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Demographics and Democracy in the Jewish State

Bennett Muraskin
January 1, 2003

Do demographics predict destiny? Probably the most common argument made by Jewish Israelis against annexation of the Occupied Territories is that it would “endanger the Jewish character of the state” by extending citizenship to millions of non-Jews. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a progressive American Zionist, opposed the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza on the grounds that these Jews should be encouraged, instead, to settle in the Galilee, a heavily Arab region, to build up the Jewish population there. The demographic argument has also been the central basis for Israeli rejection of the Palestinian demand for the right to return.
These concerns are not limited to the Palestinians living outside Israel’s borders. Arab citizens now comprise 20 percent of Israel’s population. Zionist leaders, from left to right, have predicted disaster should these numbers ever approach a majority through the high Arab Israeli birth rate. A National Demographic Council now exists in Israel to deal specifically with this “problem.”
What if the Arab percentage of the Israeli population continues to grow, perhaps augmented by returning refugees or Arabs incorporated into Israel by annexation of portions of the Occupied Territories? What would happen if their political parties were poised to be a swing vote, hold the balance of power, or even win enough votes to form a “non-Jewish” government? To prevent this from happening, would the Israeli government be justified in taking preemptive, coercive measures to encourage Arab emigration or reduce Arabs to the status of black Africans under apartheid? Without such measures, what would happen to the “Jewish state”?

Jewish privilege is a guiding principle of Israel. Although its Declaration of Independence promises equal rights to all citizens, this principle was never codified into law. For the first 18 years of Israel’s existence, Arab citizens officially lived under martial law. They have faced institutional discrimination ever since.
In matters of immigration, Jewish privilege is absolute, as the welcome wagon is rolled out for any Jews in the world who wish to immigrate to Israel, whereas the immigration of Arabs whose families formerly lived in the region for generations is practically banned. Privileges for Jews also exist in many other vital areas.
Most American Jews are proud of Jewish participation in the U.S. civil rights movement, but fail to realize that Israel is also in need of a civil rights revolution. Arab citizens of Israel live under conditions roughly similar to those of African-Americans living in the North during the early 1950s. Despite possessing the right to vote, they suffer grave inequalities in employment, housing, education, social services and representation in government, business and the media. Israel is a highly segregated society in which “separate but unequal” is the norm. Racist attitudes against Arabs are pervasive. A common insult among Israeli Jews is “Don’t be an Arab.” Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled for the first time that an Arab couple could not be legally excluded from a “Jewish” housing development. The Knesset, however, did not pass any fair housing legislation or create any government agency to investigate and adjudicate housing discrimination complaints.
The Jewish Agency (or Israeli Land Authority), which owns over 90 percent of the land in Israel, enforces a restrictive covenant limiting this land to Jewish residents. The Arab population, outside of East Jerusalem, is concentrated in segregated towns in the Galilee. Although Arabs comprise 20 percent of Israel’s population, they own only 4% of the land. Arab towns receive proportionally about one third of the funding for public services that are provided to Jewish towns. Over 50 percent of Israeli Arab homes are not even connected to sewage systems.
In Jerusalem, 200,000 Arabs (about a third of the city’s population) are confined to less than 10% of the city and are routinely denied building permits. Eight thousand “illegal dwellings” have been demolished since 1967. Arab neighborhoods are run down. At the same time, Jerusalem’s borders have been greatly expanded to provide new housing for tens of thousands of Jews who have moved into Greater Jerusalem since the 1967 Six Day War. When Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, Israel insisted on building the Har Homa settlement just outside of Jerusalem, despite tremendous Arab opposition. As a sop to the protestors, Israel promised to build housing for them. Har Homa is now occupied by hundreds of Jewish families, while the Arabs are still waiting.
History was made recently when El Al, the Israeli national airline, hired its first Arab flight attendant.
Employment discrimination is rampant throughout Israel, with the best jobs reserved by law for army veterans. Since the Arabs cannot serve, they are excluded. Defense industries are completely off-limits for Arabs, and they are grossly underrepresented in the public sector -- both huge sources of employment in Israel. No Israeli counterpart of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission exists to prevent this. Arab citizens of Israel are concentrated in the low-wage sector, performing the dirtiest jobs in construction, agriculture and the hotel industry. Lack of army service also deprives them of a range of government benefits -- which Orthodox yeshiva students deferred from military service manage to receive. The Arab poverty rate, unemployment rate, infant mortality rate and low status in other quality-of-life indices testify to a far worse quality of life than that of Israeli Jews.

Although Arabs have the right to vote and do serve in the Knesset, no Arab has ever served as a government minister or Supreme Court justice, and none of the Arab-based political parties have ever been included in a government. At the same time, Jewish parties that call for the “transfer” of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories or are openly contemptuous of secular democracy move in and out of government coalitions with ease. An article in Ha’aretz on September 5th, 2002 told a series of compelling stories about Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens. One graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering but cannot get a job, even at entry level, because most employers in his field will not hire Arab professionals. Another has a decent job as a registered nurse in a hospital, but cannot get a home mortgage because banks systematically “red line” (deny credit to) Arab communities. Still another works as a taxi driver for a company operated as a cooperative, but his applications to join the coop are rejected, despite his 15 years on the job, while the applications of Jewish drivers with far less experience are accepted.
An article in the January 8th, 1998 Jerusalem Report told the story of two young, educated Israeli Arab women who managed to rent an apartment in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Their neighbors harassed them and bombs exploded two times outside their front door. A police officer was injured trying to defuse one of them. Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, condemned the bombing but urged the women to move to an Arab neighborhood. The women moved out. No arrests were made.
During the riots that erupted on September 28th, 2000, after Ariel Sharon’s foray onto the Temple Mount, Israeli police shot and killed over a dozen Arab citizens. In past years, when Jews have rioted over Sabbath rules, forced autopsies, German reparations or other issues, Israeli police have always managed to avoid inflicting such casualties. Arabs convicted of acts of violence against Jews almost always get longer sentences than Jews doing violence against Arabs.

Beyond socio-economic discrimination, Israeli Arab citizens are made to feel like “strangers in a strange land.” All national symbols (flag, anthem, currency) and holidays are Jewish. Arabic is officially recognized as the nation’s second language, but few Israeli Jews learn it, and Arabs or Arab programming in the media are barely visible.
Only by beginning to dismantle the structures of discrimination against the Arab population can Israel win their trust and loyalty. Even under current circumstances, Israeli Arabs have made it clear that they would prefer to remain in Israel after a Palestinian state comes into existence. They appreciate the higher standard of living and more open society that Israel provides. Israel, after all, may be a flawed democracy, but the rest of the region consists of authoritarian regimes that have far less respect for human rights.
For years, large numbers of Israeli Arabs have remained loyal to the Labor Party, even though it has treated them with disdain. If major Zionist parties were to offer substantive reforms and bring Arabs into leadership positions, real progress could be made toward equality. Even if Israeli Arabs flock to Arab parties, there is no legitimate reason why coalitions cannot be built with Jewish parties. Jewish and Arab members of the Knesset make de facto alliances all the time. Perhaps in the long term this will lead to binational parties.
It seems likely that until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, Israel will be reluctant to address seriously the second-class status of its Arab citizens. However, this does not mean that the problem should be ignored. The New Israel Fund does excellent work in this area. Other organizations working for a truly democratic Israel include the Abraham Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, and the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development.
Majority status is not the key to Jewish survival. Democracy is. Jewish majorities did not save the Jewish people from the destruction of the First and Second Temples and would not have saved the yishuv (pre-state settlement) during World War II had the German army under Rommel reached Palestine. Jews today make up less than 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, yet American Jews are far more secure than Israeli Jews.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence calls for “complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” This is a noble statement, but it will do nothing to resolve the tension between democracy and demographics in Israel until it is translated into law and vigorously enforced.
Finally, those who remain convinced of the absolute necessity of a Jewish majority in Israel should consider this: Among Israeli Jews, the ultra-Orthodox have by far the highest birth rate, with the Orthodox coming in second. If Jewish numbers are all that matters, the future of Israel belongs to them.

Bennett Muraskin, a union representative for college professors in New Jersey, is author of Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.