Monday, January 23, 2023

By Daled Amos

There are any number of issues that are raised in an effort to demonize Israel these days. Maybe because there is no shortage of ways to attack the Jewish state, another set of claims are not seen as often.

There used to be people claiming to offer Israel some "friendly" advice. 

They would helpfully suggest that Israel had to change its policies or risk being isolated in the world. These days, of course, we have the Abraham Accords and the Negev Forum that grew out of that. There are alliances that Israel has formed with some countries in the EU, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, which have prevented EU condemnations of Israel from being unanimous. There is also the growing relationship between India and Israel. 

A second piece of helpful advice would have it that Israel was in a race against time to make a two-state solution a reality in order to prevent the Jewish State from being overrun by the larger Muslim birth rate. I had not seen this mentioned for a while, till I saw it brought up in a RAND Corporation report from 2021 that warned about:

the demographic shift that has been gradually unfolding because the population growth rates of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have far outpaced Israeli Jews. [p. 2]

The report bases itself on the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, which -- contrary to what the RAND Corporation would have us believe -- does not mean that the conclusion is accepted on its face. Yoram Ettinger has challenged the numbers, and the conclusions being drawn from them, for years.

And before Ettinger, there was Ben Wattenberg.

In 2002, he wrote Parents of Arabia, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Wattenberg wrote:

Truth is, fertility rates in Arab and Muslim countries have been falling rapidly in recent decades. Indeed, it would be remarkable were they not; it’s been happening everywhere else.

...The bottom line is that the demographic situation for the Jews of Israel is not nearly as bleak as it is sometimes portrayed. The Jewish Israeli TFR [total fertility rate -- the number of children per woman] is about 2.7 children per woman. It has come down some but it remains the highest of any modern country, the only one seriously above the replacement rate, and about twice the rate for Jews in the rest of the world.

But this issue of demographics is more than a cudgel in the hands of Israel's friends to encourage a change in policy. It is an issue that concerned Zionists even before 1948.

Dr. Ariel Zellman, a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, wrote a blog post describing an interview he had with Ettinger. In it, he described how earlier Zionists addressed the issue of demographics.

He goes back to the time of Theodor Herzl and the First World Zionist Congress, when Simon Dubnow, the Jewish historian argued that Jews could not become a majority in then-Palestine. Instead, he preferred the idea of Jewish self-rule in Europe, autonomism, stressing Yiddish culture and assuming the rejection of assimilation. 

In March 1898, he published a public letter which projected that by the year 2000, at best, the Jewish population in the land of Israel could be no more than 500,000, which was more or less the population of Kiev at the time. Condemning Herzl as a hallucinating messianic visionary, he felt it was much better to focus on autonomy in Europe.

Zellman notes that "with 5.5 million Jews in the land by that year [2000], clearly his projection was flawed."

Later, in the years prior to Israeli independence, Professor Roberto Baki, a statistician and demographer at Hebrew University, told Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders that the 600,000 Jews at the time were not enough to create the critical mass needed for maintaining a state. 

Then in 1944, Baki offered a projection that indicated that at best, one could expect 1 million Jews to make aliyah from 1944 to 2001. Jews were doomed to becoming a minority there based on the expected low Jewish birthrate (which was typical in Western Europe at the time) and the much higher Arab birthrate of 6 to 7 births per woman that was expected to continue.

Zellman writes, "In fact, 2.3 million made aliyah in that period, two and a half times what Baki expected."

In the 1970s, the Central Bureau of Statistics claimed there were no prospects for further large waves of immigration. The dual problem was that Jews in the West did not want to make aliyah, while Jews in the communist countries who did want to make aliyah were unable to.

But as it turned out, around 300,000 Jews ended up immigrating from the communist bloc.

In the 1980s, demographers argued that no substantial aliyah from the then-Soviet Union was possible. They insisted that even if they were allowed to leave, Soviet Jews would prefer emigrating to the US, Canada or Western Europe.

Instead, more than one million Jews made aliyah to Israel.

This was due in large part to Yitzchak Shamir. Zellman writes that 

In the early years when Mikhail Gorbachev began to open the USSR’s borders to Jewish emigration, some 90% of emigrants went to Europe and the United States. In response (and much to the chagrin of the American Jewish community), Shamir pressured the United States in particular to limit the issuing of refugee certificates to Soviet Jews and lobbied Gorbachev to switch from a policy of allowing almost no flights to Tel Aviv to that of directing all Jewish emigrants to fly through Israel.

Yet, in 1987, Prof. Arnon Sofer, of Israel's National College of Defense, insisted that "by 2000 Israel will no longer be Jewish." Israel Harel notes that Sofer influenced generations of members of the defense establishment to perpetuate his pessimism.

Harel writes about a talk he once gave at that college, where he was part of the minority who believed in the power of aliyah to build up the Jewish majority in Israel:

I stated that had the founders of Zionism been directed by purely rational considerations, as these two [Baki and Dubnow"] were, the state would not have been born.

...Zionism was a movement that changed reality, I reminded them. Instead of fighting and changing demographic reality, I told them, you’re willing to give in to it.

...Fertility reflects optimism and faith in the future. What demographer had predicted such a turn of events?

In a post last year, Ettinger traced what he sees as Israel’s growing Jewish fertility rate to "optimism, patriotism, attachment to roots, communal solidarity, a frontier mentality..."

One more difference between Israeli Jews and the Jews in the Diaspora.

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