An Ugly Answer to Israel's Arab 'Problem'

Last Sunday, the Israeli cabinet approved a controversial new draft law that would require non-Jews hoping to become Israeli citizens to swear a loyalty oath to the nation as a democratic and--here's the ugly bit--Jewish state.

The measure, which is aimed at foreign Arabs who come to Israeli in order to marry local Muslims or Christians, was originally proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: a settler who ran for office on the ominous slogan of "Only Lieberman Understands Arabic." Since the cabinet vote, the new bill has been denounced around the world--but the loudest criticism has come from within Israel itself.

Aluf Benn, writing in the left-leaning Ha'aretz, has argued that the move represents an attempt by Netanyahu to so alienate Israel's Arab citizens that they abandon the political process, thereby strengthening the Israeli right (since Arabs tend to vote Labor). Benn's colleague, Carlo Strenger, has gone even further, claiming that the bill betrays a fundamental hatred of liberal values on the part of the government.

While there's no question that the measure is abhorrent, smacking as it does of blood-oaths and narrow, violent, 19th century notions of nationalism,  I think there are a couple of points worth keeping in mind.

One, those of us who live in multiethnic, pluralistic societies with few external threats and where everyone basically agrees on what it means to be a citizen--we have it easy. And the knowledge of our good fortune should perhaps make us just a touch slower to judge societies that don't enjoy such luxuries--or at least lead us to double-check our criticisms before letting fly. I'm not arguing for giving Israel a pass in a case like this. But I am suggesting that we should think about the kinds of fear that motivate it.

Which leads me to point number two. The Lieberman pledge is an odious attempt to deal with a problem. But that doesn't mean that the problem itself isn't real.

Certainly most Israelis--on both the left and the right--think it is. As Lieberman has highlighted in his characteristically distasteful way, Israelis see themselves as facing a serious demographic crisis--two, really. The first dates to 1967, when Israel, victorious in war, seized control of Gaza and the West Bank from Egypt and Jordan. The problem was that those chunks of territory didn't come empty: both housed large Palestinian populations. And those populations have grown quickly in the years since.

The result? Due to a birthrate much higher than Israel's Jewish population, it was only a matter of time before Jews ceased to be a numerical majority in the territory they controlled. Sure enough: In 1970, Jews represented about 70% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. But by 1995 that figure had fallen to 56% and by 2005 (just before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza) to 51%.

These numbers forced successive Israeli leaders to face the fact that if they were determined to hold on to the Occupied Territories, they would soon become outnumbered in their own lands. At that point, Israel would have to choose between being Jewish or democratic, but it couldn't be both. It was this hard logic that pushed such unsentimental men as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to eventually accept the logic of withdrawing from Gaza.

But as Lieberman has highlighted, the territories only represent part of the problem. Even if Israel were to shed itself completely of the West Bank today, the issue wouldn't go away. For Israel proper--as defined by its 1967 borders--also has a sizable Arab population, and that population is also growing fast (or so it is commonly believed), again thanks to a birthrate higher than that of the Jews. The rate of increase is far too fast for the likes of people like Lieberman--but also too fast for many secular Israeli Jews, who worry that once again they risk being outnumbered in their own land.

This fear has merit. By the end of 2008 (the last date for which numbers are available), Israeli Arabs represented fully 20% of country's population (excluding the territories), according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. This percentage has steadily risen over the years.

Now, those Israelis who worry about this, and dread being outnumbered by Arabs in their own country, aren't necessarily racists. The two sides of Israel's nature--its Jewish and democratic soul--have always coexisted uneasily, and would be quickly upset by a demographic shift. Israel was founded and internationally recognized as a refuge for Jews, and it is legitimate that modern Israelis are determined to keep it so. Given the way Jews have been treated in Arab lands, moreover, they have grounds to fear life under an Arab majority.

For all these reasons, a little demographic-induced panic is understandable.

That said, Lieberman and Netanyahu's approach is completely wrongheaded; the only thing it's guaranteed to produce is the opposite of its stated objective. Rather than create loyal citizens, a Jewish loyalty oath will further alienate and radicalize Israel's Arabs, who are already growing steadily less moderate thanks to mistreatment by the state (though it still bears repeating that they fare far better in just about every sense--socially, economically, and in terms of political and legal freedom--than Arabs living in Arab lands).

But the Lieberman approach is worse than wrongheaded. It's also--and here's the tragic irony of this whole story--unnecessary. For as a close read of those statistics bureau numbers cited above reveals*, while the Arab Israeli birthrate is indeed still higher than that of the Jews, it's actually not by much: 3.84 kids per woman for Arabs versus 2.96 for Jews.

Even more striking is the trend. In 1964, Arab women were averaging 9.23 kids a piece. Today, just 3.84. Let me repeat that in slightly different language: In 45 years, the Israeli Arab birthrate has fallen from about 9 kids per woman to around 4 (in the same period, the Jewish birthrate fell from about 4 to 3).

The implications of this statistical bombshell are twofold. One, it reveals that Israelis' existential fear of being swamped by their own Arab population--the fear that gives rise to noxious measures like the new oath--turns out to be not so well founded after all.

And two, it suggests that if Israelis are still concerned about the problem, the best way for them to deal with it is not through measures like the loyalty oath, that will help convince Israeli Arabs that they are second class citizens, but the opposite. For the explanation for the falling birthrate in Israel is the same as it is everywhere: as women get richer and more educated, they start having fewer kids. So if Israelis are still convinced they have an Arab "problem" and want to deal with it, their best bet would be to continue to ensure the economic and social integration of those same Arabs.

Doing so should appeal to Israel's moderate mainstream because it will help guarantee that the Arabs remain loyal citizens in the long term, as it will give them a greater long-term stake in the state.

As for hateful xenophobes like Lieberman--well, even they should find something to like. Since by lowering birthrates, at least it will reduce the number of their enemies.

* Many thanks to my intrepid former Newsweek comrade, Jerusalem bureau chief Dan Ephron, for pointing this out