Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

What Counts Is the Counting: Statistical Manipulation as a Solution to Israel's "Demographic Problem"

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

What Counts Is the Counting: Statistical Manipulation as a Solution to Israel's "Demographic Problem"

Article excerpt

Seven years ago, heightened anxieties in Israel about an Arab threat to Israel's Jewish majority triggered an influential campaign to change perceptions of who is winning the demographic battle. Proposals to annex 60% or more of the West Bank are based in part on its success in persuading many Israelis and others of the nonexistence of 1 to 1.5 million "missing" Palestinians. This campaign's estimates of Arab and Jewish population for 2004 and beyond are subjected to close scrutiny, revealing complex but systematic manipulation of data and exposing the political objectives and drastic distortions of the campaign.

When political affiliations in a democracy are associated with ethnic or communal attachments, what "counts" is not simply votes, but "ethnic demography."1 Nowhere are the implications of ethnic demography closer to the surface of political life than in Israel/Palestine, where political implications of changing estimates of Jewish and Arab populations are central to the thinking, anxieties, and hopes of both communities. For Israeli Jews, "ha-ba'aya ha-demografit" (the demographic problem) is the fear that an Arab population in the country will become bigger than the Jewish population. It has exerted a powerful influence on Israeli policies and preferences concerning the future of the West Bank and Gaza, the incorporation of East Jerusalem, immigration, emigration, education, and employment.

Ever since July 1967, when Yigal Allon proposed dividing the West Bank to preserve Israel's Jewish character, the fear of a too-large Arab minority or even a potential majority has been a distasteful but valuable resource for Israeli Jews favoring separation between Israel and the territories occupied in June 1967. That view, epitomized by the slogan of a "two-state solution," predominated in Israel in the 1990s. In the last decade, however, that idea has faded from its status as "probable" to perhaps merely "possible" today. It has been replaced by a growing sense in Israel that its rule of the West Bank will never end. This has led to a new campaign among those advocating annexation of "Judea and Samaria." Realizing that most Israeli Jews fear, suspect, or loathe Arabs, leaders of the newly invigorated "annexationist" camp have sought to prove that keeping the West Bank would entail absorbing many fewer Palestinian Arabs than is suggested by information reported by both official Israeli and Palestinian Authority statisticians. Their efforts have convinced most of the settler and right-wing blocs in Israel, and many among its supporters abroad, that there are at least a million fewer Palestinians in the West Bank than is widely believed, and that insistent reports to the contrary are politically motivated falsifications produced by media, statisticians, and politicians opposed to Israeli rule of the West Bank. Despite outraged and blanket denials by established experts, this campaign, by partially erasing the image of a "demographic time bomb," has succeeded in laying the basis for new proposals to annex most or all of the West Bank. My purpose here is to evaluate this claim by subjecting to close analysis the arguments and evidence made in support of it.


While the core objective of classical Zionism was to create a Jewish majority in Palestine, the core objective of Arabs in the country, from the outset, was to prevent that from happening. Whereas Zionists have promoted unlimited Jewish immigration, opposed the return of Arab refugees, and advocated higher fertility rates among Jews to accomplish their goals, Arabs have opposed unlimited Jewish immigration, advocated unlimited return of Arab refugees and their descendants, and encouraged "sumud" (steadfastness), meaning a commitment to resist temptations to emigrate despite hardships associated with living under Israeli rule.

The destruction of the great reservoir of potential Jewish immigrants in Europe during World War II confronted Zionist leaders with a terrible demographic challenge. …

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