As the Israelis and Palestinians are presently negotiating in an effort to end a nearly seven decades-old conflict, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made recognition of the Jewish right to a homeland in Israel “the most important key to solving the conflict.” The 1947 UN Partition Plan called for the establishment of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state and this fact was not lost to the 160 countries that have since recognized Israel, but none were required to recognize it by name as the Jewish state. Why, then, is Netanyahu making this requirement sine qua non to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians?
There is no doubt that the Jewish right to a homeland in Israel is central to preserving the Jewish national identity of the state and providing a safe and secure haven for the Jews to ensure their survival.
The Jewish people have for millennia endured persecution, discrimination, and expulsions, culminating in the unimaginably horrific Nazi Holocaust. Only when seen in the context of survival itself is one able to grasp why the vast majority of Jews in and outside Israel are committed to the survival of the state and its Jewish identity.
That said, the irony is that current and previous Israeli governments have regularly embraced policies and taken measures that directly undermined any prospect of preserving Israel as the state for the Jewish people.
The problem here is while a sustainable Jewish majority is central to permanently securing that objective, there are many indicators that clearly demonstrate the diminishing Jewish majority in Israel, and little is being done by Netanyahu to reverse the trend.
Instead, Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, as if such recognition will eternally guarantee the national identity of the state regardless of the changing demographic composition of Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Writing in Commentary magazine in May 2009, historian Michael B. Oren, who shortly thereafter became Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, identified “the Arab demographic threat” as one of seven “existential threats” facing the existence of Israel.
“Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent,” wrote Oren. “Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist.”
Here are the startling demographic trends that if continued unchecked will reduce Israeli Jews to a minority and endanger the very purpose why Israel was created.
First, the Arab citizens of Israel constituted 20.7% of the total population in 2012. In 2011, the birth rate among Israeli Jews was 3.0 births per woman verses 4.38 per Palestinian woman. Some reports state that the Israeli Arab population will grow from the current number of 1.658 million to 2.4 million by the year 2030. This could represent nearly one quarter of the Israeli population.
Ironically, in his speech in 2003 at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Netanyahu spoke of the demographic threat. “We have a demographic problem,” he said, “but it lies not with the Palestinian Arabs, but with the Israeli Arabs [who will remain Israeli citizens].”
He continued to say, “If Israel’s Arabs become well integrated and reach 35-45 percent of the population, there will no longer be a Jewish state [emphasis added].” Therefore, a policy is needed that will balance the two. Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s policy is in fact gradually realizing his own ominous prediction.
Second, there is an alarming number of Israelis who are emigrating from Israel. Statistics show that up to one million Israelis (13 percent of the population) are living abroad, and very few are planning to return to Israel.
Many have left because they are seeking better job opportunities; others because they are weary of the continuing conflict with the Palestinians. Many have concerns about security, while others flatly admit that they want to shield their children from compulsory military service.
Third, immigration to Israel is hardly balancing emigration from Israel. In the year 2012, 16,577 Jews immigrated to Israel verses the 16,000 who emigrated from Israel. It is projected that by 2030, between 440,000 to 623,000 will immigrate to Israel and perhaps as many will leave Israel if current trends continue.
The largest reservoir of Jews outside Israel is in the US with 6-6.7 million, followed by Europe with 1.4 million. Given the continuing conflict with the Palestinians and the growing disenchantment of young American and European Jews with the Israeli occupation, the likelihood of a huge influx of newcomers from these two major Jewish centers is diminishing.
Many Israelis, led by a prime minister who warned of the coming demographic threat, are doing nothing to reverse this trend by taking the necessary measures to increase the Jewish population.
On the contrary, Netanyahu is making matters worse by his expansionist policies in the West Bank and his discriminatory treatment of Israeli Arabs, which can only further exacerbate relations between them. Thus, instead of becoming a positive component of the Israeli social fabric, they may well become a fifth column.
What will it take then to ensure that Israel maintains its Jewish national identity while still preserving its democratic nature, given the gloomy demographic picture?
First, Israel must resolve the conflict with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution, which would remove Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from the demographic equation that Israel faces today.
The continuing occupation and the expansion of settlements run contrary to the need to establish a Palestinian state in order to prevent the creation of a de facto one state, which will obliterate Israel’s Jewish national identity. This would also enhance Israel’s security and serve to make it a more attractive destination for Jews worldwide.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s warning in a 2007 interview with Haaretz remains as valid today as it was six years ago when he said, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”
“The Jewish organizations,” he continued, “which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.” This will certainly dry up any prospect of immigration of American Jews in any significant number.
Second, Israel must discourage emigration of Israeli Jews to Western countries by providing job opportunities and better prospects for the future. It was inequality and rising prices that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in the summer of 2011.
Meanwhile, the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on building new and expanding current settlements at the expense of poor Israelis who are living hand-to-mouth, driving many from raising their families in Israel.
The answer to this dilemma is a new economic policy that diminishes the socioeconomic gaps in Israel while sparing no effort to establish a comprehensive peace with the Arab states. This would open up new markets on Israel’s borders, enabling new business opportunities to flourish in what President Shimon Peres used to call “a new Middle East.”
Third, although the pool of Jews who wish to immigrate to Israel is limited, cultural and religious ties are still a magnet that will bring Jews to reside in Israel. These potential immigrants will be encouraged to make the move provided that they believe Israel offers new and exciting opportunities for growth and serves the purpose that was intended by its founders: a secure and democratic Jewish state at peace with its neighbors.
Fourth, Israel should institute policies that encourage a greater birthrate among secular Jews by providing appropriate subsidies, especially affordable housing. The divide between Israel’s religious and secular communities is often portrayed in the animosity driven by the significant subsidies offered to the rapidly-growing religious community.
A campaign to reach all Israelis and offer appropriate assistance for higher education and housing is essential if Israeli citizens are to have the confidence that they can provide for larger families.
Fifth, as beloved as Israel may be in the eyes of American and European Jews, they are weary of Israel’s tarnished image resulting from its discriminatory policies toward the Palestinians by bending democratic principles and perpetuating the occupation, which is akin to apartheid.
Never before has Israeli democracy been so clearly under attack. Bills introduced in the Israeli Knesset in 2011 under Netanyahu’s stewardship sought to limit free speech by cutting funding from left-wing non-governmental organizations, curtailing the power of the judiciary, and explicitly declaring Israel as a Jewish state in a blatant measure to isolate its Arab citizens.
Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly likened Israel’s undemocratic legislation with the mullahs of Iran in her 2011 address to the closed-door Saban Forum, hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
Clinton’s comments came days after former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta implored Israel to institute civil measures and American Ambassador Dan Shapiro joined his European colleagues in conveying to Israeli officials the US’ concerns regarding the state of Israel’s democracy.
Israel must decide what kind of nation it seeks to become: an undemocratic apartheid state or a democracy at peace with its neighbors that enjoy strong relations with allies in the West. It has never been clearer that Israel cannot have it both ways.
Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state by the Palestinians, as demanded by Netanyahu, is of no value or consequence, not any more than the four countries identified by their religious majority: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
Perhaps Netanyahu should call for renaming Israel “the Jewish state of Israel,” but then he must remember that only a sustainable Jewish majority will make it so.
It is time for the Israelis to ask their prime minister where Israel will be in 15 to 20 years down the line should he pursue the same illusionary policy. I am prepared to venture that his answer will be “I do not know.”
The absurdity of linking peace with the Palestinians to their recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is glaringly clear because this will neither mitigate the challenging growth of the Israeli Arabs nor advance the peace process. Moreover, it will neither retain the democratic principle of the state nor will it ensure Israel’s Jewish national identity.
Therein lies the danger to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, regardless of by what name Israel is recognized and by whom.