Can Zionism (and Israel) overcome the ‘demographic bogeyman’ mentality?

Can Zionism (and Israel) overcome the ‘demographic bogeyman’ mentality?

‘The battle for Jerusalem is almost lost,” journalist Ari Shavit claimed in October. His argument was demographically based. “Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] students currently account for 39 percent of all the capital’s school children. Arab students account for 37% of the capital’s school children.Zionists account for only 24% of the capital’s school children and, of those, only half are secular. Demography has had its say.” His conclusion from this data was that “Zion’s future is a non-Zionist one.”

This theory that demography is ruining “Zionism” is heard often in Israel, to the extent that it has become a sort of mantra, an un-challenged totem. MK Nachman Shai made a similar point in an article in The Jerusalem Post last week. He claimed that “22,000 babies were born in Jerusalem, 63% of whom were Jewish and 35% Muslim.” He noted that 31% of the city was haredi and 21% “associate themselves with the Zionist religious sector.

This fascinating figure is how all of Israel will look in 30 or 40 years from now. There will be two large groups – haredi and Arab – and a small minority of secular and Zionist religious communities…the implications of these numbers are clear and immediate action needs to be taken.”

Demographics are on everyone’s mind, it would seem. Zafrir Rinat, another writer, claimed that “it is vital to consider how to reduce Israel’s population growth” in October.

In an even more passionate article, called “Saving the Israeli oasis,” on June 3, 2013, Daniel Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center, argued that lack of education combined with demography would destroy the country.

“At least half of Israel’s children already today − Arab Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews, constituting 28% and 20%, respectively, of the children enrolled in the country’s primary schools − receive an education at a level that is below that in many Third World countries….Everyone enjoys the fruits of the oasis. But who will preserve it in the next generation after we pass the demographic-democratic point of no return?”

Meirav Arlosorrof, writing in The Marker, argues that the Israel of the future “will be more Arab, more haredi; the changing population threatens economic disaster.” In a May 19 article Arlosorrof described the “internal threat” Israel faces, according to a National Economic Council report: “Israel’s population consists of three separate countries: Arab Israelis, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and everyone else.” The “everyone else” category was defined as the “highly skilled group,” and she predicted that by 2029 only 53% of the workers would be from this good group, calling this “a situation that is not sustainable.”

This demographic discussion has several problematic aspects. First, it is tinged with racism, stereotypes and generalizations. In Israel it is unfortunately typical to define all members of a group a certain way, and this “accepted wisdom” of the street is passed off as accurate reporting.

Second, the demographic argument posits that people, defined entirely by their ethnicity or religion, cannot change; thus Arabs and haredim are a “threat” simply because they exist; even if they worked and earned plenty of money, their very existence is framed as the problem.

Lastly, the demographic argument is problematic from a Zionist and nationalist point of view; a state can’t be underpinned by a narrow ideology according to which people are the problem. When the existence of people is viewed as the problem, the real problem is with the beholder. Consider a comparison; in Spain 55% of people aged 15-24 are unemployed; similar to Haredi unemployement. Yet no one says that young people are the “problem” and that their numbers in the population should be reduced, rather they propose finding jobs for them.

A central problem with the demographic thesis in Israel is to make this claim that only secular people, and maybe some of the national- religious, are the “Zionists.” This is part of the secular, primarily Labor Zionist, victim mentality of pretending that “their” state was taken from them. In none of Theodor Herzl’s writings was it stated that Zionism was only for certain, secular Jews. And the foundational documents of Israel don’t say that only secular and national-religious Jews are worthwhile citizens. Instead, the vision of Herzl has been twisted to define “Zionism” as only applying to one narrow group that was previously in power.

Consider the nonsense of applying this logic to Jerusalem. The theory that Jerusalem is “lost” because it is one-third Arab and one-third haredi ignores the fact that Jerusalem was historically a haredi and Arab city. In 1800 it was primarily a very small Muslim town. By 1839, when Sir Moses Monefiore first did a census of the city, there were 15,000 inhabitants of which a quarter were Jews. By 1870 Jews numbered 11,000; half the residents. The Jewish population was primarily religious and many of its wealthiest members were Sephardi Jews.

By 1944 there were 97,000 Jews in Jerusalem (out of 157,000 inhabitants). In municipal elections Orthodox Jewish leaders like Rabbi Moshe Blau played a key role in supporting a united Jewish list that included Sephardi and Ashkenazi religious Jewish members. Labor Zionists were a tiny minority of Jerusalem; even in the 1938 community council elections they received only 20% of the Jewish vote.

The real question has to be whether Zionism and Israelis can find a way to embrace a more diverse sense of who is a citizen that belongs in the country and who is not. The concept that “action” must be taken against demographics or that demographics represent “economic disaster” makes everyone who is not part of the “good demographic” the enemy. No state can survive if it views half of those citizens being born in it as the enemy.

What we don’t see is any attempt to support a state that has always had diversity and will always have diversity. There is something patently ridiculous in viewing Arabs, who make up 35% of Jerusalem, as unwanted guests, as if they were immigrants who just arrived. Similarly there is something perverse in viewing religious Jews in Jerusalem, where they are very much a part of the fabric of life, as undesirables.

Israel is tearing itself apart with these internal divisions. It isn’t a country of “Arab Israelis, haredim and everyone else” – we are all “everyone else.”

The tragedy is that the left-wing press, along with many academics and intellectuals, have adopted this “demographist” ideology that comes perilously close to suggesting purging the country of its “unskilled citizens.” Do modern democracies of the type these idealogues typically espouse really have an educated elite that thinks this way? Arabs and haredim are perfectly capable of attaining the same skills the secular elitist community now posesses. There is no “demographic point of no return.” Demographics are not the enemy. The enemy is any mentality that views the birth of children as a “problem.”

Professor Michel Strawcynski, head of the economics and society program at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, has suggested that “what is needed is an increase in government spending on these sectors so that they receive training that will prepare them better for the Israeli labor market. Also, these sectors must see that the government is investing in them.”

He is on the right track, but an additional part of such a program must be strict condemnation of those voices in society that bash haredim and Arabs as a “threat.”

The lack of integration of Arabs and haredim into the economy after 65 years of Israeli statehood cannot be laid only at their respective doors. Many Arabs have sought to integrate and have successfully done so – only to continue to be viewed as a problem. The paternalistic treatment of these communities as some sort of domestic “third world” that has to be tamed is part of the problem; one can’t just talk at them, one has to imagine a country that includes them.

If Israel can’t escape this demographic-bogeyman mentality, the tragedy of its failure will be a self-fulfilling one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s