After ‘apartheid’ stir, experts question perceived demographic threat to Israel

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters before a series of meetings at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on January 2, 2014. Kerry recently came under fire for saying Israel could become an "apartheid state" in a two-state solution is not reached soon. Credit: State Department.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent controversial remark that Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state” in the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shined a spotlight on the perceived demographic threat to Israel—a threat that some experts say is not based on current reality. 

The term “apartheid” refers to the former policy of segregation and discrimination in South Africa, in which a minority white elite held a monopoly on leadership over the black majority. Using the term with reference to Israel implies that Israeli Arabs do not have equal rights with Jews, and that Jewish Israelis are on the verge of becoming a ruling Jewish minority. 

“It is outrageous that U.S. policymakers would find it opportune to irresponsibly and recklessly accuse Israel of apartheid while Arabs in Israel are the only Arab community in the Middle East that benefits from Western democracy, civil liberties, and freedom of speech,” former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger, a member of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group, told JNS.org.

“The root of [Kerry’s] unfortunate and erroneous statement has to do with a devastating ignorance of the demographic balance of Jews and Arabs west of the Jordan River,” he said. 

While Jews currently make up a solid majority of Israeli residents, many have argued that once-high Arab birthrates combined with modest Jewish birthrates could mean the end of the Jewish population edge, and thereby create a situation in which Jews would be forced to rule over a majority of Palestinians or cede power. Yet a relatively recent two-way shift in birthrates is altering this paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Maybe the demographic threat was real 10-20 years ago, but not anymore,” said Dr. Guy Bechor, an Israeli historian, lawyer, and professor who currently runs the blog Gplanet.co.il.

“There is a rise of Jewish fertility rate in Israel, and a decline of Arab fertility rate in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority,” Bechor told JNS.org.

Bechor noted that in the 1970s and ’80s, the fertility rate per Muslim mother in Israel was more than 8 children, and today the rate is 3.2. 

“In the Jewish community, 20 or 15 years ago, fertility rates were 2.5, and now it is more than 3 children per mother,” he said. “The numbers today are virtually the same between Arab and Jewish families.”

A dramatic decline in Arab fertility rates can also be seen in virtually every Middle East country, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, Bechor observes. 

Israel, meanwhile, is the only first-world nation in the world currently experiencing an increase in fertility—more than a full child above the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family. 

“Four is the new three,” Bechor said. “There is a renaissance of the Jewish fertility rate in Israel. Today, there is a clear Jewish majority in Israel, and this majority will continue to grow in the next few years.”

There are two other major factors affecting Israel’s population balance: immigration and the misrepresentation of census statistics by the Palestinian Authority.

Since before its creation, Israel has had an aggressive Jewish immigration program, with millions of Jews arriving from Europe, Arab countries, and the former Soviet Union.  Today, Jews from around the world continue to immigrate to Israel, most noticeably from France and Ukraine.

“Jews have benefitted since 1882 from an annual net Jewish immigration, and the next few years are very promising for a potential wave of aliyah [the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration, meaning ascending],” Ettinger said. “Therefore, not only don’t we have an Arab demographic time bomb in Israel, but there is major demographic Jewish momentum.”

The “demographic time bomb” has been the prevailing theory asserted by many historians and demographers for a small Jewish nation in a predominantly Muslim region since before the foundation of the state. Yet, according to Ettinger, these theories have been repeatedly proven false.

“In 1898, Jewish historian Shimon Dubnow chastised [Theodor] Herzl’s ideology about Zionism, and published a projection that under the best-case Jewish scenario, no more than 500,000 Jews would live west of the Jordan River by 2000. He was off by five and a half million Jews,” Ettinger said. 

Later, Professor Roberto Backi similarly attempted to dissuade Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion from declaring independence in 1948, claiming that Jews could not sustain a majority, 

“He projected there would be 2.3 million Jews in Israel by 2001, a 33-percent minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean,” Ettinger said. “He was wrong by roughly 4 million Jews.”

Today’s demographers, according to Ettinger, are making the same mistakes—and worse—by adhering to intentionally inaccurate and misleading data provided by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics on the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ettinger cites numerous statistical inconsistencies and double counting relating to birthrates and net emigration by Palestinians to Europe and other countries, as well as claims that some 300,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem as Palestinian citizens, even though they are Israeli citizens who are counted in Israel’s census. 

“All in all there is a 1 million person gap, or 1 million artificial inflation of the number of Palestinian residents in Judea and Samaria, which is 1.7 million and not 2.7 million, as widely reported,” Ettinger said. “And there is a gap of roughly 250,000 Palestinians in Gaza.”

Bechor, who has taught at both Harvard University and Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said the increases in Jewish birthrates not only change the paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also change the overall balance of world Jewry. He notes that Jews in the Diaspora have declining fertility rates that have dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family. Yet despite the decline of global Jewish populations, “because of the increase of the Jewish fertility rate in Israel, the numbers of Jews around the world are increasing for the first time since the Holocaust,” Bechor said.

“Today, there are more than 1 million more Jews living in Israel than in America,” he said. “For more than 100 years, many believed that America was the solution for the Jewish people. But today, Israel is the center of the Jewish people, and all the other countries are satellites.”

“Contrary to what Secretary Kerry and President Obama assume, Jewish majority west of the Jordan River is not only secure, but it is about to grow,” said Ettinger. “In fact, we are now at the beginning of major Jewish demographic momentum.”

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Posted on May 1, 2014 and filed under Israel, Features, News.