Israel’s identity crisis

For decades, Israelis have put off facing a simple question: Is Israel a Jewish state, or a state of all its citizens? But with Palestinians soon to become a majority, the issue can no longer be ducked

Topics: Middle East,

Israel's identity crisis

Demography is the underlying force driving Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. It determines political debate over the Jewish state’s identity and borders. And it is the unspoken but crucial factor behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decisions to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza strip, to build a “separation barrier” in the West Bank, and more recently, to approve a controversial law preventing any Palestinian who marries an Israeli from becoming an Israeli citizen. All these measures are aimed at preserving the Jewish majority, seen as a pillar of long-term national survival. And they are forcing Israelis to address head-on the most fundamental and delicate questions about their national identity.

When Israeli Jews mention “demography,” what they really mean is their fear of becoming a minority in the land, given the Arab population’s higher fertility rate. Public threats by their adversaries, that “the Palestinian womb” will eventually decide the decades-old contest for Palestine, are fueling this fear. The recent intifada, the four-year Palestinian-Israeli war of attrition, convinced many Israelis that their country’s future as a Jewish state, as opposed to a binational one, is dependent upon winning the demographic war. Even die-hard right-wingers, former believers in “greater Israel,” now advocate partition along ethnic lines, with a large Jewish majority on the Israeli side. And in recent years the “demographic left” has grown stronger, certainly compared to Israel’s shrinking ideological left. In the end, it seems, births have helped the Palestinian cause more than bombs and bullets.

Approximately 10 million people live today in the Israeli-controlled area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean shore. There is a small Jewish majority, but given the current demographic trend, it is quickly waning. Sergio Della Pergola, a Hebrew University demographer, predicts that the moment of parity may arrive by 2010 — five years hence. By then, the Jewish majority will barely exist anymore. Even in the unlikely possibility of falling Arab fertility, or an outburst of Jewish immigration from abroad, the inevitable will merely be deferred by a few years.



Israel has always declared itself to be both “Jewish and democratic.” Alas, demography is forcing the country, at least with its current borders, to choose between these two identities. If it wants to remain a Jewish state, with a Jewish majority, it must accept a smaller territory. If it wants to continue to hold on to the occupied territories and to be a democracy, it must grant full citizenship and civil rights to the millions of Palestinians who presently live under the dual governance of the Israeli military occupation and the Palestinian Authority. But turning the Palestinians into citizens will make Israel a binational state — “a state of all of its citizens,” as the expression goes — one that will eventually be ruled by an Arab majority. “It’s impossible to rule over densely populated areas for long, without giving them rights,” acknowledged Sharon when I interviewed him recently.

In 1949, in the aftermath of the War of Independence, Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion clearly chose the first option. Asking parliamentary approval for the armistice agreements, which ended the war with a de facto partition of Palestine, he said: “We could have captured all of Palestine militarily, and then what? We’ll make it into one state. But the state would want to be democratic, and we will be a minority … When we faced the question of the completeness of the land without a Jewish state, or a Jewish state without the whole land, we chose a Jewish state without the completeness of the land.” Decades later, Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, quoted these Ben Gurion statements to justify their own political conversion.

In 1967, Israel captured the rest of the land in the Six-Day War. Israeli governments have tried ever since to have it both ways, keeping the occupied territories and settling them with Jews, but not actually annexing them, which would mean having to grant the Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship. Both the left and the far right in Israel viewed this indecisive policy as demographically undesirable, but neither could do anything about it. The left favored giving up the territories to create a Palestinian state; the right advocated a “transfer,” or massive expulsion, of the Palestinians. The mainstream parties, Labor and Likud, deferred any decision. The debate cooled throughout the 1990s, when a million arrivals from the former Soviet Union strengthened the Jewish majority, and the Oslo peace process held out the hope of territorial compromise. But the Camp David debacle of 2000, which ended the peace process, and the subsequent intifada, have thrown Israelis and Palestinians back into their violent, zero-sum rivalry over the land. Moreover, Israel has faced growing international pressures to leave the territories, and unprecedented debate over the very legitimacy of a Jewish state. In a much-discussed 2003 article in the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt argued that “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

The latest person to climb on the demographic bandwagon was Sharon, a territorial maximalist who had argued for years against it. His denials that demography was indeed a problem were less than convincing, especially since in making them he quoted the exact numbers of Jews and Arabs in Palestine since the 1917 Balfour Declaration. “This is weird, coming from a man who doesn’t care about demography,” said a seasoned political analyst. When Uzi Dayan, his former national-security advisor, raised the “demographic time bomb” with Sharon in 2001, the prime minister frowned. “Time is on our side,” he declared publicly.

But in the end, even Sharon could not escape the demographic reality. His first response was to erect the separation barrier, ostensibly to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers but also to change the demographic “facts on the ground.” The barrier was the first physical division ever built between Israel and the West Bank (Gaza had been fenced after Oslo), complete with fences and walls and passage permits. Demography dictated the route: Sharon told the barrier planners to include as many Jews as possible on its western, “Israeli” side, and as many Palestinians as possible on the other side. He says that for security reasons, the fence should have been built still further east on the Samaritan hills, “but then it would include hundreds and thousands of Palestinians, who would eventually join the Israeli Arabs, and that would become a major problem.” In the end, the Palestinians, the international community and the Israeli courts rejected Sharon’s favored route, forcing Israel to move it closer to the “Green Line,” the pre-1967 armistice line.

Sharon’s second response came in late 2003, when he announced his “disengagement” plan to evacuate all of the Israeli settlements from Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. Facing fierce opposition from his erstwhile right-wing political allies, Sharon defended his plan as “good for Israel.” In an annual policy speech in December 2004, he said: “The disengagement [plan] acknowledges explicitly, courageously and sincerely, the demographic reality on the ground.” Sharon now says that “we had a dream” of holding all the territories, but reality has made it impossible, so now he is trying to save what he can in the West Bank. There are also hints that he is unenthusiastic about the barrier in Jerusalem, which leaves 200,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side. Moving its route to exclude them, however, is too explosive politically these days: Sharon’s Likud rivals would immediately accuse Sharon of acquiescing in “the division of Jerusalem,” a flashpoint for the Israeli right.

The demographic crisis does not stop at the Green Line, however. Israel’s Arab minority constitutes about one-fifth of its population. Given its birth rate, it is a larger minority in the younger ages: 31 percent of first-grade Israeli schoolchildren are Arabs. Since its inception, the state has promised them (even if halfheartedly) equal rights as individual citizens, but denied their national rights as a group. This policy cannot hold, of course, as their share of the population grows. As the intifada deepened divisions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, increasing numbers of Israeli Jews have grown uneasy with this situation. A poll conducted by the Center for National Security Studies at Haifa University found that 64 percent of Israeli Jews believed that the state should encourage Israeli Arabs to emigrate.

One solution, once considered racist but which has gained growing support among Israeli Jews, is “populated territorial swap,” or “soft transfer,” in which Israel would “trade” Arab-populated areas within Israel to a future Palestinian state in return for the West Bank “settlement blocks” where most Israeli settlers live.

Sharon says, “If they come and propose to negotiate an exchange, in return for strategically important areas [in the West Bank] where Jews live, it can be discussed. But it must be done by consent, there is no possibility of forcing it.” Most mainstream politicians shy away from this politically explosive proposal, but Ehud Barak, Sharon’s predecessor, discreetly toyed with the idea before leaving office. When finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu — Sharon’s challenger for Likud and national leadership — declared in late 2003, “Our demographic problem lies with the Israeli Arabs, rather than the Palestinians,” he was criticized for racism.

Last year Avigdor Lieberman, a former minister, declared his readiness to leave his home in Nokdim, a settlement near Bethlehem, if there is a “genuine ethnic division.” Lieberman, the former chief of staff for Netanyahu, is a far-right-winger who has openly declared his suspicion of Israeli Arabs. But many more moderate Israelis have also embraced the idea of a demographic swap. Prominent Israeli geographers and demographers like Della Pergola have proposed that Israel give the Palestinian state the so-called triangle around the Arab town of Umm-el-Fahm, a center of the Islamic movement in Israel, which is adjacent to the West Bank. This would take about 250,000 Arabs out of the demographic equation. Even Henry Kissinger joined the bandwagon in a December 2004 article.

The Umm-el-Fahm residents reject the idea. “It’s unacceptable to us,” says Mayor Hashim Mahajna. “We are Israeli citizens and would like to remain as we are. These ideas are racist, illegal and extremist.” Others, like Dayan, oppose it for practical reasons. They fear that giving away the “triangle” would fuel demands for Arab autonomy in other parts of Israel, like the Galilee, where Jews are a minority even today.

The demographic fear is already influencing changes in Israel’s naturalization policy, which is based on ethnic distinction. The Israeli Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to Jews and their relatives, thus promising a safe haven to Jews from all over the world. Creating a Jewish sanctuary has been the main cause of Zionism since its inception in the late 19th century, and the Law of Return is its practical expression. Non-Jews are subject to more restrictive immigration laws. In the past, Israel allowed “family unification,” in which Palestinians who married Israelis could become Israeli citizens. (Almost all such marriages are between Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.) According to official statistics, 55,000 such requests have been accepted since 1968. Compounded with natural growth, these naturalized citizens enlarged the Israeli Arab population by 137,000 — one-tenth of its current strength.

In 2003, at the height of the intifada, Sharon’s government decided to halt the process through a temporary legislation, which it justified by security concerns. The security service argued that many Palestinians who received Israeli citizenship had been recruited by the Palestinian terror groups. Although the argument was extremely weak — the government cited only 20 such cases, and released the names of only a few of those — the political system acquiesced to the security service. An Arab civil-rights group appealed against the temporary law, and the matter is pending before the Israeli Supreme Court, which has yet to rule over it, but already indicated its uneasiness with the temporary measure. (The United Nations called for Israel to rescind the law, saying it “flagrantly discriminates” against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.) The government decided recently to soften the provisions and ask the court for an extension, in order to devise permanent legislation.

The government’s plan, approved by Sharon’s cabinet on Sunday, is to draft a new, tougher immigration law for non-Jews. Sharon is no longer pretending that security is the reason for the law. “Israel’s Jewishness must be preserved and the issue here is Israel’s existence. Israel is the only state that the Jewish people have, and it is its right to remain a Jewish and democratic state,” said the prime minister in the discussion. Sharon’s national-security advisor, Giora Eiland, presented the findings of an interagency group reinforced with academic legal experts, including well-known Israeli liberals. He argued that Israel must preserve its Jewish identity through a long-term Jewish majority, and that the growing Arab minority would eventually demand collective national rights. The legal experts, professors Amnon Rubinstein (a former education minister from the left-wing party Meretz) and Ruth Gabizon (a former chairwoman of the Israeli Civil Liberties Association) argue that international law does not mandate that automatic citizenship be conferred in cases of transnational marriages. The team recommended restricting the ability to gain Israeli citizenship by marriage, citing new legislation in Denmark and Holland, designed to reduce Muslim immigration through financial and other limits. A high-level committee headed by Ophir Pines-Paz, the interior minister from the Labor Party, was appointed to draft the new legislation.

Sharon has other demographic measures in his mind, like expelling thousands of illegal Palestinian residents across the West Bank barrier, encouraging Jewish immigration (despite the lack of willing candidates) and easing conversions to Judaism (against a reluctant Rabbinic establishment). Nevertheless, these are hardly more than temporary pain relievers. They will not spare Israel from the compelling need to face — sooner rather than later — crucial questions about its identity, its borders and its treatment of its non-Jewish citizens. Otherwise, demography will decide by itself.

Or maybe not: A group of die-hard right-wingers, Israelis and American Jews, has tried recently to undermine the debate by suggesting that the Palestinian population numbers are inflated. Based on actual birth and death statistics and some controversial assumptions, they argued that there are only 2.4 million Palestinians — rather than the Palestinian Authority’s 3.8 million figure. Fewer Palestinians means no demographic threat; hence no pressing need to leave the West Bank and Gaza. Their findings, however, were rejected by Della Pergola, and by a team from RAND Corp., which published a blueprint for a Palestinian state.

Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal is a step for “demographic security,” wrote Yossi Alpher, a prominent Israeli analyst. Nevertheless, it is only a very partial step, which may at best buy Israel several years before its moment of demographic truth. Will it rise to the occasion, or continue to try to postpone dealing with the inevitable?

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.

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