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Opposite Day: J Street and the Demographic Threat Argument

Alyssa Goldstein
August 11, 2012

by Alyssa Goldstein
Did you ever have one of those days where you feel like everything is the opposite of how it should be and no one else seems to notice? That’s how I felt recently when J Street published a JStreet 300x97 J Street at AIPAC huh? (Plus a video interview)number of its supporters’ responses to Dani Dayan’s editorial in the New York Times. Dayan, a Maale Shomron settler and chairman of the Yesha Council, declared that “we aim to expand the existing Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, and create new ones. This is not — as it is often portrayed — a theological adventure but is rather a combination of inalienable rights and realpolitik.” Dayan’s article is delusional in ways that I believe most Jewish Currents readers will find readily apparent. It expresses an overtly racist philosophy: Dayan believes that Israel should continue to rule over all the Palestinians currently under its jurisdiction while refusing to grant them the same rights as their Jewish neighbors solely because of their ethno-religious identity. Despite Dayan’s genuinely terrible views, his article is still valuable for its honesty. It is an accurate reflection of the Israeli government’s settlement policies in all their brutality and arrogance.
So what of J Street’s responses? Most argue that Dayan’s support of continued settlement is oppressive and undemocratic. Well, that’s certainly true. Instead, it is the way most of these J Street supporters choose to make their arguments about democracy that I would like to focus on: namely, the dismaying frequency of the “demographic threat” argument. Out of 38 responses, 13 explicitly referred to demographics as a main rationale for the two-state solution as opposed to Dayan’s Greater Israel plan. Almost all of the rest make more veiled references to demographics by using phrases like “Israel’s Jewish character.” To take one example (and I don’t mean to pick on this guy exclusively, but his statement is a good encapsulation of many of these J Street members’ sentiments):
“What happens when Jews are not the overwhelming majority in the Jewish State of Israel. If Israel is to remain a Jewish State how can this be the case if less than 75%, or so, of the population is Jewish? What happens if the Jewish population becomes less than 50% of the total. Do you create a new South Africa? Does Israel become an apartheid state? This cannot become the case. It is against everything that being Jewish means. We cannot create a two-tiered society of Jews and non-Jews, and treat the non-jews as second class citizens.”
--Michael Rahimi, Mamaroneck NY
Firstly, Rahimi makes the common mistake that the term “apartheid” is only applicable if the ruling racial/ethnic group is a minority. Though this was the case in South Africa, it is not in the UN definition of apartheid. Presumably, a “two-tiered society of Jews and non-Jews” would also be unjust no matter what. However, the discord between Rahimi’s hand-wringing over population statistics and his concern about an unequal society strikes at the heart of what’s really wrong with demographic arguments. These arguments presume that it is OK to make a minority group into second-class citizens as long as the majority supports it. The last sentence of Rahimi’s quote is a perfectly accurate description of Israel’s policies right now, yet because these policies are democratically supported by a majority-Jewish population, he instead presents the creation of a systemically unequal, apartheid society in the future, when these policies are no longer legitimated through majoritarian democracy. But either way, the end result for the Palestinians is the same. Forcing a minority group into an inferior tier of citizenship isn’t any more legitimate because the majority voted to do so.
There is also another factor that goes unspoken in these J Street responses. Even if the two-state solution became a reality, Israel would still have a 25% non-Jewish population. The establishment of a Palestinian state would only forestall the “demographic threat,” not solve it. Israel would still have to make an effort to control its non-Jewish population if it wanted to remain “Jewish and democratic.”
But the real bottom line is, any state whose existence depends on increasing the numbers of the “right” kind of citizens and controlling the population of the “wrong” kind of citizens cannot be just or democratic. The demographic arguments that J Street employs puts the lie to its claims that it cares about equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. You can’t say what boils down to “We care about your rights and value your contribution to society,” and in the next breath add “but it really is a problem when you have all those babies,” and still think of yourself as a progressive or a leftist. These arguments portray Palestinians as a problem to be dealt with instead of as citizens and equal human beings. Progressive people would not accept these kind of demographic, majoritarian arguments in the United States, yet they are the hallmark talking point of Liberal Zionists. For J Street, I guess every day is opposite day.