Figures released today show that Israel’s demographic situation continues to move in a direction that is positive for the future of the Jewish state, quite in contravention to the prevailing wisdom about Israel’s impending demographic peril. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has released the birthrate figures for 2013, revealing that the Jewish birthrate is continuing to rise as the Muslim birthrate is continuing to decline. While population projections are by their nature often inaccurate on account of the myriad unforeseeable variables, it seems that this is a front on which Israelis can afford to feel some optimism. Yet, despite the growing body of evidence to the contrary, there is no shortage of voices warning Israel of imminent demographic doom. This is a central tenet of the doctrine of the Israeli left, and it is also a threat with which President Obama has increasingly been seeking to panic Israel.
The latest statistics show that in 2013 there were a total of 127,101 Jewish births, as opposed to 34,766 births to Muslim families. This means that in 2013 the Jewish birthrate increased by 1.3 percent while among Muslims the birthrate fell by 5.5 percent. The growing Jewish birthrate is in large part being driven by the religious sector, however it is also being boosted by Russian immigrants whose own birthrate is now closer to the Israeli average. Overall, the percentage of Israel’s population that is not Jewish has risen in recent years, with Arab Israelis now constituting just under 21 percent of the population. Yet with the Arab birthrate subsiding, and with that of the Jews continuing to trend upward, within pre-1967 Israel it appears that the Jewish character of the state will remain strong. That, however, is without considering the situation in the West Bank.
The scaremongering that both Obama and Kerry engage in, to say nothing of the Jewish left in America and Israel, argues that Israel’s demographic predicament must factor in the entire population west of the Jordan River so as to include the Palestinians. This itself is a questionable proposition. Certainly in the case of Gaza there is no reason the population there should be included in Israel’s demographic situation. Israel pulled out of the strip entirely in 2005 and the claim made by some on the left that Israel guarding Gaza’s borders against terrorism constitutes a continuation of the occupation is unconvincing.
When it comes to the West Bank the matter is slightly more complicated. The Haaretz-J Street-Beinart mantra, that has now been adopted by Obama too, is that Israel cannot maintain a presence in the West Bank and remain both a Jewish and democratic state. This is also misleading. The democracy argument is particularly flimsy because the Palestinians are supposed to be able to vote in their own elections. The fact that the Palestinian Authority never holds any is beside the point.
That said, even if Israel were to have to include the West Bank Palestinians in the demographic equation, things are still nowhere near as bleak as is often suggested. As Uri Sadot wrote in Foreign Policy in December, if one were to take an upper estimate of the number of Arabs in the West Bank (some claim over of 2.5 million people) and add it to the number of Arabs in Israel, then these people would still constitute less than a third of the overall population. Yet it is increasingly being suggested that the Palestinian Authority may have grossly misled the international community about the number of Palestinians that actually live in the West Bank. A 2006 study by academics at Bar Ilan University made a strong case for the belief that the PA may have inflated its population statistics by up to a million people by double-counting certain groups and including Palestinians living overseas. This would have the advantage of not only damaging Israeli morale, but more importantly it allows the PA to extract more funds from the international community on the grounds it has this much larger population to provide for.
Caroline Glick, in her latest book The Israeli Solution, points out that the declining birthrate that we see among Arab Israelis is in actual fact in line with trends across the Arab world, and is consistent with a similar trend among Palestinians living in the West Bank. As Glick observes, there is now parity between Jewish and Palestinian birthrates, with both having an average of 2.98 births per woman. For Palestinians this is a sharp decrease from the 4.25 births per woman seen in 2000, while Jewish Israeli birthrates have picked up from 2.6 births in 2000. Project this pattern forward and the demographic threat becomes a myth. And in addition it should be recalled that Israel has regularly boosted its demographic lead with waves of Jewish immigration. Given the worsening economies and anti-Semitism in both Europe and South America, there is no reason to think that immigration will not continue to supplement the Jewish population in Israel.
In 1987 Thomas Friedman gave Israel twelve years until the demographic bomb went off. We’re still waiting. Those, such as Obama, who attempt to use demographics to alarm Israel into rushing into territorial concessions that could be strategically reckless simply don’t have the stats to backup their threats.