High Arab birth rate in Israel raises concerns about country’s Jewish identity

on February 04 2011 12:03 PM
Palestinian children watch the funeral of Islamic Jihad militant Jalal Nasir in Jabalya, in the northern Gaza Strip
Palestinian children watch the funeral of Islamic Jihad militant Jalal Nasir in Jabalya, in the northern Gaza Strip Reuters

Among the issues raised by the recent outbreak of civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa is the rapidly growing population in some of these countries.

In Yemen, for example, an astounding 70 percent of the country’s population of 23-million are under the age of 25, with half under the age of 15. With an annual growth rate of 3.2 percent, the Yemeni population will double by 2030.

Indeed, the dire economic outlook for the youth in many Arab countries has played a major role in the rising tide of discontent.

This subject has particularly stark implications for Israel.

For many years, Israeli politicians and scholars have warned that the higher birth rate of the country’s Palestinian population may ultimately lead to a state in which Jews become the minority – thereby threatening the very existence of the “Jewish homeland.”

According to press reports, Israel’s Arab Muslim population is growing at a rate almost double the annual growth of the Jewish population.

Israel’s population is currently about 75 percent Jewish, with the remaining 25 percent most Arab Muslims (with some Arab Christians and Druze). [These percentages of course exclude the millions of Palestinians living in Gaza and West Bank]

Dr. Wahid Abd Al-Magid, editor of Al-Ahram's Arab Strategic Report, has predicted that Arabs may become a majority in Israel in 2035, and “will certainly be the majority in 2048.

Some in Israeli’s Jewish political establishment have already sounded alarms over the issue.

Early last decade, Dr. Yitzhak Ravid, an Israeli government armaments expert, proposed that Israel “implement a stringent policy of family planning in relation to its Muslim population.”

In a speech to Israel’s parliament in 2007, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, warned of “a demographic battle, drowned in blood and tears.”

International Business Times discussed this topic with Ben Moscovitch, an expert on the Middle East and Israel, as well as the Israel blogger for the Foreign Policy Association.

IBT: Is the Israeli government concerned that the Palestinian birth rate is higher than the Israeli birth rate? If so, are they taking any steps to encourage more Jewish women to have children?

MOSCOVITCH: I cannot speak for the Israeli government, but Israeli leaders and analysts are split on whether the disparity between birth rates of Arab-Israeli citizens and Jewish-Israelis suggests that eventually the state will have a non-Jewish majority that will lead to a bi-national, one-state solution.

It is important to distinguish between the Israeli Arab citizens (those residing in mainland Israel) and Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, as the latter group will not likely be incorporated into Israel in a future peace agreement that would establish a Palestinian state.

The government already has an extensive welfare program that benefits all Israeli citizens, including the ultra-orthodox and Arab-Israelis, not just Jews. Through that program, families are provided with additional social services and funding based on the number of children born. This program is advocated by the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which have very high birth rates and often live in poor conditions, therefore government subsidies support these families.

Similarly, Arab-Israeli citizens, who also have high birth rates, receive the same funding to help support their families. There is equality for all Israeli citizens in this regard.

IBT: Is the Arab birth rate problem an exaggeration used by fear-mongers? Or is it a legitimate concern?

MOSCOVITCH: As it stands, the birth rate of Arab-Israeli citizens is higher than that of Jewish Israeli citizens. The Jewish population in Israel today is approximately 75 percent, down from 80 percent in the mid-1990s, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

However, when you develop the economy and infrastructure of a society and a people, that group's birth rates are expected to drop dramatically for several reason: infant mortality is reduced (in part from access to clean water) therefore women birth less children; there is a decrease in agricultural work, therefore less children's help in the fields is necessary; among other reasons.

All of Israel, including Israeli Arab citizens, is developing rapidly. As such, Arab women's birth rates are dropping. Similarly, Palestinian birth rates should drop, as the Palestinian Authority -- under the leadership of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad -- has prioritized economic institution building. If successful and the Palestinian economy continues to grow, Palestinian birth rates should drop.

IBT: What role does the ultra-orthodox community play in this drama?

MOSCOVITCH: The ultra-orthodox community continues to grow and have very high birth rates. This group of Jewish Israelis believes they have a God-given mandate to procreate and increase the number of Jews both in Israel and around the world.

Excluding the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, I believe the Jewish birth rates fueled by ultra-orthodox procreation practices, will continue to increase while the Arab-Israeli birth rates will drop as their villages are further developed. Extrapolating these trends, there is no urgent demographic threat, but the situation should be closely monitored to ensure that the population, regardless of citizenship status, remains predominantly Jewish.

IBT: There are millions of Arabs living in the West Bank. What about them?

MOSCOVITCH: Annexation of the West Bank to Israel would substantially skyrocket Arab population numbers, and the birth rates of non-Jews would remain high and potentially surpass the Jewish Israeli population. For this reason, it is imperative that Israel not annex the West Bank and negotiate a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians to ensure Israeli security and provide the Palestinians with sovereignty in their own state.

Without a two-state solution and the annexation of the Palestinian population of the West Bank, Israel will eventually turn into a single, bi-national state that would dissolve Israel's Jewish identity.

IBT: Is it possible that someday Arabs could soon outnumber Jews in Israel; or at least in parts of Israel?

MOSCOVITCH: The largest Arab populations are in southern Israel, where Bedouin birth rates are quite high. Similarly, there are high birth rates in northern Israel, such as around Haifa. Those areas, aside from the West Bank, would represent the areas where high Arab birth rates could pose the largest threat.

IBT: How many members of Israel's parliament are Arabs? Is it proportionate to their numbers in the population?

MOSCOVITCH: There are 120 total Knesset members. There are 14 Arab members, although that figure includes the Druze population, which does not necessarily consider itself Arab and instead as a separate religious, cultural, and ethnic group.

This is not proportionate, but Arab-Israeli citizens can participate in elections, as both candidates and voters. Arabs have a long history of participating in the Israeli government, and as citizens, they have the same involvement rights and responsibilities as their Jewish counterparts.

Some of these Druze members belong to right-wing Israeli parties, such as the ultra-right wing group Yisrael Beitenu and Netanyahu's Likud party. Similarly, Druze have served as top Knesset leaders, including as deputy speaker.

But, some Arab members, such as Haneen Zoabi, have been very critical of Israel and even reject the fundamental character of the state, such as its Jewish identity.

IBT: Let’s go back to the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which is committed to having large families. Are they too few in number to be of any significance?

MOSCOVITCH: The ultra-orthodox community is a major factor, and it is growing rapidly. The rise in numbers of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community is causing many problems. For example, many in the ultra-orthodox community do not work, and instead pray and procreate. Therefore, the government welfare system is subsidizing this growing community that is consuming resources and not producing economic development. But, with population growth also emerges additional political clout, and a top priority of the ultra-orthodox community is ensuring that its members continue to receive government funding.

Addressing the welfare system's inherent flaws should be among the Israeli government's top concerns, more so than the demographic threat, as the country will go bankrupt from those choosing unemployment well before Arabs will become the majority.

IBT: Is intermarriage between Jews and Arabs rare in Israel? Or is it on the rise?

MOSCOVITCH: It is fairly uncommon, but I do not have statistics on this.

IBT: Hypothetically, if there were more Arabs than Jews in Israel, what would happen? Would Israel cease to exist as a Jewish State, would it have to be separated into two nations?

MOSCOVITCH: It is impossible to have a majority Muslim Arab population in a Jewish state; that would be antithetical to Jewish values. Israelis and Jews have a firm belief in democracy, which is one of the reasons that many Israelis do not want to annex the West Bank and result in more non-Jews living in a Jewish state.

A majority Arab population would result in a one-state, bi-national solution, therefore eradicating the Jewish state. Both Jews and non-Jewish Arabs would live together and govern accordingly. However, elements on both sides would likely attempt to infuse religion into the debate. The Jewish population could seek the inclusion of Jewish law in governance, while Muslims could advocate governance by Sharia.

In that latter scenario, extremist Muslims could pursue a radical interpretation of Sharia that would include the suppression of minorities -- including women, homosexuals and non-Muslims -- therefore resulting in an anti-democratic state, possibly akin to Iran.

This one-state solution is unacceptable and would destroy the modern concept of Israel and Zionism. Annexing the West Bank would only bolster the likelihood of that doomsday one-state solution scenario.

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