A Solution to Israel’s Demographic Peril

When Israeli Arabs protest that talk of the “demographic threat” is racist, can Israeli Jews blame them? If non-Jewish professors and politicians anywhere on earth spoke of a Jewish demographic threat to their countries, what would Jews call it? What, for that matter, would decent non-Jews call it?

Raising the specter of the Arab demographic threat to Israel is, in fact, racist — if you believe that Zionism is racism, that a Jewish state is a racist state.

I don’t believe that (even while I know there is no shortage of Jews whose Zionism doesn’t amount to anything more than racism). Although the Jewish state by definition “belongs” to the Jews more than it does to its non-Jewish citizens, I don’t consider it a force for racism, but the opposite: Whatever racism exists in Israel, the Jewish state came into being as an answer to racism of a rather larger magnitude — the habit of anti-Semitic oppression.

And however unjust a Jewish state is to its Arab citizens, if Israel stops being a Jewish state it will start being an Arab state, and I think the injustice to the Jews that would result from that is worse than anything Israeli Arabs have to endure.

So I don’t think it’s racist or anti-democratic or unfair to want a Zionist future for this country. And while Zionists are known to argue over what makes a Jewish state, I’d say the absolute minimum, the point every Zionist can agree on, is that it must have a solid Jewish majority.

How much is solid? Eighty percent, the current figure (including the Russian immigrants who think of themselves as Jewish, even if the religion does not), is solid. But I’d say that once the figure drops below 75 percent, which leading demographers predict will happen in about 20 years, the viability of a Jewish state with an Arab minority in the Middle East starts coming into question. And the way things are going demographically, it’s downhill from there.

Obviously, Israeli Arabs, and not just them, take all this in as racism. But as it turns out, the project to solidify Israel’s Jewish majority serves not only the purpose of preserving the Jewish state, but also — despite all the Jewish racists — of protecting the democratic rights of Arab citizens.

There’s no way to avoid it — the more Israeli Jews feel their majority threatened, the more hostile, fearful and punitive they will become toward Israeli Arabs. It can already be felt: in the denial of citizenship to Palestinians marrying Israeli Arabs; in Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s boast that his child welfare cuts brought down the Israeli Arab birthrate; in the growing Jewish majority telling opinion polls that the government should “encourage” Israeli Arabs to emigrate.

None of this would be happening, I don’t think, if the 80 percent Jewish majority were secure; if Israel weren’t inching steadily toward a demographically binational state; if its foundation — its citzenry — weren’t headed for a “tipping point.”

Demography is a dirty business. I don’t like dealing with it. I don’t like knowing that if an Arab friend has a baby, I’m of course happy for him personally, but in the abstract, as a Zionist, as an Israeli thinking about the national interest, I have to say that such a birth is bad news.

This is a miserable state of affairs. And it wouldn’t be if demographic trends showed Israel’s Jewish majority holding at 80 percent, or even a little less, for generations to come. In the name of the national interest, Zionists could celebrate the births of all the Israeli Arab babies just as much as the births of all the Jewish ones. (More than a few Zionists, I’m sure, would still refrain.)

So for the sake of Israel’s Jewish character and democracy, the demographic threat has to be overcome. There have been all sorts of suggestions, some of which are truly malevolent, such as Netanyahu’s stated motive in cutting child welfare, and the idea of encouraging Arab citizens to leave the country — to coerce them into leaving, to bring about “voluntary transfer,” to make Israeli Arabs’ lives so daunting that they will “choose” emigration.

And if these are the only ways to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, then let’s leave it for the Arabs and the Jewish racists and help the decent Jews find a better place to live.

Then there’s the idea of cutting out a heavily Arab section of the Galilee and joining it to a Palestinian state in the West Bank, maybe in exchange for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank settlement blocs.

There are a couple of drawbacks here: One, who wants to give up the heart of the Galilee? Two, the Arab citizens in the Galilee don’t want to become part of Palestine, so you can’t force them. (Incidentally, you can force Jewish citizens out of Gush Katif, because Gaza, unlike the Galilee, doesn’t belong to sovereign Israel.)

A couple of other notions to bolster the Jewish majority involve easing the conversion process for interested gentiles, and pushing aliyah with more enthusiasm and marketing skill among the 5 million to 6 million American Jews. There’s nothing objectionable about either of these ideas, I just don’t think they’re mass-scale solutions. I don’t think they’re going to get enough takers to make a dent in the demographic threat.

So here’s my idea: Secular Israeli Jews have to start making more babies, say one more per family. If the religious also want to have more babies, that’s, of course, just as good, but I mention the secular, because they only have an average of about two children per family, while the religious have more, often many more.

In the pioneering era, when there weren’t that many Jews here, Jewish fertility was an overt Zionist value. Among the secular, it’s long forgotten, and I think it’s time to remember it again.

The biological clock is ticking for the Jewish state — and for its democracy.

Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.