A Jewish Demographic State

Having lodged itself close to the top of the national agenda, the issue of demography is forcing both the right and the left to grapple with the difficult dilemma at the heart of the state's character. Can Israel be a Jewish and democratic state? Is there any such animal?

Lily Galili
Lily Galili

About three months ago Prof. Arnon Sofer sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The subject was the need for separation from the Palestinians. "Most of the inhabitants of Israel realize that there is only one solution in the face of our insane and suicidal neighbor - separation," wrote Sofer. "You should have known this months before they did, as the grave demographic data were put on your desk many months ago. In the absence of separation, the meaning of such a majority (of Arabs - L.G.) - is the end of the Jewish state of Israel. You should remember that on the same day as the Israel Defense Forces is investing efforts and succeeding in eliminating one terrorist or another, on that very same day, as on every day of the year, within the territories of western Israel, about 400 children are being born, some of whom will become new suicide terrorists! Do you realize this?"

Prof. Sofer is not one for understatement. Behind his back he is called "Arnon the Arab-counter" (in Hebrew his surname means, among other things, "he counts"), because of the obsessiveness with which the geographer from the University of Haifa is engaged in counting the Arabs in order to prepare demographic forecasts. This nickname, which has also been brought to his attention, does not really offend him.

"Because I'm worried about the Jews - they say I'm a racist? I think I deserve a medal," he says. "Anyway, if I say that, for the sake of the demographic balance, it is necessary to dismantle 50 Jewish settlements in the territories and separate from 219,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem - am I a right-winger at all?"

Sofer links the issue of separation to the demographic issue. This is one of the earmarks of the new discourse on both these issues. During the past year, ever since the talk of separation began, especially as a security necessity, the discussion of demography has also increased. The left enlists demography to give validity to its call to end the occupation by means of separation; the right and the Jewish settlers in the territories argue that the demographic problem is so big that in any case it cannot be solved by giving back territories or by building a fence.

There are those who come to separation straight from demography, like Minister Dan Meridor, who has even gone so far as to create a link between the two. "Had Jabotinsky known that 6 million of the Jewish people would perish in the Holocaust, perhaps he would not have said `both banks of the Jordan,'" remarked Meridor sadly in a conversation this week.

Demography, as the science that examines changes in the make-up of the population, has always existed. But there is no doubt that the sense of the threat that has been felt by the Jewish population of Israel during the past two years has removed it from the academic realm to daily discourse. From it, transfer has now sprouted as a legitimate outlook; it is part of the infrastructure that has given rise to the thinking about a binational state and it is one of the elements upon which the plans for separation are growing. Sometimes the demographic debate accompanies the question of separation. Sometimes it stands on its own.

In recent months a permanent team has been meeting at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, headed by Dr. Shimshon Zelniker and run by lawyer Gilead Sher and Major General (res.) Uri Saguy. Had the Jewish underground operated with the same degree of secrecy as the team that meets at Van Leer, it is doubtful that it would ever have been exposed. Appearing before the group are experts from various disciplines - among others, demographers, geographers and Jewish settlers from the territories. The team is examining the various separation plans with the aim of forming a crystallized joint opinion. Toward the end of the prolonged deliberations, it is clear that the demographic issue is the most important element in determining the lines of separation.

During the work process, the team has conducted what is called "sensitive examinations" of the various separation lines. On the basis of the assumption that a Jewish majority inside the State of Israel is a balance of 80 percent Jews and 20 percent Arabs, every dunam that is added to Israel should preserve this balance of eight to two.

"The place where it is necessary to cut is the demographic line," confirms Yiftah Spector, a businessman, former pilot and member of the team. "In paving the current route some basic mistakes have already been made. Thus, for example, it left inside it a number of Palestinian villages in the northern part of the Triangle. Thus, by merely drawing a line, they have added 11,000 Palestinians to our camp. There is a constant tension between separating territories and separating populations. Separation has to be between populations. If we continue to hold on to the territories, we will be a minority that is ruling a majority, like it was in South Africa. Alternatively, the new majority could, through democratic means, eliminate the Jewish state."

Van Leer is not the only place where they are discussing demography. They are also examining it at universities, at the National Security Council and even in home discussion circles throughout the country. Reports indicate that men tend to go more for the security argument; women are more sensitive to demography. The U.S. State Department and the CIA are also taking an interest. The demographic calculations that have been gathered there are similar to those that are being analyzed in Israel.

Richard Harris, the head of the planning department at the U.S. State Department, some time ago asked Arnon Sofer what percentage of his separation map is based on security and what percentage on demography. "One hundred percent demography," replied Sofer.

At the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, a team of academics and senior security people has met several times to discuss the issue of demography in the State of Israel. Among other things, they discussed the idea of moving Umm al-Fahm into the Palestinian state. A similar idea was proposed by Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh on the basis of a proposal formulated by Arnon Sofer about a year ago. The idea came to Sofer after he got annoyed by some remark by former MK Abdelwahab Darawshe. Thus Sofer decide that it was worth separating from the Triangle. "This isn't expulsion, it's irredentism," is how he explains the idea of handing over tens of thousands of Israeli citizens, with their homes and possessions, to another country.

The difficulty in the discussion of the demographic issue is not in recording the data or forecasting the trends. On these, there is nearly complete agreement among the researchers. The difficulty lies in the inevitably racist tone of the discourse. The definition of non-Jewish Israeli citizens or even Palestinians in the territories as a "problem" or a "demographic threat" makes use of racist language.

The new interest in demography touches the core of the state's being - its definition as a Jewish state. For the first time in the history of public discourse here, even the most devout leftists are being required to confront their inner truth. It is no longer possible to seek refuge in banal statements like "there is no contradiction between a Jewish and a democratic state," or hollow slogans about coexistence. Anyone who clings to the concept of a Jewish state cannot ignore the demographic figures laid out in black and white in dozens of publications on the subject. The character of the state, its identity card, now depends on the definitions derived from these figures. The fact that the vast majority of Jewish citizens cling to the definition of Israel as a "Jewish state" leaves no way out.

At Bar-Ilan University there has been an examination, in a series of surveys, of attitudes toward basic values like peace, democracy and a Jewish state. At various points in time, the Jewish state has been perceived as the value of supreme importance. Peace and democracy alternate among themselves in secondary places after this value, in accordance with events in the background of the particular survey. This is no doubt the reason so many people avoid discussing the issue, as they are aware of the fact that behind "the demographic issue" there are masses of people whose very existence is defined as a problem.

One of those who is put off by the discussion of demography is Prof. Ehud Sprinzak, the head of the school of government at the Interdisciplinary Center. "I don't like the concern with this issue," he says. "Those guys, the demographers, think that demography explains everything. Sofer has been making those calculations for 25 years now, but during a time of conflict this frightens people. For me,demography is an abstract concept that should be dealt with only in the context of additional concepts. A narrow perspective cannot explain the reality, I refuse to go into a bunker because of numbers."

Sprinzak's anger derives in part from the image that has clung to the Interdisciplinary Center after a comprehensive discussion of the demographic issue at the last Herzliya Conference. At that conference Sofer presented his data and Major General (res.) Shlomo Gazit from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies responded by saying: "Democracy has to be subordinated to demography."

In a conversation with him this week, Gazit reiterated this, stressing that this is a time of emergency. Sprinzak calls Gazit's remark "a miserable statement," and explains that "Gazit was upset by the numbers and exaggerated." Sprinzak disassociates himself from Sofer - "He's from the University of Haifa, anyway," he stresses repeatedly, as if to call attention to the fact that the racist talk about the demographic issue did not spring up at his school.

In a pamphlet entitled "Israel, Demography 2000-2020" put out by the chair of geostrategy at the University of Haifa, Sofer defines the demographic changes in the region as an "existential threat." He formulates the plethora of implications in three processes that will take place in this region: a decline toward becoming a Third World country, a flight of the strong and an "existential threat." No less. According to updated figures that Sofer presents, in the year 2020 the population of the land of Israel (including the territories) will reach 15.5 million; 40 percent of them will be Jews. Within the State of Israel in 2020, the proportion of Jews will be 64 percent.

According to figures presented by Dr. Yitzhak Ravid of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, in 2020 the population of the land of Israel will reach 15.1 million, of whom 6.5 million will be Jews. Sofer says that in 2020 the number of Arab citizens of Israel will reach 2 million, and the Jewish majority will shrink to 65 percent. According to Ravid the number of Arabs will come to about 1.9 million. Prof. Sergio della Pergola presents identical numbers. According to demographic assumptions that are accepted throughout the world, a minority of more than 30 percent defines a state as binational. There are also demographers who are following the foreign workers, as well as the non-Jews, particularly among the immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Certain demographers put these in the category of "Others," as an additional demographic threat to the Jewish majority; others see them as reinforcements for the Jewish majority, as they are "non-Arabs."

Lutfi Mashour, the editor of the newspaper Al-Sinara that is published in Nazareth, took up the issue of the growth in the number of non-Jews in Israel in a lecture he delivered this month at the University of Haifa. There too - how could it be otherwise? - they are looking into the demographic issue. Mashour argued that it is not the Arabs, but rather "a demographic solution in the style of the non-Jewish immigration from Russia or other immigrations like it, which are planned as a demographic solution for the Jews - that are the demographic danger to the state."

Mashour sounded upset by the obsessive concern with the subject. "If you move Umm al-Fahm to Palestine, the border will be at the village of Musmus," he said. "Then you will get a little more annoyed, and give back all of the Triangle and the Galilee, and thus we will go back to the Partition lines of 1947. Do you really want all of Israel to be one big Masada? And altogether, what is this craziness? After all, until October, 2000, your biggest demographic problem was the ultra-Orthodox. In your democratic-demographic game, we won't be the factor. If you keep on this way, emigration from Israel for security and economic reasons will be your problematic demographic factor."

Dr. Aziz Haider, a sociologist at the Truman Institute of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, disagrees with the nature of the concern with demography. "In the past, very few Arabs dealt with the demographic issue, because they did not feel that it was a threat to them," says Haider. "Recently, when there has been talk of exchanges of populations and territories, they are also beginning to talk about this, because they are feeling an existential threat. I am not sure about the figures people are presenting. Even supposedly objective data can be biased. All the estimates are based on the current birthrates in the Arab population. As a sociologist, I take into account social and cultural processes as well, for example processes of modernization that change trends. The development of a society is not a linear process; the ideological discussion of demography is a big lie that people create to serve their interests."

The manipulative use of the "demographic threat" was manifested in the television appearance last week by the director-general of the Zionist Council, Moshe Ben-Attar to explain the Council's recommendation to cut the National Insurance Institute's child allowances starting from the fifth child, to limit the birth rate. As it is clear to everyone that the ultra-Orthodox who have large families will find some arrangement, especially in the age of the demographic struggle, this is obviously an attempt to limit the birth rate in the Arab sector. From Ben-Attar's remarks it could have been understood that all his concern is about the sixth Bedouin child, who will not have a personal computer.

The Zionist Council is not alone: all kinds of proposals are being tossed around in the Knesset and elsewhere. One of these is National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman's plan to expel from the country any Arab who refuses to sign a loyalty oath to Israel when he gets his identity card. There are also proposals to cut National Insurance Institute allowances and to change the Law of Return, all of them having to do now with the demographic issue.

"Transfer Now," a placard that is now posted on every empty wall throughout the country - is the decisive answer from one side; a binational state is the less popular answer from the other side of the political fence.

"It's frightening when Jews talk about demography," says Dr. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "There were those who believed that the ethnic cleansing of 1948 solved the problem. Now they are discovering to their dismay a reality in which the Jews will always be a minority in the Middle East." By "they," Raz-Krakotzkin means the Israeli left. As he sees it, the left's view of the world is based on a demographic principle, just like the worldview of transfer.

"The peace discourse of the Israeli left in fact proposes getting rid of the Arabs, and therefore it sounds exactly like the talk of transfer," he argues. "I share the sense of anxiety among the Jewish public in Israel. It is justified. I am in fact thinking about Jewish existence, but I refuse to think about it in demographic terms. The binational framework is the only one that allows the separation of Jewish existence from the demographic issue. In demography, the Jews are losing. It exposes all the internal contradictions of Zionism. The binational approach is aimed at solving this problem, and there really are Arabs who accuse me of supporting binationalism in order to preserve the Jewish people."

Throughout the conversation, Raz-Krakotzkin calls Israel a "Jewish-demographic state," usually as a slip of the tongue. In the atmosphere of the past months, this is perhaps the most accurate definition.



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