The updated population data have once again placed the inherent tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature in the forefront of the political arena. While Israeli liberal-minded political forces argue that there is no contradiction and that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, others on the political right and the left reject the idea.
The Israeli political right was caught off guard by the surprising official figures presented on March 26 at the Knesset by a representative of the Civil Administration, the army unit coordinating the Israeli government’s activities in the occupied territories. The representative indicated that the number of Jews and Arabs living under Israeli control in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean had reached parity at 6.5 million for each side.
Over the years, the Zionist left kept warning about the prospect of a Jewish minority in Israel controlling a Palestinian majority, with only a small number of them enjoying full civil rights. Yet the Israeli right kept dismissing these warnings. It countered with imaginary data showing that some 3 million Palestinians live in Israel and the occupied territories, compared with 6.5 million Jews. However, from the moment the true numbers were communicated to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee with the new data last week by the Israel Defense Forces, the leadership of the political right can no longer argue that political bias is skewing the figures. It is now forced to confront the figures. . . .
If nothing else, the right has persuaded me of this: We need to offer every West Bank Palestinian the option of voting in Israeli elections. If you refuse to allow them a country, for God’s sake, allow them the vote.
“I truly believe that our right to the Land of Israel holds true whether or not [there is a majority]. It is just as when Ben-Gurion established the state and there were 600,000 [Jewish] people facing one and a half to two million Arabs. Our right to the land of Israel was strong and present then. And it exists now as well. Therefore, the majority is not meant to be the deciding factor in our decision making.”
— Yigal Dilmoni, deputy CEO of the settlement movement’s Yesha Council
A senior Israeli settlement movement official, responding to statistics cited by the Israeli military indicating that Jews are now a minority in the Holy Land, stated this week that Jews have the right to rule Israel even if Arabs become a majority within the country.
The statement came hours after a furor erupted Monday in the Knesset, where figures cited by an army colonel showed that some three million Palestinians now live in the West Bank and another two million in the Gaza Strip.
Combined with the 1.8 million Arab citizens of Israel and the 300,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, the statistics meant that from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, Arabs may outnumber Israel’s 6.6 million Jews by as many as 600,000 people. . . .
“Consider a post-peace Israel where refugee claims have been settled, where the everyday brutality of occupation no longer precludes normalcy, and where the work of truth and reconciliation has begun. While still remaining alert to outside threats, Israel would be able to relax its disproportionate focus on security. After all, war and occupation take a toll on creative expression, while massive defense spending diverts focus from cultural investment.”
We watched with admiration as Hagai El-Ad of B’Tselem and Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now appeared recently before the U.N. Security Council to urge action against the Israeli occupation. The session was framed as a discussion of settlements in the context of “peace” and a “two-state solution.” But behind the occupation lurks an even more vexing issue: that of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. We feel we need to unpack this issue — and the assumptions about demographics that animate it — if we’re going to make real headway on countering the occupation.
The vast majority of Israelis, even most on the Israeli left, argue that admitting the Palestinian refugees would lead Israel to lose its “Jewish character.” For them, a Jewish-majority state provides the Jewish people with a degree of security and justice. Yet many Palestinians and their increasingly numerous and vocal supporters in North America and Europe see no justice in Israel’s exclusionary policies allowing all Jews, but no Palestinians, to “return” to the country.
Israelis’ anxious focus on ethnic demographics inflicts harm on those within the state as well. An array of discriminatory laws and practices currently marginalize the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. These laws and practices not only make it difficult for Palestinian citizens to embrace the state as their own, they also preclude justice, equality and peace.