Demography has been used in Israel for decades by both left and right to advance and justify policies in the territories and regarding borders. Early advocates of a withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank, for example, cited, in addition to moral arguments, the fear that Arabs would eventually outnumber Jews in the land under Israeli control. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for the state's borders to be re-drawn so as to exclude as many Arab citizens as possible, in order to reduce what he perceives as a demographic threat to the Jewish state.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these proposals, they should be argued on their merits and not on the basis of false assumptions and fears. Hence, it is important that the public at least have some idea of what the demographic reality actually is. There may be disputes about numbers in the territories, but within Israel itself the facts are clear, and they deserve to be more widely known.
In the early days of the state, the Arab minority underwent a "demographic transition," something that often occurs when traditional societies confront modernity. Health care and living standards improved rapidly, life expectancy rose and infant mortality fell, but, initially, family size remained large. As a result, Israel's Arab population expanded fast, and maintained or even increased its proportion of the population, despite the massive Jewish immigration to the state. In the 1960s, Israeli Muslim women were still having on average nine children.
However, after the first stage of demographic transition - a falling death rate, a persistently high birthrate and thus rapid population growth - invariably comes a second stage, in which birthrates fall. This is now happening within Israeli Arab society, and has been for some time. The average Israeli Arab woman is now having fewer than half the children she had in the 1960s, while the Jewish birthrate has recently stabilized and even risen. This is seen in the number of children actually born each year. In 2001, there were around 95,000 Jewish births in Israel and 41,000 Arab births. Just seven years later, in 2008, Jewish births had risen to over 117,000, but Arab births had declined to less than 40,000. In a period that constitutes barely a quarter of a generation, Arab births had fallen from around 30 percent of the total to around 25 percent. This has been a steady trend and, should it continue, it will only be a very short time before Jewish and Arab births each year are broadly proportionate to the overall balance of Jews and Arabs in the population as whole - that is, 4:1, or 80 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
This should not come as any surprise, for although the relatively high Jewish birthrate in Israel bucks the trend for developed societies, the decline in the Arab birthrate within Israel accords with recent trends in the Islamic world. Today Israeli women as a whole have more children (2.77) than women in Iran (1.71), Bahrain (2.53), Algeria (1.82), Morocco (2.57), Indonesia (2.34) or Turkey (1.87). Latest figures suggest that Israeli women now have more children than women in Egypt (2.72), Jordan (2.47) or Lebanon (1.87). As recently as 2003, Syrian women had a fertility rate 50 percent higher than that of Israeli women. By 2008, it was only 16 percent higher.
None of the above takes account of the Arab population beyond the Green Line. Here the data are less reliable, but two things seem clear: Birthrates remain high, but they are falling fast. The number of births in the West Bank in 2003 suggested that Palestinian women there were having on average five children. Last year, that number was not much higher than three children, an astonishing transformation for so short a period of time.
Whatever the situation in the territories, within sovereign Israel, the message is fairly straightforward: Jewish and Arab birthrates are converging. What politicians and the public should concern themselves with is not how large a minority the Arab population will be - on the basis of recent trends and projections, it is unlikely to grow much beyond its current 20 percent - but rather what kind of minority it will be. Will it be an integrated part of society, upwardly mobile, both socially and economically, enjoying and contributing to the fruits of Israeli society, a potential bridge to the region and an advertisement for Israel's inclusiveness and tolerance? Or will it become marginalized, alienated and increasingly hostile? That depends very much on the Jewish majority's attitudes and the government's policies. It also depends on a pragmatic and realistic Arab leadership looking out for the interests of its constituency and basing its strategy on a sober understanding of its own demographic prospects.
For a favorable outcome, it would be prudent to concentrate on defusing not the "demographic time bomb," but the time bomb of ill-informed and misleading demographic scare-mongering.
Paul Morland, a business consultant in London, is writing his doctoral thesis on demography and ethnic conflict at Birkbeck College, University of London.
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