With U.S. President Barack Obama seemingly
determined to push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu equally adamant that he lacks a real
partner for peace, the United States and Israel seem destined for a clash. But
there are larger forces at work than the policies of either government. The
face of Israel
is changing, and in ways that explain much of what is happening in the Jewish
Take Avigdor Lieberman,
whose rising political star befuddles much of the Israeli establishment.
Despite being perennially poised on the verge of multiple indictments for
financial crimes, tagged as an Arab-loathing ultra nationalist by the Israeli
media, and attacked from both sides of the political spectrum as the Jewish
state's very own public diplomacy nightmare, the new foreign minister's voter
appeal has climbed steadily. And the popularity of his right-wing party,
Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Our Home) has grown as well, even among young, secular
Israeli-born Jews. Why?
Many have offered
explanations for Lieberman and Yisrael Beytenu's rise, from rocket attacks to a
religious revival, but one key factor has been overlooked thus far: They have
demographics firmly on their side. The party's platform taps into the fears of
the country's demographically ebbing secular middle ground and feeds off of
working Israelis' frustrations with the country's two most dissonant minorities
-- Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim) -- both of which are on the
Fig. 1. Projected trend in primary school student composition.
Fig. 2. Projected trend in voting-age population.
The numbers are
impressive. In 1960, the Israeli Central Statistical Bureau (ICSB) reported
that just 15 percent of students in the Israeli primary-school system were
either Israeli Arabs or haredim. Now, about 46 percent are. Around 2020, the
majority of primary-school students will likely be composed of children
from those two groups, each segregated into its own segment of the school
system (Fig. 1). And though, at current rates, it will be well beyond the time horizon of our current projections before these two politically disparate groups dominate the Israeli electorate (Fig. 2), by 2030 they are likely to
be very close to composing half of all 18- and 19-year olds, the youngest tier
of the electorate and the age at which Israelis are first eligible for
conscription (Fig. 3a b) -- a dramatic shift in Israeli ethnic and
Such a development is
completely contrary to the demographic hopes of Israel's secular Zionist founders,
which hinged on a healthy pace of secular-Jewish childbearing and steady
streams of Jewish immigrants. For the long run, the founders trusted in the
powers of prosperity and modernity to turn Israel's kaleidoscopic assortment
of Jewish and non-Jewish ethnic communities into a modern multi ethnic
population with European-like aspirations for women and European-like levels of
fertility (a measure demographers use to estimate the trend in lifetime
childbirths per woman).
outcomes of six decades of nation-building and social investment are mixed.
Descendents of European and American Jewish migrs have, indeed, stayed
somewhat above the two-child replacement level, unlike those who remained
overseas. But Jewish immigration to Israel has been more episodic than
continuous. The post-independence wave (1948-51), which brought about 700,000
immigrants to Israel's shores, was followed by nearly four decades of much
lower levels and then another great wave -- from 1990 to 2000 -- of more than 900,000
migrs, mostly from the former Soviet Union. But today, most sources put Israel's net
influx at less than 20,000 immigrants per year, which accounts for about 18 percent
of the country's annual population growth.
the hope that fertility levels between Israel's different populations would
even out has already largely been fulfilled. Although women arriving from
traditional North African, Middle Eastern, and Asian Jewish communities
averaged well over five children in the 1950s, their granddaughters now average
fewer than three. Israeli Arab fertility, too, has dropped, albeit at a slower
pace, from more than seven children per woman in the 1950s to about 3.6 today. Among
Israeli Arabs, who now make up 20 percent of Israel's 7.1 million resident
citizens, Muslims (83 percent of Israeli Arabs) are estimated by the ICSB at
3.9 children per woman. Arab Christians currently make up just over 8 percent
of Israeli Arabs, with fertility at about 2.1 children per woman.
But there's one major
outlier: the haredim population. While official statistics are unavailable,
academics report that ultra-Orthodox women bear, on average, about 7 children
per woman -- in other words, there has been no decline in their fertility since
Israel's establishment. That the Haredim -- 7 to 11 percent of Israel's population, and
growing at an estimated 4 percent annually -- are expanding faster than either
Israeli Arabs or the rest of Israel's Jewish population should be no surprise.
Haredi sects grew out of 19th-century movements aimed expressly at revitalizing
and propagating theologically conservative Judaism and deterring secularization
The growth in the haredi
population troubles secular Jews for a whole host of reasons, most of them
economic. Ultra-Orthodox young men obtain draft deferments and student stipends
by extending their study -- for decades -- in religious schools (yeshiva),
which are also subsidized by the government. Because they don't work or develop
job skills, haredim contribute little to tax revenues and tend to be poor,
qualifying them for welfare assistance. And because haredi family sizes are
large, they receive government-sponsored child allowances.
Beyond the economic drag,
there's politics: Ultra-Orthodox rabbis control access to marriage, conversion,
and burial, effectively determining the status of non-haredi private lives
across the varied Jewish community. In addition, ultra-Orthodox activists flex
their political muscle by censoring advertising and movies, organizing consumer
boycotts, mounting mass demonstrations, and harassing secular Jews who violate
the Sabbath. Once
peace-process-disinterested members of various coalition governments,
ultra-Orthodox politicians now rank among the most hawkish in the Knesset,
defending haredi settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Although
less politically cohesive, Israeli Arab voters favor the flip side of the
political spectrum, which makes moderate Israelis wonder how their democracy
might function should these two groups grow to dominate the electorate.
Yisrael Beytenu's focus
demographic destiny gives its platform an unconventional twist. Unlike other
parties on Israel's
political far right, Yisrael Beytenu's Knesset members support the
establishment of a Palestinian state and the passage of a pro-immigrant secular
marriage law. But unlike those to the center and left, the party calls for an
oath of loyalty as a prerequisite to the full rights of citizenship -- a scheme
that would likely purge a substantial portion of the growing Israeli Arab
population from voting rolls and quite possibly disenfranchise a segment of ultra-Orthodox
Jews who, on scriptural and political grounds, object to Zionism and the Jewish
state that it spawned.
Yisrael Beytenu also
proposes to hinge eligibility for social benefits on fulfillment of military or
community service, driving a wedge between groups who are typically conscripted
into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and those who are not. It's not only
native-born and non native Jewish citizens who fulfill compulsory IDF service.
So do migrs of mixed origin, Israeli-Arab Drus, and Israeli Circassians. On
the other side of this demographic divide are ultra-Orthodox in religious
schools and Muslim and Christian Arabs who are not conscripted or sought after,
and who don't typically seek IDF service.
Perhaps the most
contentious element of Yisrael Beytenu's demographic agenda is titled land for land, peace for peace.
Rejecting government land for peace
initiatives with neighboring Arab states, it proposes instead to swap
Israeli-Arab border towns (and Israeli Arabs) for close-in Jewish settlements
on the West Bank. Even with Lieberman heading Israel's Foreign Ministry, this
proposal may not surface publicly under the Likud-led coalition. Land swaps are
ideologically unpalatable to either the left, for whom Israeli-Arab rights are
non negotiable, or the right, for whom each square kilometer secured within the
Green Line (Israel's pre-1967 border) is symbolic of national sacrifice.
Nonetheless, the swap appeals to many within government and in the public. Moreover,
it's another of Yisrael Beytenu's demographic game-changers: It might
circumvent the impasse created by the settlements while taking a chunk of Arab
population growth out of Israel's political future.
It is probably unwise to
attempt near-term political predictions for a system where new break away
parties, comingled electoral lists, and governments composed of strange
political bedfellows are commonplace. We offer just one: As the secular
proportion of Jewish voters recedes, Yisrael Beytenu's fortunes are bound to
improve. And that secular proportion will indeed recede, unless, of course, the
rules of the game change -- which is precisely what Lieberman has in mind.