Moving from Demographic Discord to Sustainability

Barbed wire with Al-Asqa mosque in distance

Of the many divisive issues that have been at the heart of historic tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis, few have been as acrimonious as population growth. For a hundred years now, leaders of each community have related to women’s fertility as a strategic asset. Since Israel’s establishment, demographic strategies designed to ensure a Jewish majority exacerbated distrust with the country’s Arab minority. These troublesome public policies have produced myriad unexpected consequences. It is time for them to change.

The dust had not yet settled following Israel’s war of Independence when the newly formed government found time and resources to establish a “pro-natal” national program. Emulating the Soviet tradition of the day, David Ben Gurion created a prize of one hundred liras for heroic mothers who delivered ten or more children. Soon thereafter, a litany of incentives for large families was introduced which was supplemented with sundry obstacles to abortion and access to contraception. Be fruitful and multiply went from Biblical injunction to paramount policy objective.

Israel’s pro-natal orientation may have been readily rationalized or even rational when these policies were first enacted. The land was sparsely populated and the Jewish state felt that it faced an existential demographic threat. Today, almost seventy years later, they seem like antiquated relics of a darker time in Israel’s history.

During the twentieth century, Arabs and Jews were locked in a proverbial race to the bottom. Demography emerged as one of the great “battlefields” upon which competing national claims could be waged. But for more than a decade, these dynamics no longer exist. With little fanfare, an entirely different attitude towards national aspirations and the role of having children has evolved among Arab Israelis. It is time to declare an end to the Israeli government’s obsession with fertility and Palestinian politicians’ adulation of the wombs of Arab women. The land of Israel is full; it begs for a new level of sanity, stability, and sustainability.

A Century of Demographic Conflict

In the battle for demographic domination, Zionism began its efforts at the end of the nineteenth century with overwhelming numeric superiority on a global level, but a considerable deficit in Ottoman Palestine itself. Due to the relentless twin scourges of military occupations and deadly epidemics, after the Crusaders left the stage, for hundreds of years on average only 330,00 people actually lived in the land of Israel.

Late in the nineteenth century, the primitive conditions prevailing under the Ottoman Empire took a turn for the better. By 1914 the Muslim population in Palestine had doubled to 602,000, a function of high fertility, immigration, and increased life expectancy. The Christian and Jewish communities by then numbered 120,000 combined. Yet, due to the better levels of public health along with the arrival of Zionist pioneers, their populations were growing even faster.

Not unlike their present-day successors, the Arab population living in Palestine under the British Mandate during the first half of the twentieth century was a diverse and divided mosaic. Yet, Palestinian nationalists of all stripes recognized early on that the  reservoir containing millions of Jews in distress in Europe and in Arab lands was sufficiently large to threaten their majority status. A consensus solidified that saw a ban on Jewish immigration as axiomatic to the Arab political agenda and a central component of the fledgling Palestinian national ideology.

Caught between politicians’ conflicting commitments to competing national claims, British colonial officials were at first evasive and then sought compromise. But by the 1930s, Palestinian national violence grew intolerable. At the same time, the political support of the Arab world became critical to the allied strategy to defeating the Nazis. Promises to facilitate a Jewish national home made by Lord Balfour in 1917 and subsequently conveyed to the League of Nations had to be jettisoned. Indeed, in rationalizing proscriptions on Jewish immigration, British Colonial Secretary Sydney Webb disingenuously announced that there wasn’t even room “to swing a cat” in Palestine. Millions of European Jews would die as a result of the demographic obstinacy of Palestinian national leaders and the acquiescence of British politicians and bureaucrats. Ostensibly, the Arabs won this round of the demographic contest.

But from the Palestinian perspective, the victory came too late. Revisionist leader, Zeev Jabotinsky, was one of the few Zionist leaders who was honest about Jewish national intentions and openly acknowledged the legitimacy of the Arab fears. As military combat became inevitable, it what was increasingly clear that numbers mattered a great deal. The critical mass of Jews who had managed to make it to Palestine turned out to be sufficient to produce an effective fighting force. As the Jewish state prevailed against all odds, rebuffing the attacks of six Arab armies in 1948-1949, the stage was set for a new round in the demographic battle between the two peoples.

A Jewish Demographic Policy for a Jewish State

Since its inception, Israel’s demographic policies have employed a range of policy instruments and economic incentives. But they all share a few common elements:

–       They are openly particularistic, providing preferential treatment for Jews.

–       They employ a combination of “carrots” and “sticks”: economic incentives to reward  Jewish immigration and procreational behavior with disincentives for women who seek to reduce their personal fertility.

–       They frequently do not attain what they set out to achieve.

A classic case of such unintended consequences of Israel’s demographic policies is Ben-Gurion’s original pro-natal awards. About a decade after introducing the cash prize for super birthers, a staffer must have whispered into the Prime Minister’s ear that although his intention had been to boost modest Jewish birth rates, Arab women predominantly were the recipients of the award. Ben-Gurion sheepishly cancelled the program, intimating that the Jewish Agency, a non-governmental, operational arm of the Zionist movement, take over the initiative, so that it could legally exclude Arabs.

Israel’s formal commitment to treating all of its citizens equally made pro-Jewish demographic policies a very blunt tool for shaping a Jewish majority. Encouraging Jewish immigration was a far more effective strategy to ensure demographic domination in the new state. The Law of Return, legislated in 1950 was one of the country’s first and most symbolic statutes. It granted Jews around the world the right to “come back” to their homeland, implicitly recognizing them as indigenous people in the land of Israel. During the 68 years of Israeli history, over three million Jews have taken advantage of this opportunity, representing about 25 percent of total world Jewry.

Anti-Zionist naysayers are frequently disparaging of Israel’s open door policy to Jews, calling it a manifestation of a racist, chauvinistic ideology. But after centuries of discrimination, and the underlying lesson of the Holocaust, it is hard to argue that Jews shouldn’t be entitled to an affirmative action immigration program in their own state. International law certainly recognizes the right of families and communities to unification, and has accepted the legitimacy of national immigration criteria based on ethnic lines. It is also troubling that similar preferential immigration policies in Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Slovakia, Greece, and even Germany are never singled out for criticism. Only Jewish immigration to Israel seems to pose an ethical problem to Israel’s critics.

Notwithstanding the waves of Jewish refugees who arrived, for most of Israel’s history, immigration was not enough to keep up with the pace of Arab fertility. Certainly today, it is a trivial demographic force — with the numbers of Jews arriving to Israel, roughly comparable to those leaving — averaging annually about 24,000. Yet, even when “aliyah” involved much larger human migrations, the percentage of Arabs in Israeli society steadily increased — and with it anxiety among Jewish leaders. For Zionist politicians, demography constituted a disconcerting conundrum.

Over the years, there were intermittent, isolated voices who advocated discriminatory interventions. The most extreme called for “transfer” of Arab citizens, relying on international precedents, such the 1947 Pakistani/Indian partition and population exchange. Others promoted policies that would simply induce emigration by Israeli Arabs.  One particularly controversial instance involved an internal memo prepared by senior Interior Ministry official Yisrael Koenig that was leaked to the press in 1976. It presented grim demographic projections and expressed fears about losing a Jewish majority in the Galilee. Koenig’s proposed solutions were invidious: from limiting the number of Arab workers in government financed factories to provision of scholarships to study at foreign universities to targeted tax collection.

Mercifully, none of these proposals ever gained any traction. Koenig’s report was never more than an unauthorized, independent initiative by a renegade bureaucrat. But for Israel’s Arab minority, these demographic fear mongers confirmed their greatest apprehensions and served to heighten their resolve to produce exceedingly large families.

In retrospect, it is hard to call Jewish concerns of this period “xenophobic.” A phobia involves an irrational fear. And the demographic trends along with the associated aggressive rhetoric were very real for decades. There were certainly was no shortage of Palestinian politicians fanning the flames. Their pro-natal rhetoric and calls to out breed the Jews constituted an operational component in the general attacks on the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East. The noted Palestinian laureate, Mahmoud Darwish took an “in-your-face” satisfaction when he captured the triumph of his ninth child’s birth in a popular and very angry nationalist poem:

“I have 8 children, and the 9th will come after this summer;

Will you be angry?                             

Write down — I am an Arab.”

Arab-Israeli numbers recorded in consecutive national censuses were indeed extraordinary: By the 1960s, the average Muslim Israeli family had 9 children. This number dropped to 8.4 in 1974 and then in 1979 to 7.2. At the time, such fertility was unprecedented in a Western country. The battle over demographic advantage seemed to have reached new heights. So it was hard to see that by that time the winds of modernity, feminism and pragmatism were already blowing strong among Israel’s Arab citizens. An astonishing transition was underway.

The New Equilibrium

Anyone who visits an Israeli hospital cannot fail to be impressed by the disproportionately high number of Arabs working as health professionals at all levels. Medicine, perhaps more than any other career in Israel, has been color blind for some time. When doors of opportunity were ajar, Arab citizens responded and opened them. More than one of my Arab friends has told me that they grew up much as they imagine American Jews do: with a recognition that as a minority they have to be a little better educated, reach higher academic achievements and work a little harder to succeed in a society where the playing field is not entirely level. Education, along with collective and individual talent, produced a social and an economic revolution.

Studies from the 1950s estimated that 97 percent of the Arab women who became Israeli citizens (and almost three-quarters of the men) were illiterate. That’s because Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 War contained a high percentage of the local Arab elite and the more affluent socio-economic classes. When the chaos of war descended, they could afford to leave. The Arabs who remained, were rural and generally poorly educated. Arab women of that generation lacked meaningful professional options. Having large families was a perfectly logical outlet for their energies and aspirations.

But their daughters went to school and had options; today their granddaughters enjoy a rich menu of employment opportunities. Moreover, the traditional agrarian Palestinian economy ceased to exist. During the first half of the twentieth century children provided working hands and the only reliable social security policy. But under Israel’s compulsory education laws, children were not even allowed to work. They became an economic burden. The government’s nationalization of Arab land accelerated the cost-benefit equation. In a textbook case of “demographic transition” fertility plummeted.

The results are profound: by the 1990s, total birth rates among Arab women had dropped from 7 to 4.7 children. By 2005 it had reached 4.0; and today around 3.1 children per family. A graph depicting the number of births among Arab Israelis since 2000 is entirely flat: roughly 40,000 children per year have been born for some fifteen years now. By way of contrast, the number of Jewish babies increases each year.

Israel’s treatment of minorities is far from perfect and Arab Israeli citizens have a long list of complaints. Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha follows public opinion amongst Israeli Arabs more than any other local academic. He reports profound disappointment with the Arab Spring translating into a grudging acceptance of the benefits of being an Israeli minority. Israel’s Arab citizens are largely a pragmatic community that no longer sees large families as a strategy for improving their lot. Indeed, it is increasingly seen as an obstacle to collective progress and individual self-actualization.

The demographic war within Israel is over. Unfortunately, political leadership doesn’t seem to have noticed. Arab and Orthodox Jewish Knesset members continue to create bizarre, ad hoc coalitions that vote to keep subsidies for large families in place. As a result, Israel’s public policies remain unchanged — a throwback to the days when Jews were trying to outbreed their Arab cousins.

The trouble is that the country has changed. In 1949 there were only 850,000 people living in the land of Israel; in 1960 there were two million; by 1970 – the number reached three million. Newspapers on Independence Day 2016 touted headlines celebrating the country’s 8.5 million citizens – a 1000 percent increase since the country’s inception. The land of Israel was rather full.

The Price of Rapid Population Growth

Israel’s astonishing demographic growth produces a long list of social and environmental pathologies that affect all citizens: The country’s schools are among the most crowded in the Western world. Traffic jams have become a national nightmare. Hospital occupancy is also the highest in the OECD, with patients sleeping in hallways. The same is true for those seeking justice in Israel’s court system.

Nowhere is the effect of the relentless growth more profound than in Israel’s housing market. Despite campaign promises to make affordable housing the number one economic priority, during the past year Israeli housing prices rose by over 7 percent. Every year the country must increase its housing stock by at least 2 percent. That means 60,000 new units must be built. And that’s without providing apartments to French and American Jews who may not be moving to Israel en masse, but often hedge their bets with an apartment in the homeland.

Sixty thousand new houses take up a fair amount of land: Israel’s 2016 State of Nature Report calculates that every five years 12 square kilometers of open space give way to sprawl and development. The associated habitat loss is the major reason why so many Israeli animal species are dwindling, with many heading for extinction. A growing population produces more garbage than ever before, generates more noise pollution, and emits more greenhouse gases.

Pro-natal policies also contribute to poverty amongst Israel’s minority citizens. The Arab-Israeli sector is hardly monolithic. Bedouin communities in the Negev have an entirely separate culture and economic reality. Within Israeli society, they are the “poorest of the poor.”  Unlike the larger Israeli-Arab community, their birthrates remain extremely high, with estimates of total fertility rates ranging between 5.5 and 7. The two phenomena are connected. Mayors of Israel’s Bedouin communities agree that the most important single thing that needs to happen to address the poverty in their towns is for Bedouins to reduce their family size.

Israeli policies which provide child allowances and encourage large families do little to help Bedouin break out of the cycle of poverty. But they do enable the resurgence of polygamy which undermines improvements in the status of Bedouin women and the degraded personal reality that tens of thousands of first, second and third wives face. The best way to empower this community – and Bedouin women in particular – is to adopt a new strategy which helps the community attain a modicum of demographic stability and economic prosperity. That means subsidizing education and female opportunity rather than fertility.

Towards Sustainability

The great British naturalist and television personality, Sir David Attenborough, correctly observed that all problems are easier to address with fewer people – and more difficult to address (if not impossible) with more. Israel’s social and ecological problems are growing worse. If it ever wishes to solve them, the country must hit the demographic brakes. That means putting an end to pro-natal economic programs, canceling restraints on reproductive autonomy, and making a true commitment to fully empowering women across its society. The dividends of such a change will go beyond the environmental and economic realm to include greater social harmony.

One of the great tragedies of the Third Jewish Commonwealth is the pervasive suspicion, animosity, and segregation between Jewish and Arab citizens. A primary driver of this dissonance has been demographic competition. Nobody stands to gain from perpetuating old policies that were designed to fuel high birth rates and ensure Jewish dominance. It is time that Israel issues in a new era of stability and conciliation. This is an equilibrium which Arab Israelis have long since embraced. If Israel is going to ever enjoy a future of peace and sustainability, it is time to promote a new ethos of demographic stability.

Professor Alon Tal from Ben Gurion University is the author of “The Land is Full” recently released by Yale University Press


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