Essay: The demographic race

The situation within a smaller Israel wouldn't be hopeless, but would be if we kept Judea and Samaria.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
A paradoxical argument sometimes raised by the opponents of territorial concessions on Israel's part is that the demographic threat to this country's Jewish majority, commonly cited as a powerful reason for ceding territory, is in fact so severe that returning most or all of the areas conquered in 1967 will not help. Even if we do that, the claim is made, our demographic future will be disastrous unless Israel undertakes radical measures, such as stripping its Palestinian residents of their voting rights or pushing for their "transfer" to other countries - and if we are going to have to do such things to survive even after yielding territory, why yield territory at all? Let's do the disenfranchising and transferring that will have to be done anyway, and hold onto all the land that we have. But apart from the feasibility, let alone the morality, of getting rid physically or politically of hundreds of thousands or millions of Palestinian Arabs, the statistics do not quite bear such an analysis out. A quick look at a demographic report released this week by the Central Bureau of Statistics in Jerusalem shows that the situation within a smaller Israel, while extremely worrisome, would not be hopeless, as it would be if we kept all of Judea and Samaria. Let's first look at the overall figures. The official population of Israel in 2005, including all Jews living on both sides of the 1967 borders and all Arabs living within them plus east Jerusalem, was 6,985,900, of which 76% was Jewish, 20% Arab, and 4% "other." Yet since "other" refers almost exclusively to immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish, and since these immigrants - socially, culturally and politically - function within Israel's Jewish community, they can for all intents and purposes be considered Jews too. This puts the Jewish population at 80%. (By contrast, the Jewish population of the whole land of Israel west of the Jordan without Gaza is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60%). Now let's consider things historically. Fifty years ago, in 1955, Israel's population was 1,789,100, of which 89% was Jewish and 11% Arab. This would seem to show a slippage of 9% in half a century - but since the 1955 figures did not include the Arabs of east Jerusalem, who today number some 230,000, we have to subtract them to get a better idea of what has happened. Without them, Israel had in 2005 a population that was 83% Jewish, meaning that the slippage has been 6%. The explanation for this of course lies in the far higher Arab birthrate, which more than neutralized the enormous Jewish immigration of these years. In 1955, for example, the Arab birthrate was two-thirds again as high as the Jewish one - 46.4 children born to every 1,000 Israeli Arabs as compared to 27.3 for Israeli Jews. (Figures for the average number of children per family, which is how we generally measures birthrates today, are unavailable for then.) NOW, 6% in half a century may not seem like much, but it is fact a very serious decline, especially when one takes into account that there is unlikely to be massive immigration to Israel from anywhere else in the Diaspora in the next 50 years. Moreover, while the Arab birthrate in Israel has dropped sharply over time, to 33 children per 1,000 inhabitants or four children per family in 2005, so has the Jewish birthrate - to 19.2 per 1,000 and 2.7 per family. The result is that in 2005, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Jewish population accounted for only 73% of births in Israel as compared to 27% for the Arabs. If this trend continues, unbalanced by a surplus of Jewish immigration, the Jewish percentage of Israel's population will continue to shrink inexorably. And it apparently will do so, because it would take 50,000 more Jewish immigrants than emigrants every year to keep it at the 80% level - a figure that doesn't seem remotely attainable in light of the fact that an estimated 30,000 Israelis a year are now emigrating. (In 2004, there were 10,000 more emigrants than immigrants!) WHAT IS the flash point at which a declining majority/minority ratio threatens to plunge a country into severe discord and possibly worse? This of course depends on what majority and what minority we are talking about, and on the relations between them. Belgium has a Flemish/French ratio of 60 to 40, but since these two populations get along reasonably well, no dangers are posed by it. Sri Lanka has a Sinhalese majority of 74% and a Tamil minority of 18% and has been the battleground of a savage civil war for decades. Israel is neither Belgium nor Sri Lanka, but in terms of the intensity of antagonism between Arabs and Jews, and the factors exacerbating it, it is certainly closer to the latter. One can only say that, although we are not at the flash point yet, we are getting nearer all the time. All this is bad news. But there is some better news, too. While the Israeli Arab birthrate is still falling, the Israeli Jewish birthrate has bottomed out and even risen slightly in recent years; if this continues, it will slow the slippage down. And this in turn may give us the time to lower the Arab birthrate even further, until it reaches Jewish levels, which can be done in the same way that birthrates are lowered everywhere: By raising the Israeli Arab standard of living, improving the educational level of Arab women, enabling more of them to enter the job market, etc. In fact the really good news is that by raising living standards not only for Arabs but for Jews as well, we can also make Israel an economically easier and more attractive country to live in, which means more Jewish immigrants and fewer emigrants. (It would probably mean fewer abortions, too, which are currently being performed, the Central Bureau of Statistics tells us, at a rate of nearly 20,000 a year - nearly all of them in the Jewish sector.) All of these things together could just possibly stabilize the situation at a still manageable level - if not at 80/20, than perhaps at 75/25. We are running a race with time and currently losing it. It's not lost yet, however - unless, that is, we decide to add the handicap of Judea and Samaria. In that case, we can stop running right now, because we were beaten long ago.