November 18, 2004
Israel: Demography of the Land
Alain Epp Weaver
Ira Rifkin, in a recent Sightings column ("Theology of the Land," November 4), suggests that for "even liberal religious Jews" the State of Israel's "identity as a Jewish state" is "more important than the mere existence of a state called Israel." Rifkin's insistence on Israel as a Jewish state echoes an increasingly heard refrain. But the question of the Jewish nature of Israel becomes more complex in light of current demographic trends and should, I believe, be addressed calmly and forthrightly in future Christian-Jewish dialogue.
Haifa University demographer Arnon Soffer has warned that the number of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (that is, in both Israel and the Occupied Territories, or the boundaries of British Mandate Palestine), will equal the number of Jews in that land by 2010. With one sovereign state in Mandate Palestine, former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti has argued that a bi-national reality already exists, one in which the three million Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are denied citizenship.
Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum view this demographic reality with alarm. Israeli public-opinion researchers Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann have found that "the strong desire for a separation, even a unilateral one, is connected to a fear among the overwhelming majority of the Jewish public regarding the emergence of a de facto binational state." The fear of an emerging bi-national reality has been put most pointedly by Israeli Labor party leader Avraham Burg. "I am not afraid of weapons and terrorism," Burg notes, "I am afraid of the day that all of them [Palestinians] will put their weapons down and say 'One man, one vote.'"
To prevent this perceived demographic disaster, Israeli politicians of the center-right support versions of Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, in which Israel fences and walls off Palestinian population centers, potentially allowing Palestinians to call the Gaza Strip and 40 percent of the West Bank a "state," if they so choose. Some on the Israeli left, meanwhile, believe that a two-state solution to the conflict along the lines of the Geneva Initiative, which would leave Palestinians with closer to 95 to 98 percent of the West Bank and control over parts of Jerusalem, is the way not only to achieve peace but to preserve a Jewish demographic majority within Israel.
Nearly all Israeli Jewish politicians concur in rejecting any significant return of Palestinian refugees to homes and properties inside Israel, arguing that this would threaten the Jewish character of Israel. That the PLO has continued to call (at least on paper) for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their homes and properties has been taken as a sign that the Palestinians reject Israel as a state. It is not sufficient, the argument goes, to recognize Israel (as the PLO did in the Oslo accords); one must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, its right to maintain a Jewish majority.
Does the Jewishness of Israel thus consist primarily in a majority of Israel's citizens being Jewish? It is important to remember that the Jewish state envisioned by the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 (UNGA 181) would have had a 50 percent Palestinian Arab population. If Zionism meant the creation of a state with a Jewish majority, then, as Israeli historian Benny Morris has argued, the expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 represented, in Morris's view, a tragic necessity.
Even if a two-state solution, as envisioned by the Geneva Initiative, would miraculously be implemented tomorrow, with Palestinians relinquishing the right of return, what of the Palestinian citizens of Israel ("Israeli Arabs")? Some demographers suggest that if current birth and immigration rates hold steady, Palestinians might make up 50 percent of the population inside Israel proper by 2050. Would that mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state?
After the horrors of the Shoah, it is understandable that the idea of Israel as a safe haven with a Jewish majority would be so important to many Jews. But does the land's holiness, which Rifkin rightly insists is so important to traditional and liberal Jews, depend on maintaining and protecting a Jewish majority by any and all means? Might not a bi-national future also be compatible with the land's holiness, a future in which Palestinians and Israelis alike both sit securely under vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4)? Such questions, as difficult and sensitive as they may be, may prove unavoidable in future Jewish-Christian discussions.
Alain Epp Weaver (University of Chicago Divinity School, M.Div. '99) is Mennonite Central Committee representative for Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq.