Monday, October 27, 2008

Israel’s "Demographic Problem"

P. David Hornik | 10/27/2008

Yoram Ettinger, a tireless Israeli activist and journalist for rational causes, reports that Israel’s much-vaunted “demographic problem” is not only fictitious but an inversion of reality.

It’s not only because both Palestinian and Israeli Arab birthrates are sinking while Israeli Jewish birthrates are growing, but more broadly because of what Ettinger calls a “demographic implosion” in Muslim societies. In Iran, for instance, the birthrate has plummeted from 9 per woman 30 years ago to 1.8 in 2007. In Saudi Arabia during that time span, from 8 to 4; Egypt, 7 to 2.5; Jordan and Syria, both from 8 to 3.5. As for West Bank Arabs, Ettinger notes that the American-Israel Demographic Research Group has documented a decline to a current rate of “4 births per woman and trending downward”; and for Israeli Arabs, all the way from 9 in 1969 to 3.5 in 2007.

The trend in general is “a derivative of modernization/Westernization, rapid urbanization,” and worried dictators trying to keep a lid on society. In the West Bank it reflects factors like “escalating emigration…an all-time high divorce rate…and the UNRWA/PA-led family planning campaign.” Among Israeli Arabs it stems from integration into various spheres of Israeli life.

The overall situation has led the UN Population Division to lower its population projections for 2050 from 12 billion to 9 billion and possibly as low as 7.4 billion. At least within their own societies, Muslim populations are contracting rather than expanding, with Afghanistan and Yemen the only current exceptions.

Meanwhile among Israeli Jews the trend is the reverse, with the annual number of Jewish births rising by 40% from 1995 to 2007 (including Russian immigrants not yet recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate), and from 69% to 75% of total births in that span. Many people shrug off such figures as coming from Israel’s ultra-religious Jewish population; but Ettinger notes that it isn’t so, since “the secular sector—and particularly the [immigrants] from the former Soviet Union—has been by and large responsible for such an impressive rise.”

This Israeli Jewish pattern “has been non-normative as far as the impact of education and income levels on…fertility rates” and has been variously explained as reflecting the strength of the Jewish ethos throughout Israeli Jewish society or the fear of losing a child from war or terrorism.

If all this is true, why the gloom and doom from Israeli leaders and why does Israel still seem to be on the run from “the territories” as if they were a demographic time bomb?

Indeed, just three years ago at the time of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, scare stories about the “demographic problem” hung heavily in the air. Though most Israelis wanted to find a way eventually not to rule over the Gazan Arabs, the demographic scare was used to create a sense of panic and urgency—and the “disengagement” was carried out so recklessly that since then six thousand rockets have been fired from Gaza as Israel faces a much worse problem of a radical Islamic beachhead under Hamas rule.

Yet, in what seems like a bizarre refusal to learn something from that debacle, just recently outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert declared in a sort of swansong that Israel has to stick to the same path and withdraw from almost all the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem. His possible replacement, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is also on record urging the creation of a Palestinian state in what’s left of “the territories”—the West Bank—as little less than an existential necessity for Israel.

Compared to three years ago, sheer demographics are invoked less in these arguments, and the impact of Yoram Ettinger—who has worked unstintingly to disseminate the real demographic facts including meetings with Israeli officials—has something to do with it. Still, politicians like Olmert and Livni conjure up specters of Israel and the West Bank becoming a “binational state” and a fed-up world imposing South Africa-like sanctions.

If, in the future, there were to be any truth in such visions, it would be the truth of self-fulfilling prophecy as spineless leaders—of the kind Israel has been all too plagued with since 1992—play along with the outmoded notions of a mostly detached, cynical world and lack the courage to present the truth: as Ettinger puts it, “recent demographic trends bode well for [a] solid, long-term Jewish majority of 67%” in Israel and the West Bank. That would mean the rush to create a dangerous, Islamist/nationalist Palestinian state has no basis in any real need or prudence.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at He can be reached at

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