In Israel, Is Demography Destiny?

For Israel, pundits incessantly proclaim, demography is destiny. There are endless warnings that unless the Jewish state relinquishes control over the West Bank, Muslims soon will outnumber Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Israel would then confront equally intolerable choices: to become either a bi-national, or an apartheid, state. But fateful decisions with permanently deleterious consequences for Israel should not rest upon demographic mythology.

To begin with undisputed data: the total population of the State of Israel (according to its Central Bureau of Statistics) is 7,695,000. This includes 5,802,000 Jews (75.4%), 1,573,000 Arabs (20.4%), and 320,000 Israelis (4.2%) who are not identified as either Jewish or Arab. The number of Jews living in the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria) is 327,800. At the end of 2010, 6,129,000 Jews lived between the river and the sea.

It is Palestinian population numbers that concern Israelis. Yasser Arafat gleefully predicted that, "the womb of the Palestinian woman will defeat the Zionists." Back in 2003 Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that, "the cloud of demographics will come down on us not in the end of days, but in just another few years." Two years later Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that a continued Israeli presence in Gaza, home to 1,500,000 Arabs, was, "bad for Israel, and bad for Palestinians." He ordered the expulsion of 9,000 Jewish settlers and the withdrawal of Israeli military forces.

With Gaza no longer under Israeli control, the Palestinian-Israeli population balance shifted dramatically. But Palestinian demography remains as malleable as putty. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), 2,514,000 Arabs inhabit the West Bank. But other Palestinian ministries, rejecting this bloated figure, acknowledge a considerably lower Arab population: 1.5 million (supplemented by 209,000 Palestinian Arabs in East Jerusalem who are citizens of Israel).

Respected Israeli demographer Yoram Ettinger wisely warns: "Beware of Palestinians Bearing Demographic Numbers." His data indicate that the PCBS has inflated the number of West Bank Arabs from 1.6 million to 2.5 million.

Its estimate includes more than 400,000 overseas residents, the double counting of Jerusalem Arabs, under reporting of Palestinian emigration, and exaggerated birth statistics. But Palestinian distortions are catnip for Zionist "demographers of doom."

Ettinger's calculations indicate that Jews now comprise 17% of the West Bank population. Between the Jordan and Mediterranean, 66% of the population is Jewish. Ever since 1995, Arab birth rates have stabilized while the annual number of Jewish births has risen significantly. "There is a demographic problem," Ettinger recognizes, "but there is no demographic machete at the throat of the Jewish state."

This suggests that some entrenched assumptions and questionable remedies require revision. If 17% of the West Bank population (Jews) must return to pre-1967 Israel, should not an equivalent percentage ­ or at least an equivalent number -- of Israeli Arabs be relocated to any new Palestinian state? It might be interesting to discover how many Israeli Arabs would prefer to live there, or remain citizens of the Jewish state.

The unresolved question remains: what are the borders of the State of Israel? "Palestine," created by the League of Nations after World War I, included present-day Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Under its Mandatory authority, Great Britain shrank Palestine to become the land west, not east, of the Jordan River. There, Jews were guaranteed the right of "close settlement." That right has never been abrogated, nor has any international boundary nullified it. Indeed, Israel has no international boundary ­ because most Arab states (Egypt and Jordan excepted) have never recognized a Jewish state within any borders.

The Palestinian Authority has unequivocally declared that no Jews can live within any Palestinian state. Respectful of Palestinian wishes, and faithful to Jewish history, Israel should respond by absorbing all existing Jewish settlements within its borders. Then Palestine (like Jordan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Muslim nations) can savor being Judenrein. And Jewish settlers will live within Israel, their historic homeland.

But it is not Palestinian population statistics that propel Israeli demographic Cassandras. Concentrated on the secular left they loathe religious Zionists, whose geographical power base is in the settlements. The demographic "problem," in the end, is a surrogate for the concerted secular Zionist effort to weaken religious Zionism in the Jewish state.

Jerold S. Auerbach is professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College. His new book, a history of the Altalena tragedy, will be published in the Spring.
For Israel, pundits incessantly proclaim, demography is destiny. There are endless warnings that unless the Jewish state relinquishes control over the West Bank, Muslims soon will outnumber Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Israel would then confront equally intolerable choices: to become either a bi-national, or an apartheid, state. But fateful decisions with permanently deleterious consequences for Israel should not rest upon demographic mythology.

To begin with undisputed data: the total population of the State of Israel (according to its Central Bureau of Statistics) is 7,695,000. This includes 5,802,000 Jews (75.4%), 1,573,000 Arabs (20.4%), and 320,000 Israelis (4.2%) who are not identified as either Jewish or Arab. The number of Jews living in the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria) is 327,800. At the end of 2010, 6,129,000 Jews lived between the river and the sea.

It is Palestinian population numbers that concern Israelis. Yasser Arafat gleefully predicted that, "the womb of the Palestinian woman will defeat the Zionists." Back in 2003 Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that, "the cloud of demographics will come down on us not in the end of days, but in just another few years." Two years later Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that a continued Israeli presence in Gaza, home to 1,500,000 Arabs, was, "bad for Israel, and bad for Palestinians." He ordered the expulsion of 9,000 Jewish settlers and the withdrawal of Israeli military forces.

With Gaza no longer under Israeli control, the Palestinian-Israeli population balance shifted dramatically. But Palestinian demography remains as malleable as putty. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), 2,514,000 Arabs inhabit the West Bank. But other Palestinian ministries, rejecting this bloated figure, acknowledge a considerably lower Arab population: 1.5 million (supplemented by 209,000 Palestinian Arabs in East Jerusalem who are citizens of Israel).

Respected Israeli demographer Yoram Ettinger wisely warns: "Beware of Palestinians Bearing Demographic Numbers." His data indicate that the PCBS has inflated the number of West Bank Arabs from 1.6 million to 2.5 million.

Its estimate includes more than 400,000 overseas residents, the double counting of Jerusalem Arabs, under reporting of Palestinian emigration, and exaggerated birth statistics. But Palestinian distortions are catnip for Zionist "demographers of doom."

Ettinger's calculations indicate that Jews now comprise 17% of the West Bank population. Between the Jordan and Mediterranean, 66% of the population is Jewish. Ever since 1995, Arab birth rates have stabilized while the annual number of Jewish births has risen significantly. "There is a demographic problem," Ettinger recognizes, "but there is no demographic machete at the throat of the Jewish state."

This suggests that some entrenched assumptions and questionable remedies require revision. If 17% of the West Bank population (Jews) must return to pre-1967 Israel, should not an equivalent percentage ­ or at least an equivalent number -- of Israeli Arabs be relocated to any new Palestinian state? It might be interesting to discover how many Israeli Arabs would prefer to live there, or remain citizens of the Jewish state.

The unresolved question remains: what are the borders of the State of Israel? "Palestine," created by the League of Nations after World War I, included present-day Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Under its Mandatory authority, Great Britain shrank Palestine to become the land west, not east, of the Jordan River. There, Jews were guaranteed the right of "close settlement." That right has never been abrogated, nor has any international boundary nullified it. Indeed, Israel has no international boundary ­ because most Arab states (Egypt and Jordan excepted) have never recognized a Jewish state within any borders.

The Palestinian Authority has unequivocally declared that no Jews can live within any Palestinian state. Respectful of Palestinian wishes, and faithful to Jewish history, Israel should respond by absorbing all existing Jewish settlements within its borders. Then Palestine (like Jordan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Muslim nations) can savor being Judenrein. And Jewish settlers will live within Israel, their historic homeland.

But it is not Palestinian population statistics that propel Israeli demographic Cassandras. Concentrated on the secular left they loathe religious Zionists, whose geographical power base is in the settlements. The demographic "problem," in the end, is a surrogate for the concerted secular Zionist effort to weaken religious Zionism in the Jewish state.

Jerold S. Auerbach is professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College. His new book, a history of the Altalena tragedy, will be published in the Spring.