land. These Jewish communities derived from multiple backgrounds; some descended from the last remnants of the Jews who were mostly expelled and scattered from the Roman Iudea province after the destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st century A.D. Some Sephardic Jews of Spain who were expelled during the Inquisition also made their way to Israel during the Middle Ages. Not only did the Old Yishuv live in today’s Israeli cities of Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Acre, they also lived in today’s West Bank and Gaza Strip; some of those communities existed centuries before the arrival of Arabs to that land.

It wasn’t until the British Mandate period between the end of World War I and the creation of Israel that Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine really picked up. Agricultural and industrial development of the land led to higher standards of living, which in turn drove up the natural growth of the Arab and Jewish populations. However, many Arab riots and revolts against Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine occurred, causing the expulsion of the ancient Jewish communities in Gaza City, Hebron, and other places that would become today’s Palestinian Territories. In response to this, the British all but ended legal Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine; at the same time, the Nazis were coming into power in Germany. The combination of British restrictions on immigration to Mandate Palestine, and the genocide of 6 million Jews in Europe, ensured that the Jewish population would stay smaller than the Arab population during the Mandate era.

After the creation of Israel in 1948 and its victory over the invasion of five Arab armies (in addition to Palestinian Arab fighters and volunteers from other Arab countries), Jewish immigration steadily rose again, as it was encouraged by the new Israeli government. In addition to European immigrants, a new source of Jewish immigration came from the Arab World. In 1948, there were an estimated 800,000 – 1,000,000 Jews living in Muslim countries from the Atlantic Ocean to India, most of whom had lived in these lands centuries before the spread of Islam. Before Israel was created, the Arab leaders of these countries threatened that the lives of their Jewish citizens would be “endangered” if Israel came into existence. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jews living in the Arab World were either killed, expelled, threatened or intimidated into fleeing their homes. Many of them ended up making aliyah to Israel, helping the fledgling nation’s population grow drastically. Today, about half of Israel’s Jewish population traces their ancestry back to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Ethiopia.

These Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews aren’t European in the slightest sense, so when Israel’s detractors derogatorily say that Israelis should “go back to Europe”, they are ignoring the fact that millions of Israeli citizens aren’t descended from Europe, or are even Jews! Furthermore, genetic studies of global Jewish populations, such as this one, have concluded that Jews share more in common genetically with other Middle Eastern peoples, such as Arabs and Kurds, than with white Europeans. These results, combined with archaeological findings in Israel, suggest that today’s global Jewish population indeed stems from an ancient Middle Eastern population who lived in what is today Israel. It makes sense, when you consider that for 2,000 years in exile, Jews around the world, no matter how separated, prayed for a return to the land of Israel one day. So with historical, religious, cultural, and genetic ties to Israel, to make such a hasty generalization as “Israelis are European colonists” is not only morally wrong, it’s factually incorrect.

About the Author
Justin Lewis is a recent graduate of the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He continues to live and work in D.C. in the government relations industry.