On the eve of every Jewish New Year, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics publishes a report on changes in the population. Faithful to tradition, the latest report was published on 3 October. It showed the total number of Israelis to be almost seven million, excluding 188,000 foreign workers. Of these, 5.3 million are Jewish and 1.4 million are "Arabs" (Muslims, Christians and Druze). Another 299,000 citizens are defined as "others", which means immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union, who are not Jewish. The Jews and "others", says the report, constitute 80 per cent of Israel's population, the Arabs 20 per cent.
These calm facts disguise an explosive battlefield. Israelis are obsessed with numbers, with "demographic balances" and with the "demographic threat". To safeguard Israel's status as a Jewish state they are determined, by various means, to ensure a sizeable Jewish majority. Complicating this straightforward divide, some Israelis worry about the Jewish mix inside Israel, looking back with nostalgia to the country's original "European" character. To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz's dictum, Israel's demographic policies are nothing but a continuation of war by other means.
Just before the 1948 war, the population of Mandatory Palestine consisted of 1.3 million Palestinians and 650,000 Jews. Once Israel seized three-quarters of the mandate and most of the Palestinians had been expelled or had fled from the land that was to become Israel, the ratio of Jews increased dramatically: along with the 650,000 Jews in Israel, there were only 150,000 Palestinians. At that time, 75 per cent of the Jews came from Europe and America, the rest from Middle Eastern countries.
Over the years, many stratagems have been devised to ensure that this Jewish majority continues. Israel's Arab citizens have a relatively high birth rate and Israeli Jews see this as part of the existential danger threatening the Jewishness of the state. To forestall this, Israel has taken several steps: the 1950 law that grants Jews everywhere the right to immigrate to Israel with immediate Israeli citizenship; the active encouragement of such immigration; policies aimed at promoting high fertility among Jews; elaborate methods of nationalising lands "abandoned" by Palestinians; confiscation of lands owned by Palestinians; and forced population ("Judaisation") of frontier areas by new Jewish immigrants, mainly from Arab countries. In addition, Israel refuses to negotiate the right of Palestinian refugees to repatriation.
These steps proved astonishingly successful. In less than two decades the Jewish population of Israel reached 2.15 million: 68 per cent of the increase was the result of immigration, 32 per cent of natural growth. But the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 gave the demographic battle renewed poignancy. Although Israel's centre-left parties were accomplices in the campaign to settle Jews on the occupied land (with a view to keeping it permanently), they later advocated Israel's withdrawal lest the de facto annexation of the territories transform Israel into a bi-national state, dominated eventually by Arabs. Many on the right take a less gloomy view. Their response wavers between implementing a form of apartheid in the West Bank and disturbing allusions to "voluntary" or forced transfer of Palestinians that would take place should "propitious" geopolitical circumstances permit. Some even entertain the idea of transferring Israeli Arab citizens out of Israel, no matter where to.
But Israel's obsession with demography does not stop at the Jewish-Arab divide. The country's political and cultural elite is also deeply concerned with the internal ethnic and religious divide among the Jews: the question, for some, of quality v quantity. Those who envisioned Israel as a secular and "European" state were deeply worried that the high natural growth of ultra-Orthodox religious Jews, plus the unrestricted admission of Jewish immigrants of Asian and African background (Mizrahi Jews), might transform Israel into a "clerical" and "backward Levantine society". Such concerns, often permeated by racist overtones, have considerably influenced Israel's immigration policies, entangling them in deep tensions and contradictions.
Immigration to Israel in the two decades after independence brought a drastic change in the ethnic composition of its Jewish population. In pre-independence years from 1919 to 1948, about 90 per cent of the immigrants were of European background and only 10 per cent Middle Eastern. But in the period from 1948 to 1962, only 45.4 per cent were European and the rest were Asian or African. Also, because of their higher birth rate, Mizrahi Jews have been the majority since the late 1970s. An important consequence of this is that the Mizrahi Jews, in reaction to the systematic discrimination against them, used their growing electoral power in 1977 to end the long-standing hegemony of the Labour party, which had ruled Israel since independence.
This change was not, to put it mildly, applauded by Israeli Ashkenazi (Euro-American) elites; this is not the Israel that Zionism's forebears had in mind and it is not the Israel of their dreams. In 1989, Amnon Dankner, an Israeli columnist and currently chief editor of the daily Maariv, best expressed this sense of disenchantment: "We have to admit that our state, the one that began its career as an Ashkenazi state, has tilted or, if you wish, turned in the past two decades in the Mizrahi-Levantine direction. There are those who are happy with this, but not me."
Indeed, the initial impetus behind the emergence of the Zionist movement was the need to provide a solution to the "Jewish problem", commonly understood as "the problem of the European Jews". This problem was to be solved, Zionists argued, by the creation of an independent state where European Jews could find safe haven from anti-Semitic persecution. Zionist ideologues, first and foremost Theodor Herzl, did not have the Jews of the Arab world in mind.
However, Arab Jews began to occupy the attention of Zionists after the dramatic political and demographic changes in the 1940s and 1950s. First, the problem of the Jews of the diaspora gradually gave way to the problem of the Jews of Israel: in other words, in order to maintain a viable and independent state, Israel needed a critical mass of Jewish immigrants. Second, the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, and after that the imprisonment of east European Jews behind the Iron Curtain, drastically limited the supply of "good human material", that is, immigrants of European background. This reality forced Israel's political elites to turn their glance, albeit grudgingly, eastwards towards Arab Jews. As Yehouda Shenhav argues in his forthcoming book The Arab-Jews, Zionists began to consider Arab Jews as a human reservoir that could supply cohorts of Jewish immigrants to their nascent state as far back as 1942, when news of the Holocaust began to spread.
But even then, whenever official Israel had to choose between emigration from European countries and emigration from Asian and African countries, priority was given to European immigrants. Furthermore, in the late 1940s and 1950s, prospective immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia and Iran were subject to selection procedures that gave priority to the young over the old, and to the healthy over the sick.
These distressing practices demonstrate a predicament that goes to the heart of Israel's immigration policies. These policies are designed to thwart "the demographic threat" posed by Palestinians while at the same time not falling into the trap of losing Israel's "European character" by allowing unrestricted admission of Mizrahi Jews.
The imminent collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s added a new dimension to the debate. When the Soviet Union opened its borders for free emigration, Israel situated itself at the receiving end. From 1989 to 2002 it took in approximately one million immigrants. These now constitute about 17 per cent of the population and are the largest ethnic group in Israeli Jewish society.
Immigration from the Soviet Union was considered by many a panacea for both of Israel's "demographic threats": the Arab one and the Mizrahi one, too. Right-wing and left-wing Zionist parties alike perceived it as a much-needed reinforcement for Israel's precarious Jewish majority. Right-wing parties fancied they could channel the "Russian immigrants" to the occupied territories, thus offsetting the left's call for withdrawal for demographic reasons. At the same time, Israel's Ashkenazi elites perceived these immigrants as a "Great White Hope" who might tip the demographic balance back in favour of Ashkenazi Jews and nudge Israeli society closer to Euro-American culture and mores. They also believed that the Russian Jews, holding only tenuous affinity with religion, would help check the growing power of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties.
These reasons were considered so compelling that the fact that one-third of the immigrants were not Jewish was conveniently overlooked. The privileged European "affiliation" of the Russians rendered them worthy recruits to the multifaceted demographic campaigns. The advantage of this affiliation is strikingly revealed in Israel's attitude towards would-be immigrants from Ethiopia. Israel has reluctantly admitted only 50,000 of them over the past three decades and maintains strict limitations on other prospective immigrants. Israel's absorption minister, Zippi Livni, disingenuously argues that the reasons for this are lack of material resources and mounting doubt about the Jewishness of the immigrants. But by carrying out this discriminatory policy, Israel reveals that it actually prefers Europeans who are not necessarily Jewish to Jews who are certainly not European. Demography as war is being played out in the strangest ways.
Yossi Yonah teaches at Ben Gurion University. His latest book is In Virtue of Difference (Van Leer Jerusalem Institute)