Settlers climb on a roof as Israeli police are evicting them the West Bank settlement of Ofra



Settlers climb on a roof as Israeli police are evicting them the West Bank settlement of Ofra, Feb. 28, 2017. Israeli forces began evacuating nine homes in the settlement following a Supreme Court decision that ruled they were built on private Palestinian land.

Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

It Won't Be a Jewish State Anymore

| Feb. 28, 2017


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on February 26, 2017. The translation was provided by the author.

The demographic issue, like just about everything else in Israel, has fallen victim to the populist nature of political discourse today. Whereas the left warns of the demographic threat to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, if a diplomatic solution cannot be found to the conflict with the Palestinians, the right denies the very existence of the problem and tries to counter the argument with population projections that ostensibly indicate alternative trends. In these circumstances, it is worth knowing the facts and where we are truly headed.

A quick look at the attached table indicates that already today just 59 percent of the people under Israeli control (including the West Bank) are Jewish. Moreover, had it not been for the withdrawal from Gaza, Jews would have already become a minority between the Mediterranean and Jordan River.

In 2050 some 18 million people will live in Israel and the West Bank, 21 million with the Gaza Strip. This rapid rate of growth should be of concern to us all, if for no other reason, then because of the severe population density and attendant problems of urban planning, environmental degradation and more. The good news is that the decrease in Palestinian fertility in the West Bank and Gaza, along with that of Israel's Arab population, leaves the demographic balance similar to what it is today. The bad news is that if the West Bank remains under Israel's control, approximately 43 percent of the "Jewish state" will not be Jewish, thereby raising some tough questions about Israel's future. Without the West Bank (and Gaza), conversely, Israel clearly retains its Jewish identity.

The Zionist movement never defined the percentage of Jews required in order for Israel to constitute a Jewish state. In practice, most of us simply became accustomed to the large Jewish majority that has prevailed ever since independence, even though one could ask whether a state in which 20 percent of its citizens are not Jewish truly is a Jewish state. Be that as it may, it is abundantly clear that a state in which more than 40 percent of its citizens are not Jewish cannot be so defined.

Israeli Demography

There are other countries in the world with a similar demographic split: Syria, Iraq, and in the past Yugoslavia, and they have become a synonym for catastrophe. Those who prefer the sanctity of the Land of Israel, over the people of Israel, destine Israel to a similar, hellish, binational future.

In a desperate attempt to deny reality, supporters of annexation have invented other demographic data, what has come to be known of late as "alternative facts." They argue that there has been an over-count of the Palestinian population in the West Bank of more than 1 million people, a claim that has been resoundingly rejected by the leading demographers in Israel. However, even if we were to accept their figures, the non-Jewish population would still be approximately a third of the total. This is a significantly lower number than the accepted one, but it in no way detracts from the one overwhelming conclusion that can be derived from the data: The very future of the Zionist enterprise depends on separation from the Palestinians and the demographic issue is the real existential threat. Somehow, we will handle the Iranians, the demographic trends are inescapable.

Some believe that we have already crossed the point of no-return and that it will be politically and economically impossible to separate from the Palestinians, because no future government will be able to move the approximately 90,000 Israelis who live east of the barrier fence, even if it wishes to do so. This fatalistic conclusion denies Israel the ability to determine its future and leads to our demise as a Jewish and democratic state. This is a fate that most of the people of Israel are unwilling to accept, as clearly emerges in public opinion polls from the strong majority that opposes a binational state.

Admittedly, it will not be easy, but it is doable. At the height of the Russian Aliyah (immigration) in the 1990s, Israel absorbed 30,000 immigrants each month, people who did not know the language and culture and who lacked both housing and employment. We can surely absorb Israelis, who will only have to move a few kilometers and in many cases not even have to change their places of employment. It is a matter of leadership and of achieving an agreement with the Palestinians. Time is pressing.

It is doubtful whether the two-state solution can survive another four to eight years of inaction, if that is Benjamin Netanyahu's and Donald Trump’s intention. In reality, there is no status quo. The number of settlers who do not live in the primary settlement "blocs" is growing steadily, and the territory available for land swaps is being used for other purposes.

The solution, however, also depends on the secular population, which has rallied to the flag so many times in the past, donned its uniforms, and manned tanks. It is now called upon to serve the nation once again and to fill the Land of Israel with little secular Hebrews. It's for the future of the state.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck. "It Won't Be a Jewish State Anymore." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 28, 2017