The JTA reports today that new population data show that during the past decade the fertility rate of Jews in Israel is on the rise compared to Arabs and other minorities in the country. Contrary to the demographic doom scenarios widely accepted both among Israeli and American elites, the most recent data are part of a growing collection of evidence that points to a stable and potentially growing Jewish majority in Israel proper, and perhaps even with the West Bank included.
Rather than having to make desperate moves in the peace process as a result of demographic trends, Israel may very well be in control of its own destiny, something all who are concerned for the Jewish state’s future should gladly accept.
The trends in the recent data are clear: whereas in 2001 Jewish births accounted for 69 percent of the Israeli total, in 2010 they represented 76 percent. This follows another study last year which found a 50 percent rise in the Jewish birthrate in Israel from 1994. (For those who assume the increase is due only to growth in the haredi sector, the birthrate for secular Jewish women was found to be 2.6 and rising, the highest in the Western world.) These new data points come years into a substantive debate in Israel about the accuracy of commonly cited Palestinian birthrates and population numbers, which are not collected with nearly the same rigor as in Israel, and are largely projections from a 1997 (unrepeated) census. All of which has led some researchers to conclude that the Palestinian population in the West Bank may be overstated by as much as 1 million, which, if true, would of course dramatically change population projections for a territory that already holds more than 300,000 Jews.
None of this “proves” anything one way or another. Political decisions should also, of course, be based on more than demographic considerations.
Acceptance of those basic and (one would hope) uncontroversial propositions, however, points to the essential failure of the more important debate about what Israel must do to secure its future. The common assumption of this debate is that Israel is trapped by overarching trends it cannot control or effectively meet and must instead respond to. This has led to a depressing fatalism in the consideration of the Jewish state’s future–by both friend and foe–that matches in its way a similar fatalism that seems at every turn to grip an ever larger share of the population of the West.
Uncertainties about Israel’s demographics can and should help free us from that. The challenges Israel faces are deep enough without adding on – as a certainty – projections that may never come to pass.