How many Jews must live in Israel in order to put the demographic genie back in the bottle? On the eve of Rosh Hashana [Jewish New Year] 5774, more than 8 million people live in Israel, more than 6 million of them Jews. According to data published by the Israeli Central Bureau for Statistics, more than 75% of Israel’s citizens are Jews. A solid majority, a secure one, but not necessarily one that is sure of itself.
The demographic threat, real or imagined, continues to preoccupy this majority. The Jewish state is surrounded by people who are not Jewish and not friendly. The reserve of Jews in the world is not growing, and for most of them the likelihood of emigration is low. The Jews of Israel must rely on their own reproductive abilities if they wish to maintain the Jewish character of their state. And there is no doubt that this is what they want: A survey of the “Sampling Project” from 2011 showed that more than 70% of the Israeli public wants Israel to be “Jewish and democratic,” and that 14% would be satisfied if it were just Jewish. Another 14%, the vast majority of them Arabs, would want Israel just to be democratic.
So, how many Jews must there be in the world for the Jewish people to feel secure? At the end of World War II, after the Holocaust, there were 11 million Jews in the world, and today there are 13 million. In 2050, if we can rely on the demographic forecast of Sergio Della Pergola, the number of Jews will fall just short of 15 million. It’s a small number in absolute terms, and even smaller when compared with the rate of growth of the world’s population.
In 1945, there were 4.7 Jews for every 1,000 people in the world. Sixty years later that number diminished to 2.1 Jews for every 1,000 people. Indeed, a small people, surrounded by other peoples. This people’s demographic anxieties are understandable in light of the murderous history that cut down its numbers, and in light of the numbers in themselves, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing. These are fears that were supposed to be healed by Zionist Israel, a task at which it is failing, for now. It seems likely it will continue to fail in the next year as well.
Of course, in the Jewish world outside of Israel the numbers speak for themselves. A community that’s too small will not be able to maintain itself for long. A community that’s too small relative to its surroundings will find it difficult to preserve the level of influence and success that characterizes the Jews of the West. This is an interesting topic for an article that I might write here in the future. In Israel, the numbers are a little less important — the Jewish community is large enough, and the main factor is its size relative to other, non-Jewish, groups in the population. But it will take some effort to preserve the Jewish character of Israel. This is an emotional and economic burden, and the power and ramifications of it should not be discounted. At less auspicious moments, it is manifested as racism. At better moments it results in pride and unity and a sense of purpose.
The effort to preserve a Jewish character at times clashes with the desire to hold on to a territorial space that contains Jews. Where Jews are relatively few, their dispersal creates a sense of sparseness. And in the case of dispersal among another population that is not Jewish, that sparseness becomes more pronounced. According to data presented in a paper of the Knesset Research and Information Center, the estimated number of Jews in Israel is greater than 75% of the population, but when the territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza are added to the equation, the number is only 53% (2010 data).
Of course one can argue about this data — that’s what demographers tend to do. There are those who claim that the number of Palestinians in the West Bank is much smaller than is commonly thought, and that accepted demographic forecasts exaggerate the speed at which they foresee an Arab majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This is a somewhat interesting, but marginal, argument: No one would claim that the Jewish majority is not much smaller, much less solid, when the residents of the territories are included in the count.
The natural reaction to this numerical situation becomes clear: Those to whom the Jewish character of Israel is important should make sure that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not counted — or find millions of Jews to immigrate to Israel. From here on in, we can let the imagination go wild: One can dream of annexing the West Bank to Jordan; or of annexing the West Bank to Israel, though without Gaza, so that the most densely populated Palestinian region would not tip the demographic balance; or of Palestinians suddenly abandoning their land; or of the annexation of a majority of the territory but only a few of its residents; or of an immigration of “a million and a half Jews from abroad who would solve the demographic problems” as a member of Knesset has recently suggested.
It’s also possible to talk about an independent Palestinian state that will be created at the end of the round of peace negotiations taking place — though it could well be that this outcome is just as fanciful as the other suggestions. One thing is not possible: to ensure maximal territory, fully democratic values, the maintenance of an acceptable international standing, and an unchallenged Jewish character. On one of these things, we must compromise.
The Zionist majority, it seems, would compromise on territory. The non-Zionist left, it seems, would comprise on the Jewish character of the state. In the Zionist right, some would compromise on democratic values and international standing. And there’s another, relatively new concept: The non-Zionist right would also compromise on the Jewish character of the state.
Indeed, I’m a bit curious to hear from where Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely expects to bring a million and a half new immigrants, since according to the Central Bureau of Statistics the balance of migration in Israel is still negative — more people leave Israel than enter it. But there’s almost no doubt as to what the Jews of Israel want at moments of lucidity, when they do not delude themselves with nonexistent solutions: the solution of the Zionist majority. But this majority faces a problem.
In the current state of affairs, there’s an inverse relationship between what we want and what we have. What’s wanted — demographic disengagement — is apparently unattainable. What we might have — a move toward annexation that Jewish right-wing elements and Palestinian left-wing elements are toying with — totally contradicts Zionist logic and every public impulse. This is the reason that the jump from the 3 million Jews of my childhood to today’s 6 million Jews has not dulled the sense of anxiety: 75% is not enough, if next year, too, the demographic threat has nowhere to go.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist, editor and think-tank fellow. He is the senior political editor for the Jewish Journal and writes the daily blog "Rosner's Domain." He is the chief nonfiction editor for Israel’s largest publishing house, Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir. On Twitter: @rosnersdomain