Israel’s Demographic Obsession

When pundits and commentators declare that Israel’s war against the Palestinians is existential, they are correct but not in the way they mean. The Israeli obsession with demography demonstrates that Israel ideologically conceives of the Palestinians existentially as threats–Palestinians are threats to the Zionist vision just by being alive. Such numerical concern exhibits a deep-seated fear of all Palestinians regardless of age, political persuasion, and so on.

This obsession is binary and inverse: they want more Jews and less Palestinians.

The Associated Press reported that the newly revived Israel Council for Demography’s mandate “is to encourage Jewish households to have more children, using incentives such as housing benefits and other government grants.” This government-funded enterprise is headed by Social Welfare Minister Shlomo Benizri of the Orthodox Jewish Shas party. The council actively discourages Jews “from abortion and intermarriage.”

Besides governmental initiatives with ethno-religious purity as their mission, the non-governmental sector is teeming with demographic activism.

Academics in Israel wax on about the Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” Last January, there was a major convention on “The Balance of National Strength and Security in Israel” sponsored by leading academics. Ha’aretz reported that:

“The speakers were Israel’s foremost political, defense and academic experts, and the 300 participants were also high-profile people. As the chairman and guiding spirit behind the convention, Dr. Uzi Arad, a former political advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu, said, ‘If you weren’t there, it showed you weren’t in the major league.'”

That many brains came together to conclude what most Israelis know and fear–there are too many Palestinians.

Indeed, Palestinians do have a very high birth rate. The Gaza Strip has the highest rate of natural population growth in the world: 4.4 per cent. However, Palestinians have a very high death rate. Their health conditions under military occupation are under constant bombardment. Israel deals with the population explosion already: extrajudicial assassinations, making sure to kill about ten Palestinians a day regularly, collective punishment, home demolitions, and so on.

The Jerusalem-based Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning recently completed a study on Jewish demographics. As part of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, it received government funding. The institute is chaired by former Mideast peace negotiator and full-time Israeli propagandist Dennis Ross. It declared that by 2020, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and Israel proper will outnumber Jews. This was not run-of-the-mill detached study, but was announced with some alarm–in that circled-wagon kind of way.

According to the survey, the number of Jews in the world is declining. As a result, the institute “convened an emergency session” to address what it called the “‘demographic crisis,'” Ha’aretz reported. In the same article, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor, stated that the “demographic threat” from Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories “‘must certainly influence our borders policy.'”

This is about as clear a reduction of the conflict as possible. To Israeli officials, a decrease in the Jewish population is deemed a “demographic crisis,” whereas when more Palestinians are born, even those with citizenship, it is a “demographic threat.” Can anyone really deny that Israel’s interest is to maintain ethno-religious purity? Doesn’t that blatantly contradict its democratic posturing?

I forgot! Maintaining the Jewish character of Israel is actually the widely acknowledged goal of Israeli and American policies. I forgot for a second that Israel was granted an exemption from post-colonial values. Israeli officials are living out their own 19th century imperial heyday, perhaps because the European Jews most of Israel’s leaders descend from were excluded from the imperial splendor and colonial illogic that made European powers so beautifully backwards.

Dr. Uzi Arad responded to allegations that the abstract of the conference mentioned above advocated the transfer of Palestinians. “The word ‘transfer’ has aggressive connotations,” he said, as if its “connotations” reduce its applicability. Like most Israeli officials, he prefers the softer, sanitizing vocabulary of power that makes occupied into “disputed,” settlement into “neighborhood,” ethnic cleansing into “transfer,” resistance into “terrorism,” and utter domination into “peace.”

Israeli officials follow a long-line of purveyors of colonial doublespeak. One such famous mantra that was due for retirement ages ago finds the oppressor claiming that the oppression is actually a favor for the oppressed. To demonstrate, Dr. Arad justifies expelling Palestinians with the recycled colonial line about civilizing the natives who are unable to care for themselves:

“The Palestinians have made a decision that they want the highest rate of natural population growth in the world, but they don’t have the means to support it. They are all crowded together in a tiny area. So what should those who are really interested in their welfare do? Leaving them in the Gaza Strip means sentencing them to a life of misery. If you object to moving them elsewhere only because it looks like transfer, you are basically confining them to a concentration camp. Should a humanitarian solution be turned down only because of what it looks like to some people?”

Well it depends where they are moved to. Surely, the good doctor does not have in mind their ancestral homes, which now are either inhabited by Jewish Israelis, or have been destroyed and planted over with trees in one of Israel’s many famous environmentalist campaigns–a similar brand of Israeli humanitarianism towards the Palestinians.

His first point about a Palestinian “decision” to have a high birth rate sounds like a conspiracy theory (picture a smoke-filled room with a cabal of hijab-wearing grandmothers sitting around a table with charts and tables everywhere).

Demography so worries Israeli officials that Ehud Barak used it to justify a two-state solution, or more aptly, one-and-half-states. He wanted the Palestinians to have a half-state in which they could practice their half-sovereignty to give Israel full security. With this, Israel could retain a Jewish majority and its cheerful democratic pretensions. Since those borders are a lost fiction even through the peace processes’ (.) rosy lens, it leaves an undemocratic Israel where 3.5 million Palestinians live under its rule as legally and administratively-defined threats, non-humans devoid of basic rights, such as the freedom of mobility.

Even Sallai Meridor, the Jewish Agency head, is shifting positions as a result of this new threat. He was a greater Israel advocate. He held that Israel proper rightfully included the West Bank, Gaza, and possibly more. Now, he is discussing borders for the same reason Barak argues.

When I give talks to high school students, I merely present an aggregate demographic picture of the history of Palestine/Israel since it really says everything. I tell them that in 1890 the population of Palestine was 8% Jews. One hundred years later, it was 55%. These numbers are not enough to understand what transpired to give rise to the Jewish state, so I tell them that Israel’s founders destroyed over 453 Palestinian towns and villages and exiled 800,000 Palestinians. Now, there are more than 4 million Palestinian refugees. At that point nothing else needs to be said.

Critics will dismiss this as a gross simplification. However, there can be no doubt that the Israeli officials who worry about demography see it the same way. Meridor commented, “we cannot concede on the Palestinian right of return issue. And particularly, we must increase immigration. That is a vital need for Israel, like water in the faucet.” With his typical smarm, Dennis Ross said, “if Israel wants to remain the center of the Jewish people, it must certainly remain a Jewish and democratic state.”

What can the prospects for peace really be if Israeli officials consider the Palestinians inherently antithetical to the state and political order? That dooms the Palestinians to enemy status just by living. Israel’s security imperative is impossible short of the vanishing of the Palestinian existence. Zionism’s leading proponents never did and still do not see the land as a pie different parties can share. For them, it is about maintaining the ethno-religious purity of the power structure. Power thus cannot and will not be shared with the demographic threat.

The demographic transformations of that land over the past century tell the story. Short-term, dramatic changes in demography usually happen through and are maintained by force, and the calculated application of it. For Israel’s founders, it was about importing a Jewish character to a land that had another distinct character (plus highly visible minorities of diverse backgrounds). This kind of replacement by its very nature requires violence for its success. This was not about simple peaceful immigration; it was about changing the ethno-religious composition of a land through power. Just as Israel’s founders were more than willing to use might to achieve a demographic goal, so are its leaders today.

WILL YOUMANS is a third year law student at UC-Berkeley. Contact him at