The Demographic Threat - Myth and Reality

Yedioth Achronot, June 20, 2002

The demographic threat- to the survival of the Jewish State – is real.  However, it has been frequently accorded mythical dimensions, in an attempt to scare the Israeli public and policy-makers into sweeping and reckless concessions, back to the 1949 lines.


In 1900 the Demographic Genie was harnessed by the leading Jewish historian, Shimon Doubnov.  He attempted to undermine Theodore Herzel's vision of a sovereign Jewish State in Zion, rather promoting the notion of a Jewish autonomy in Europe.  The renowned Doubnov presented a series of documented statistics, suggesting that Jewish and Arab birth rates, immigration and emigration determined that the number of Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean would grow from 50,000 in 1900 to 500,000 in the year 2000: a negligible minority!  Complex reality - producing a 5.5 million Jewish majority in Israel in 2000 - has demolished Doubnov's seemingly authoritative assessments.


In 1948 the Demographic Threat was employed by Prof. Roberto Bacchi of the Hebrew University, one of the leading statisticians and demographers in the world.  Bacchi attempted to persuade David Ben-Gurion to postpone the establishment of the Jewish State.  According to Prof. Bacchi, demographic calculations, supposedly, determined that the 650,000 Jewish majority residing in the Jewish State in 1948 would become a minority by 1968.  However, by 1968 there were 2.4 million Jews and 406,000 Arabs in Israel. 


In 1967 Israel's powerful Finance Minister, Pinchas Sapir, a relentless Dove, deployed Israel's leading statisticians and demographers, in order to convince then Prime Minister Levy Eshkol to evacuate Gaza, Judea&Samaria.  Sapir stated that by 1987 there would be an Arab majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.  Sapir's projection was crashed against the rocks of reality: By 1987 Jewish majority shrunk by a mere 1%, declining from 63.35% in 1967 to 62.4% in 1987, before the arrival to Israel of one million Jews from the former Soviet Union.


In contrast to doomsday predictions, and in accordance with Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the Jewish population (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean) has grown 164 times between 1882 and 1990 (from 24,000 to 3,947,000), while the Arab population has grown 5.8 times (from 425,000 to 2,450,000).  Indeed, in 1967, Prof. Bacchi admitted that birth rate was not equal (as popularly assumed) to population growth rate, which has been affected by many unpredictable variables.


Immigration (Aliya), emigration, war, terrorism, urbanization, employment opportunities in Israel and in other Middle Eastern countries, education and health services have had a critical impact on demography, as presented in the exhaustive research done by Yakov Feitelson and Avraham Shvout.  For example, Arab emigration away from Judea&Samaria almost offset the high Arab birth rate between 1948 and 1967, with the Arab population in Judea&Samaria growing only by 30,000 during those 20 years!  Arab emigration accelerated during the 1976-1980 economic petro-driven boom in the Persian Gulf.  However, emigration slowed-down in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accord, but has accelerated again since the eruption of the Palestinian War Of Terrorism in September 2000.  Moreover, the drastic reduction of illiteracy in Gaza, Judea&Samaria has sharply reduced Arab birth rate there from 8 kids per family in 1970 to 7 in 1985 and 5.6 in 2002.  The higher the education level of mothers, the lower the birth rate!


If the lethal demographic predictions and applications (withdrawal to the 1949 lines), concerning Gaza, Judea & Samaria, would have been realistic, one would have to apply them to the Galilee, the Negev and Jerusalem as well. Contrary to contemporary defeatists, the Founding Fathers of the Jewish State were not motivated by demography, nor were they deterred by demography.  They were determined to control, rather than be controlled/constrained, by demography! 


The Demographic Threat has been real since the advent of Zionism.  But, one should not attempt to fend off the demographic threat by giving away geography and topography, which have been irreplaceable for Israel's long-term security in the most violent and unpredictable region of the globe.  While demography has been shifty and constantly defying conventions, Israel's geography and topography have been fixed.  One cannot lower the mountain ridges of Judea&Samaria, which overpower the coastal plane of Israel (just as the Golan Heights overpower the Upper Galilee), nor can one stretch Israel's pre-1967 waistline beyond its 8-20 miles.  However, Jewish demography can be expanded beyond doomsday expectations, securing a long-term significant Jewish majority through a systematic economic and education policy, while dealing a traumatic blow to the infrastructure of PLO/PA/Hamas terrorism.