Demographic Bogeyman

There’s a bogeyman out there: the impending inundation of  Arabs into Israel. “Dateline Jerusalem: A demographic study released Tuesday predicts that in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Arabs will outnumber Jews by the year 2020.” (www.encyclopedia.com article from 2002)

A similar dire prediction appeared on “60 Minutes” in 2009: “Demographers predict that within ten years Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Without a separate Palestinian state the Israelis would have three options, none of them good. They could try ethnic cleansing, drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank, or they could give the Palestinians the vote. That would be the democratic option but it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Or they could try apartheid – have the minority Israelis rule the majority Palestinians, but apartheid regimes don’t have a very long life.”

Doomsayers have been predicting the demise of the Jews in the Middle East for ages. Benjamin Netanyahu wrote  “A Place Among the Nations” before his first term as prime minister. In it, he debunked the demographic bogeyman which is frequently cited as the reason Israel must quickly make peace with the Palestinians. The erroneous prediction goes something like this: the number of Muslims west of the Jordan River is rising rapidly compared to the Jewish population. There will soon be more Muslims than Jews in this region, spelling the downfall of Israel as a Jewish state. Why? Because Israel will be forced to give citizenship to all the Palestinians! So, Israel must “give” the Palestinians a state immediately to prevent this from happening. (This prediction ignores the fact that nearly all Palestinians living in Jerusalem have been offered Israeli citizenship – don’t ask why – but have refused it. They have, however, accepted all the benefits of citizenship without the obligations by acquiring Jerusalem residency certificates.)

Netanyahu pointed out that this demographic threat has been raised against the Jewish state time and time again, yet it has never materialized. At the time of Israel’s independence, Jews were about 86% of the population. More than sixty years later, Jews make up about 80% of Israel’s population.

In the capital, Jerusalem, there is a similar pattern. Jews have been in the majority since the mid-19th century. Currently, Jews make up about two-thirds of the population and the ratio has remained remarkably constant over the decades.

Yoram Ettinger, a well-respected consultant in Israel and an expert on this subject, has cited a list of failed predictions: In March 1898, the world-renowned Jewish historian and demographer Shimon Dubnov submitted to Theodor Herzl a projection aimed at defeating the idea of reconstructing the Jewish Commonwealth in the Land of Israel. According to Dubnov, ‘The establishment of a substantial Jewish community in the Land of Israel is a messianic dream … In 2000, there will be only 500,000 Jews in Palestine.’ But in 2000, there were five million Jews west of the Jordan River.

During the 1940s, Professor Roberto Bacchi, the founder of the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, flooded David Ben-Gurion’s office with projections that Jews would become a minority by 1966. He contended that in 2001 there would be – under the most optimistic scenario – only 2.3 million Jews, constituting a 34% minority, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. But in 2001, the Jews had a 60% majority.

In 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was advised by Israel’s demographic establishment to roll back to the 1949 ceasefire lines (the Green Line), lest there be an Arab majority by 1987. But in 1987, Jews maintained a 60% majority, in spite of an unprecedented rise in the Arab population’s growth rate. The change in Arab demographics was triggered by a remarkable decline in infant mortality, an impressive increase in life expectancy, and a substantial reduction in emigration – all enabled by access to the Jewish state’s health and employment infrastructures.

Prof. Bacchi did not believe that a massive Jewish aliyah (immigration) would take place in the aftermath of the 1948-49 War. One million Jews arrived following that war. During the early 1970s, he projected no substantial aliyah from Eastern Europe and from the USSR, because Western Jews could, but would not migrate; while Eastern Jews wanted to, but could not. Almost 300,000 Jews arrived at that time.

During the 1980s, Bacchi’s followers in Israeli academia dismissed the possibility of a wave of aliyah from the USSR, even if the Communist gates might be opened.

One million Jews relocated from the Soviet Union to the Jewish homeland. [More than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews also immigrated to Israel in the same period.]

In defiance of fatalistic projections and irrespective of the absence of demographic policy, in 2009 there was a robust 67% Jewish majority west of the Jordan River, excluding Gaza. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the annual number of Israeli Jewish births has grown by 45% from 1995 (80,400) to 2008 (117,000), while the number of Israeli Arab births has stabilized at 39,000 annually. The sharp decline of fertility rate among Israeli Arabs has been the outcome of their successful integration into Israel’s education, employment, commerce, health, banking, cultural, political and sports infrastructures.

In 1969, the Arab-Jewish fertility gap was five children per family. In 2008, the gap had shrunk to less than one child per family, as Arab births trended downward and Jewish births trended upward. The Jewish proportion of total Israeli births has increased from 69% in 1995 to 75% in 2008.

The secular Jewish sector has been the one mostly responsible for this development, especially the new immigrants from the former USSR. They are shifting from a fertility rate of 1 birth per woman to between 2-3 births. Israel’s Jewish overall fertility rate (2.8 births) is the highest in the industrialized world, while the forecasted decline in the Arab fertility rate has occurred 20 years faster than projected. (From Ettinger’s recent article: “Debacle of Demographic Fatalism”  at www.shalom-magazine.com/Print.php?id=500309; see also www.theettingerreport.co.il. Another site: www.izs.org.il, lists many articles on this topic.)

The Jewish pessimists and other fatalists, from the Zionist point of view, seem to ignore the fact that Jews are still coming to Israel from throughout the Diaspora. The difference today is that Israel is drawing immigrants for economic reasons as much as it draws them for security reasons. Israel is a magnet for high-tech entrepreneurs, whether it’s software, hardware, bio-tech, or the next new development. Israel has the world’s highest number of start-up companies per capita in the high-tech field. Despite its small size, Israel has more start-ups in these fields than all other countries except America! Israel has largely escaped the “great recession” which has plagued world economies and was the first developed country to increase its bank interest rate, a positive economic development.

Nor should Israel’s extremely high fertility rate, far higher than other Western countries, be downplayed. This is a strong, positive factor in Israel’s continued success.

Compare Israel’s profile with its Palestinian neighbors. In the Palestinian Authority, there is currently a very high growth in domestic national product, albeit from a very low base. College graduates are on the rise there and the fertility rate is in a decline – all positive signs for the PA economy. These trends, perhaps, may indicate a growing wish for a peace settlement. For sure, they indicate a slowing in population growth. As for benighted Gaza, its family size has recently declined from 6.9 to 6.3, a dramatic drop.

Israelis are surrounded by Middle Eastern Arabs by a ratio of 50:1. Despite that, Israel is growing stronger. The West Bank Arabs, those who want prosperity, emulate the Israelis. The Gazans, suffering under the boot of Hamas, are incapable of improving themselves or of joining with their northern cousins, at least for the foreseeable future. Regardless, Israel can thrive in the Middle East.

Yoram Ettinger has often written that the upward trend in Jewish demography has critical national security implications that defy demographic fatalism and its policy derivatives. Well-documented demographic optimism should be accorded due consideration by Israel’s leadership and by Israel’s friends, but it is ignored.

My conclusion: there’s no demographic imperative for Israel to beg the Palestinians for “peace”.

Subscribe to our mailing list