The Politics of Demography
It is endlessly – and mindlessly – reiterated that demographic disaster looms for Israel if it does not relinquish its biblical homeland for a Palestinian state. Everyone from Yasser Arafat to Barack Obama has said so. The PLO leader gleefully predicted: “the womb of the Palestinian woman will defeat the Zionists.” The American president ominously warned: “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”
But predictions of Israel’s looming demographic calamity are hardly new. During the First Intifada, Haifa University professor Arnon Sofer anticipated that Israel would become “non-Jewish” by the turn of the century. Early in the new century, Israeli demographer Sergio Della-Pergola imagined that before its first decade ended “Jews will become a minority in the lands that include Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.” It did not happen.
Such “demographic panic” has been fed by false data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. In 2007 it claimed that 2,500,000 Arabs inhabited the West Bank and Jerusalem. But even the Bureau head conceded that these exaggerated numbers represented “a civil intifada” designed to undermine Jewish settlements. Other Palestinian ministries acknowledged a considerably lower West Bank population of 1.6 million Arabs. As Israeli demographer Yoram Ettinger has warned: “Beware of Palestinians bearing demographic numbers.”
During the past two decades Arab births west of the Jordan River have stabilized while Jewish births have increased. When Israel celebrated its sixty-fifth anniversary of independence in 2013, six million Jews (including 350,000 settlers in Judea and Samaria) comprised 75.3% of its population, which also included 1.6 million Arab citizens (20.7 percent). Even including 1.6 million West Bank Palestinians, Israel still enjoyed nearly a 2:1 majority west of the Jordan River.
Birth-rate projections indicate continued Jewish population growth, largely concentrated among settler and ultra-Orthodox families, in conjunction with a declining Arab share of Israeli births. The most recent numbers from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics report that in 2013 the Jewish birthrate increased by 1.3 percent while the Muslim birthrate fell by 5.5 percent. Given available data, it is highly unlikely that Jews will be outnumbered in the foreseeable future, except in the forebodings of settlement critics and the longings of Palestinians for a Judenrein state.
But there will always be gullible journalists, New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren conspicuous among them. In her interview with Tareq Abbas, son of the president of the Palestinian Authority (now in the ninth year of his four-year term), she wrote (March 19): “Palestinians are comforted by demographics. There are already more Arabs than Jews living between the river and the sea, plus millions of Palestinian refugees, and generally higher Palestinian birthrates.” She was glaringly wrong on all counts.
As for actual Palestinian refugees, only UNRWA, the United Nations organization that exists to exaggerate and perpetuate their numbers, believes that bloated figure. There surely are millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees (as there are of Holocaust victims). But the actual number of Palestinian refugees still living is estimated at 30-50,000. Even if they all returned to Israel next month it would make no significant demographic difference in the Jewish state.
The far more horrific refugee problem, which the world prefers to ignore, is 2.5 million Syrians who have recently been driven from their country. As Anne Barnard wrote in the Times (March 18), “the Syrian displacement dwarfs the exodus from British-mandate Palestine during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948.” Palestinians take notice.
What does it say about Israel’s critics that egregious distortions continue to place Palestinian refugees on center stage, feeding the worldwide delegitimization of Israel as a racist apartheid state, while Syrian refugees are all but ignored?
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Jewish State Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy, to be published in April.