Bernard Avishai on Israel’s Other ‘Demographic Problem’
This is Israel’s last chance for peace. If it doesn’t reach a peace agreement now, demography will deal Israel a terrible blow. So argues veteran journalist Bernard Avishai on his new blog. Only, in contrast to Prime Minister Olmert, Avishai isn’t referring to the growth of the Palestinian population. Rather, he is concerned with the surging numbers of particular subsets of Israel’s Jewish population.
…Recent polls suggest that Olmert’s [peace] policy could command between 50-60% of Israeli Jewish voters. Will his support not grow now?
Not much. The same polls say that 38% of the Jewish public is firmly against negotiating for the return of any territory or for even debating the so-called core issues of the conflict: Jerusalem, the 1967 borders, and so forth. Presumably, these are people who either do not believe that Palestinians are serious about peace or that moderate Palestinians can deliver Islamist insurgents; their minds can be changed. But look again at their number. Slightly older polls show that 38% are for a state governed by Jewish law over democratic law. Another recent poll shows 38% are for pardoning Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir. Something like 38% elect parties of the extreme right: Shas, Haredi parties, National Union, Lieberman’s Russian bloc. Do you see a pattern here?
And, he continues, this 38% represents tomorrow’s Israeli majority:
…the 38% that we see here are people living in more or less hermetic worlds, and their political opinions are passed on pretty much intact to their children, like their Sabbath observances: ultraOrthodox living in secluded neighborhoods; scripture-hawk settlers living across the green line; poor and barely educated Mizrahi Jews, living in development towns and nursing old grievances against Arabs and the Ashkenazi rich; new-immigrant Russians reading their own press and looking for an Israeli Putin.
I wrote about Israel’s five tribes some time ago and again before the last Israeli election, so I won’t belabor the point. The thing to keep in mind is that, the Russians aside, these people are having many more children than the national average, much like Israeli Arabs. In fact, if you look at first graders, a quarter are ultraOrthodox, and a quarter are Arab. In Jerusalem, 45% of schoolchildren are ultra-Orthodox, 30% are Arab, 15% are national-orthodox settler types, and only about 15% are secular.
So Israel has a demographic problem, alright, but it is not exactly the one we are accustomed to hearing about. The more tragic reality is that the Israeli right is growing fast because it is reproducing fast—even faster than the Israeli Arab community. The centrist elite Olmert represents is getting squeezed between, on the one hand, forces that would welcome a kind of Jewish Pakistan, and, on the one hand, forces that want a binational state.
Which means that this could well be the last chance at peace, but not—as the argument goes—because of Arab birthrates, Hamas rejectionism, and Oxford’s debating union. If the Olmert government leaves office in 2010 or 2011 without having achieved a final status agreement—if the parties of the right take power within a coalition organized by Benjamin Netanyahu—what will Israel look like, and how violent will it be, at the end of another five years of stalemate? How many of the elite’s sons and daughters will stick around to find out? Anyway, you don’t have to be a prophet to see where the children of Israel are heading.
Avishai’s full post is here.