Hussain Abdul-Hussain

The one place in the Middle East where minorities are thriving

Those who accuse Israel of 'ethnic cleansing' should look elsewhere in the region – especially Lebanon
Orthodox Christians gather with wooden Crosses in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as they celebrate the Good Friday in a procession on Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, on April 26, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
Orthodox Christians gather with wooden Crosses in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as they celebrate the Good Friday in a procession on Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, on April 26, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

Palestinian propagandists want you to believe that Israel is engaged in the “ethnic cleansing” of non-Jews. A closer look at demographics, however, proves otherwise.

On the occasion of Jerusalem Day last month, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics published numbers showing that close to forty percent of the residents of Jerusalem are Arabs, a level unchanged since a census was taken as far back as 1947, a year before the founding of the state.

Israel is a Jewish state. Its minorities are Arab: Muslim, Christian, and Druze. Their numbers have grown steadily along with the country’s overall population. In areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), everyone is Arab. Muslims are the majority and Christians a dwindling minority that fears for its security. In neighboring Lebanon, whose population is overwhelmingly Arab, Christians were a majority when the state was founded in 1920, although not anymore. If one asks where minorities thrive in the Middle East, the answer is Israel.

The percentage of Christians living in areas now under the PA has been declining rapidly, from 51,000 out of 435,000 in 1949 – or 12 percent – to one percent in 2017.

Christians are now minorities in Palestinian cities where they had historically maintained a majority. In Bethlehem, they shrank from 84 percent in 1922 to 28 percent in 2007, when the PA carried out a major census. For the same period, in the West Bank towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, Christians decreased from 99 and 81 to 81 and 65 percent, respectively.

In 2020, when the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) asked Christian Palestinians “how they felt under Israeli occupation,” 70 percent responded that they felt safe, 94 percent said they were free to travel, and 57 percent said they never felt harassed when crossing Israeli checkpoints.

If Israel does not make Christian Palestinians feel unsafe, then who does? According to PCPSR, 87 percent of Christians worried about a surge in crime in PA territory, 77 percent feared radical Islamist groups, including Hamas, and 67 percent of Palestinian Christians said they felt unsettled about a provision in the Palestinian Basic Law that stipulates that “the principles of Islamic sharia are a main source of legislation.”

Admittedly, the number of Arab Christians in Israel has declined, but only by one percentage point, from 2.9 percent in 1949 to 1.9 percent in 2021. Interestingly, the decrease in the number of Christians mirrors that of the Jewish majority. Both communities have been outpaced by the rapid increase in the number of Muslims. Therefore, while the populations of Jewish and Christian Israelis grew, their share of the population shrank.

Christians of the Middle East have not been vanishing from Palestinian cities only. To the north, in neighboring Lebanon, the percentage of Christians since 1932 has shrunk by nearly 20 percentage points, from 53 to 34 percent. Even though Lebanon has not carried out any census since the French took one in 1932, lists of eligible voters (those over 21) are regularly and automatically updated. And since parliament seats are allocated along sectarian lines, the religion of candidates and voters is marked on the lists and on voter ID.

The Lebanese population has grown substantially since 1932, from 790,000 to roughly five million. But the relative size of different groups has changed dramatically.

Since 1932, Lebanese Sunnis and Shia have increased from 22 and 19.5 to 29.7 and 29.1 percent, respectively, as the percentage of Christians has declined.

This long-term trend remains visible even if one focuses on more recent data. Since 1992, when the end of Lebanon’s civil war enabled it to hold its first election after a 20-year hiatus, voting lists show that the Sunni population is growing at a faster rate than the Shia. Since then, the percentage of Christians and the Druze have continued to decline.

The Druze, once the rulers of Lebanon between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw their share of the population decline from 6.7 percent in 1932 to 5.5 percent today. Meanwhile, their coreligionists in Israel enjoyed a tenfold increase in their numbers between 1949 and today, so the size of the Druze community kept up with the Jewish state’s overall population growth. Their share of the population has held constant at 1.6 percent since 1949.

One Lebanese minority has all but vanished: The Jews. Lebanon’s Jews numbered some 3,600 in 1932, or 0.5 percent of the population. Today, they stand officially at 0.11 percent, or 4,000 total, according to voter lists. But those figures are a bureaucratic fiction. Efforts to locate actual Lebanese Jews have turned up fewer than thirty. Many of the Jews supposedly living in Lebanon are over 100 years old according to voter lists. The problem is that Lebanon relies on families and religious communities to report an individual’s death. But there are almost no Jews left in Lebanon to report such deaths, thus creating an illusion of immortality.

Had the Jews of Lebanon grown demographically at the same rate as the Shia, they would have numbered some 35,000 today. But in Lebanon, Jews have not been welcomed since the birth of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, Israel today is the only Middle Eastern country that affords equal rights to Muslims, Christians, and Druze. And while the system is far from perfect, the numbers of these minorities reflect a heartening reality. Israel’s demographics are holding steady. So much for “ethnic cleansing” or other forms of systemic discrimination.

About the Author
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan organization focused on national security and foreign policy.
Related Topics
Related Posts