Israel’s ‘Demographic Time Bomb’ Is a Dud

Sorry, but the real number of Arab Israelis isn't an existential threat to the Jewish state.


If you listen to some top American and Israeli officials, Israel’s "demographic time bomb" is ticking — and it’s set to explode any day now. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Dec. 7 that Israel’s demographic dynamics represented an "existential threat … that makes it impossible for Israel to preserve its future as a democratic, Jewish state." Some officials in Jerusalem agree with him: Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog and senior Cabinet member Yair Lapid last week echoed similar concerns that demographic trends would turn Israel into a "bi-national state." On all three occasions, demography was cited as an urgent reason to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: The birth rate among Arab families in Israel and Palestine is higher than it is for Jewish families. Therefore, at some point in the future the Arabs will become a majority in the area Israel occupies. When that day comes, Israelis will have to choose between having a Jewish state or a democratic one, because giving every person an equal vote would mean losing the Jewish character of the state. Israel’s only hope of maintaining its identity, proponents of the "demographic time bomb" theory would argue, is to soon cut a peace deal that paves the way for an independent Palestinian state.

There’s only one problem: The numbers just don’t add up. Demography relies on more than just birth rates, and similar predictions have a long history of falling flat. Israeli Jews have a healthy and largely stable demographic majority in Israel and the West Bank, and developments in the coming years may even enhance this trend. The demographic time bomb, in other words, is a dud.

In mid-2013, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported a population of 8,018,000 citizens. A fifth of those, numbering 1,658,000, are Israeli citizens who identify themselves as Arab. The estimates for the number of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank, without voting rights, range from 1.5 million to 2.5 million. Even if one uses the upper-end estimates issued by the Palestinian Authority, then, the combined number of Israeli-Arab citizens and Palestinians amounts to less than a third of Israel’s current population. As for the residents of the Gaza Strip, it is hard to argue for their inclusion, since Israel has not exerted civilian control in the area since 2005.

Analysts and demographers have monitored Israel’s population trends throughout its history, and frequently warned of imminent changes to the status quo. In 1987, Thomas Friedman warned that in 12 years, "Israel and the occupied territories will be, in demographic terms, a binational state." He went on to quote a leading Israeli demographer, Arnon Soffer, saying that Israel was becoming "a bi-national, not a Jewish state — no question about it."

This ticking demographic bomb, however, never seems to actually go off. Much has changed since Friedman’s article: A million Jews immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Israel withdrew from Gaza, and gaps between Arab and Jewish birth rates have diminished significantly. In fact, the ratio of Israeli citizens who are Arab has increased very slowly since Israel’s creation, growing from 12 percent to 21 percent over 65 years.

Yes, Israel is unlikely to see an influx of Jews like that from the former Soviet Union ever again — but it also hasn’t exhausted its ability to affect the demographic balance. A 2012 report by the Knesset research center, for example, assessed that there are somewhere between 230,000 and 750,000 Israeli citizens abroad. Although many of those Israelis are already counted in Israel’s total population, large portions of them aren’t, and none of them are represented in the Knesset.

Israel currently does not grant any voting rights for these citizens living abroad. The policy’s intent was to discourage emigration, but it has also made Israel an outlier on the international stage. If Israel simply matched its expatriate voting policies to those of the United States or Canada, it would add hundreds of thousands of additional voters to its electoral register. Allowing Israeli tourists abroad to vote on election day or easing the process of acquiring citizenship would further boost the numbers. And that’s not hard to fix: Israel’s voting law isn’t anchored in a constitution and can be changed at will by a narrow legislative majority.

Dramatic improvements in public health are also changing the demographic picture. Much of the inaccuracy in past predictions came from their focus on birth rates, ignoring other important factors such as changes in life expectancy. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics recorded that the life expectancy for Israelis increased by approximately three years. This growth wasn’t homogenous, however, as it correlated with factors like family size and income levels. While Israeli Jews registered a 3.2-year increase over that period, expectancy for Israeli Arabs grew only by two years. This divergence was equivalent to a 2 percent increase to the Jewish population of Israel over that decade, equivalent to the arrival of 128,000 new immigrants. Demographic projections, it turns out, require far more than simple arithmetic. 

There are countless reasons for Israelis and Palestinians to seek peace, but a false demographic panic should not be one of them. Israel still has many years and policy tools to prevent the disappearance of a Jewish majority in the areas under Israeli sovereignty. The vices involved with ruling another people are many, and the benefits peace would bring are innumerable — but the motivation to resolve the conflict should not stem from the threat of ticking demographic time bombs.

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