The Magazine

Breeding Insecurity

Israel begins to confront its demographic problem.

Jun 14, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 38 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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ISRAELI JEWS prefer not to talk about the so-called demographic problem--the challenge of maintaining a Jewish majority in their country while honoring the rights of its large and growing Arab minority. Which is understandable. The very term conjures up illiberal images of a government classifying people by ethnicity, race, or religion. Yet in a state that by self-definition is both democratic and Jewish--but almost 20 percent of whose population are Israeli Arabs whose relation to the majority and to the state is troubled--demography matters. Indeed, national security in the broadest sense--including all threats, nonmilitary as well as military, to a state's political sovereignty and territorial integrity--increasingly compels Israelis to overcome their aversion and face some very sobering facts.

Last December, at the fourth annual Herzliya Conference on national security, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first cabinet-level official to discuss the demographic problem directly in a major public address. He began by stressing that it does not pertain to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza: "We don't have any interest in ruling the Palestinians," he said, "and therefore the demographic problem will not exist in the territories when the Palestinian population switches to Palestinian rule." Inside Israel, however, the problem is one of numbers as well as the quality of civic relations:

If Arab inhabitants are wonderfully integrated and their numbers increase to 35-40 percent of the total inhabitants of the state, then the Jewish state will have been abolished, and it will have turned into a binational state. If their numbers remain at about 20 percent, as they are today, or fall, but relations are stiff, contentious, and violent, this too will hurt our democratic character. Therefore, we need a policy that balances these two needs. First of all, it is necessary to assure a Jewish majority in Israel. I say this as a liberal, as a democrat, and as a Jewish and Zionist patriot.

The simplicity of Netanyahu's reasoning should not be allowed to obscure the gravity of the implications. This is particularly so at a moment when Arab intellectuals and Arab Knesset members openly contend that the democratic minimum Israel owes its Arab minority is to cease to be a Jewish state. Clearly, both the numerical growth of the Arab minority in Israel and its mounting estrangement from the Jewish majority imperil Israel's very existence as a state that is both democratic and Jewish.

"YOU HAVE TO LOOK at the Jews in the Middle East as a suburb of the West within the third world." This anomaly--that Israel belongs both to the developed Western world and to the developing, non-Western world--is the first lesson Itzhak Ravid drives home in a wide-ranging informal tutorial on the demographic question in Tel Aviv recently. A gruff, no nonsense retired military analyst and former head of the Branch for Operations Research of the Israeli Air Force, Ravid was director of the national security team under prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin in 1992-1993. He stresses the impossibility of understanding Israel's population problem without placing it first in a regional--even a global--context.

Consider the West. With its individualist ethic, egalitarian mores, welfare systems, and high-tech health care, the modern West has low birthrates and low infant mortality rates. This results in low rates of natural growth--beneath replacement levels in many parts of Europe. Non-Western nations, meanwhile, have relatively high population growth, correlated with low rates of economic productivity. Some of these countries, aspiring to economic prosperity, have slowed growth through social policy--China for one. Elsewhere, social policy has failed to lower birthrates--as in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet that region has nothing like the fastest growth in the world, largely because poor health care leaves infant mortality high.