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Battle of numbers: Jewish minority by 2020

News about the sudden death of the "demographic problem" is premature. A much-publicized report by an American-Israeli team led by Bennet Zimmerman, a Los Angeles Jewish businessman, Yoram Ettinger, an Israeli communications consultant and former consul to the US, and several associates (none of whom is a professional demographer) suggests that the 2004 Palestinian-Arab population was closer to 2.4 million than to the 3.8 million estimated by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).

With a strong and stable Jewish majority over the whole territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and no trace left of the demographic ghost, there is no good reason to dream of relinquishing any parts of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

Derogatory explanations of the one-and-a-half-million population gap include conspiracy, incompetence, wickedness, human error and fraud. Nonetheless, the new work deserves serious answers, point by point.

The estimated 3.8-million figure for Palestinians is not an actual population count but rather a projection of the 1997 PCBS census which assumed a yearly growth of 4%-5%. This expectation has not been met in the years between 1997-2004.

Indeed the Palestinian claim of a 3.8 million population should not be accepted uncritically but nobody in Israel has accepted that figure. The figure includes east Jerusalem which as everybody is well aware is also included in Israeli population.

Population growth rates cannot be determined without reference to the separate components of growth (fertility, mortality, migration). In our projections for the years 2000-2050 east Jerusalem is included on the Israeli side. Future births and deaths are accounted for reflecting assumptions about current and future fertility and life-expectancy levels.

The base population comes from Israeli authorities who were responsible for statistics in the Territories. When Israel stopped collecting the data, the baseline was updated according to the then prevailing rate of growth. The population of the Territories had been assessed using model death rates that may have been too high, underestimating the real situation.

Between the Mediterranean and the Jordan the current population includes over 5.2 million Jews and another 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants under the Law of Return, sociologically integrated within the mainstream of Israeli society.

More than 1,300,000 Arabs live in Israel within the Green Line, including east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights including Arabs of various Christian denominations and the Druse. The 3.4 million Palestinians in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza bring the Arab total to 4.7 million, out of a total population of about 10.3 million between the sea and the river. Of these, 51% are Jews by the "core" definition, and 3% are non-Jewish members of Jewish households, for an "enlarged" total of 54%. Were we to include the about 200,000 temporary foreign workers, the share of Jews would be reduced by 2%.

By 2020, Jews and their non-Jewish relatives will be about 47% of the total on the whole territory according to a medium projection which assumes a decline of Arab fertility, and by 2050 they might constitute 37%. No Palestinian migrations were considered in these projections.

Palestinian fertility rates are lower than assumed.

Between two Palestinian sources the PCBS and the Ministry of Health which provide different data on the number of births, the new report preferred the lower figure.

On what grounds one Palestinian figure should be rejected as unreliable while another accepted as reliable is not clear. When asked by professional demographers to run their data through demographic software, Zimmerman and Ettinger discovered that a given number of births must reflect the average fertility of the same woman in the population. To fit their chosen lower birth data they had to postulate a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of about 3.8 children. This is not supported by any evidence and is, besides, totally unrealistic.

A FERTILITY rate is the average number of children that would be born to a woman if the levels of that year remained constant. Israel's Jewish fertility rate is stable at around 2.6 children and, unlike other advanced societies in Europe and in America, did not diminish. This reflects the social and cultural peculiarities of a society which includes groups with higher and lower fertility.

Fertility of Israel's Christian Arabs and Druse has converged to the level of the Israeli Jewish population. In contrast, the explanation that "fertility has declined in the Arab world" is only half true.

Fertility of Israeli Muslims within the Green Line peaked in the 1960s at about 10 children on average, diminished to 4.5 by 1985 (one year before the first intifada), and then remained constant for the next 20 years, notwithstanding the very significant modernization and improved education of Muslim women in Israel.

Today Israeli Muslims display significantly higher fertility than Arabs in many neighboring countries. Palestinians in the Territories seem logically more connected to Israeli Muslims than to Iraq or Morocco.

The most recent Palestinian fertility estimates are above 6 in Gaza, and above 5 in the West Bank. Such high values significantly affect projected populations through the effects of a young age composition nearly ignored by the new report. Demographic momentum reflecting age composition substantially postpones the effects of any changes in current fertility levels on the number of future newborns. The new report does make a reference to demographic theory and, quite funnily, mentions the "Swedish model" as obviously appropriate in Gaza.

Paradoxically, thanks to the Israeli presence in the Territories, Palestinian infant mortality diminished and population grew more rapidly than in most Arab countries.

Since 1993 some 150,000 Palestinians have legally moved to Israel. There is no trace of this in Israel's CBS data. By CBS publications, about 20,000 Muslims have joined the Israeli population since the early 1990s. Israel's Muslim population mostly grew due to the difference between high birth and low death rates. There is disagreement between two official Israeli authorities: the CBS and the Population Registrar of the Interior Ministry. But even if 150,000 Palestinians transferred into the Green Line they are still with us, in Afula rather than in Jenin. It does not affect the overall demographic balance.

Non-residents with ID cards who live abroad for more than 1 year were also counted; the net migration balance of Palestinians is 10,000 every year.

The quality of unpublished data on migration out of the territories is notoriously very poor. Those data need to be checked and accounted for. Any negative balance of Palestinian international migration and its cumulative effects for natural increase since 1995 should be subtracted from projections.

During the 1960s and 1970s the migration balance was negative between the Palestinian territories and other countries, such as Jordan and the Gulf states, slowing down Palestinian population growth. After the Gulf War some people reentered and opportunities for leaving diminished significantly. Many of those who left continue to keep a home or part of their families on this part of the Jordan River, and are no more than temporary absentees.

Israel has kept a solid Jewish majority since 1948, and especially since 1967.

Israel's Jewish majority (without the Territories) was 82.1% in 1948, grew to 86.8% in 1967, and diminished to 76.3% in 2004 (80.5% if non-Jewish immigrants are included). The decline in Jewish majority occurred despite massive immigration from the former Soviet Union. The latent assumption is that millions of new immigrants will continue to arrive, as they did after the break-up of the FSU.

The Jewish Diaspora population steadily diminished over the past 30 years. The FSU's large reservoir is nearly depleted. Under the present economic and political circumstances, large-scale immigration from Western countries is unlikely.

The fundamental issue in this debate is not the specific percentage point of the extant Jewish majority, or the specific date at which Jews will lose their current majority over the whole territory. What the new report has totally ignored is the crucial dimension of the quality of Israel as a Jewish and democratic society. This cannot be preserved under the present and foreseeable demographic trends unless strategic decisions are made concerning Israel's territorial definition.

The writer is professor at the A. Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem.

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