Differential Demographic Growth in Multinational States: Israel's Two-Front War

By Toft, Monica Duffy | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Differential Demographic Growth in Multinational States: Israel's Two-Front War


Toft, Monica Duffy, Journal of International Affairs


"[In] Israel, a parliamentary democracy, Ultra-Orthodox Jews--who rarely work, pay no taxes and do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)--are bearing children at afar higher rate than all other groups combined.... [O]ver time this process of high reproduction and abstention from military service may threaten Israel's survival from within."

Imagine a fortress under siege. Imagine further, that within this fortress reside groups and factions with different visions of how to defend the fortress against those who seek to breach its walls and slay its inhabitants. One group believes that prayer and meditation is the way to proceed, while most other groups believe that only by force of arms and skilful management of resources can the fortress remain secure. Fortress leadership is based on the principle of majority rule, where the largest group has the biggest say; though all parties have at least some representation. Yet as the siege lengthens from years into decades, the prayer group is growing in numbers while the defense-by-force group dwindles. The prayer group gains control of education and insists that young people be taught to pray and meditate rather than to fight. A breach in a thinly defended section of the wall prompts a fierce debate. Some minority factions call for a change in the structure of leadership that will allow them to recruit defenders from all able-bodied inhabitants--by force if necessary. Others insist the risk of destruction is preferable to abandoning their democratic traditions. As they argue, the prayer group's members are consuming a larger share of the fort's resources even as the number of its defenders dwindles. Eventually, there may be no one left to defend the walls.

This is a fictional and one might say unlikely story, but in many ways it resonates with the current situation of the state of Israel today. Israelis have always felt as though they lived within a fortress under siege--surrounded and at times actively attacked by hostile and more populous Arab states. And within Israel, a parliamentary democracy, Ultra-Orthodox Jews--who rarely work, pay no taxes and do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)--are bearing children at a far higher rate than all other groups combined. These children overwhelmingly become Orthodox Jews in turn, and over time this process of high reproduction and abstention from military service may threaten Israel's survival from within.

To explore the concept of the demographic disintegration of states, it is useful to begin with an overview of the interaction between the structure of government and differential population growth, as well as how diaspora issues affect local and regional politics. An introduction to and a comparison of Belgian, Yugoslav (Serb), and Israeli efforts to overcome the threat of demographic disintegration follow. Finally, it is possible to summarize lessons to be learned by Israel in its own struggles to survive in its current geopolitical context.

DEMOGRAPHY AND DEMOCRACY

Because there are thousands of nations and ethnic groups, but fewer than two hundred sovereign states worldwide, multinational states are the norm and ethnically homogeneous states are rare. This means that in almost any given state, two or more distinct peoples--with a distinct language, ethnicity, religious practice or territorial identification--reside side by side. (1) Most often these groups live together in peace, arguing about the distribution of this or that value but tacitly agreeing to resolve their differences within the framework of the state's governmental system.

But when that state's governmental system is based on the democratic principle--the principle that the majority rules--the differential population growth of groups within a state can have dramatic political consequences. In the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, for example, young African-American women were reproducing at a rate far in excess of other ethnic groups, including Hispanic-Americans. …

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