Speaking at the recent Herzliya Conference on the Balance of National Strength and Security, Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel must address a demographic issue. He was not referring to the Palestinians – they can be separated by a fence or other negotiated steps including statehood – but rather the Israeli Arabs who remain Israeli citizens.

The 1948 Declaration of Independence said Israel should be a Jewish and a democratic state. In order to ensure that the Jewish character is not undermined by demographic trends, it is necessary to maintain a Jewish majority.

If Israel’s Arabs become 35 to 45 percent of the population, there will no longer be a Jewish state but a binational one, Netanyahu noted. If Arabs remain at 20 percent (roughly the present proportion) but relations are tense, this will militate against the maintenance of democracy. “Therefore a policy is needed that will balance the two.”

What is that policy? As Netanyahu sees it, the policy prescription is a growing economy that attracts capital and Jews from the diaspora. At the moment the out-migration of about 40,000 Israelis a year is due as much to economic stagnation as security concerns.

Although his speech, in my opinion, was sensible and encouraging, negative reaction was not slow in being recorded. Ahmid Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset, said, “Netanyahu’s demographic time bomb is a stink bomb and a racist one.” He added, “The day is not far off when Netanyahu and his followers will set up roadblocks at the entrance to Arab villages to tie Arab women’s tubes and spray them with anti-spermicide.”

Azmi Bishara of the National Democratic Alliance said, “Describing the original residents of this land as a demographic problem would be considered racism in any normal, or even abnormal, country.”

Labor whip Dalia Itzik described Netanyahu as a “serial pyromaniac,” alleging that “he has already lit the flames between rich and poor, and now he is trying to do the same between Jews and Arabs.”

Notwithstanding the criticism, Netanyahu has raised a legitimate issue. If the Arabs in Israel have four children per family and Jews fewer than two, it is only a matter of time before Israel is not a Jewish state. No one, certainly not Netanyahu, is arguing that Israeli Arabs do not have a legitimate place in the nation. The question is whether a Jewish heritage can coexist with democratic impulses, particularly those driven by demographic trends.

Several spokesmen at the conference, most specifically Professor Mari Fitzduff, contend that a “new paradigm” is needed, one that goes beyond a concern for minorities and looks instead at coexistence and integration.

She made specific reference to the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia as pluralistic models Israel might emulate. She emphasized further that instead of the tyranny of “either or,” coexistence could promote a cohesive society built on respect for diversity.

But she neglected to point out the tensions that often exist in pluralistic societies. She also ignored the Israeli commitment to a Jewish state, a commitment which, she assumes, becomes irrelevant when the new engineered social order is put in place. But what if the majority balks? What if the initial purpose of the state is to be retained?

In the absence of practical considerations, this form of utopianism can be misguided or dangerous. Nonetheless, many at the conference took Ms. Fitzduff’s views seriously. Perhaps she and others should have listened to Pat Robertson’s presentation. Rev. Robertson admonished the audience to be strong. “Do not commit national suicide,” he urged.

Alas, that may be the real issue. Lord Falkland once argued, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Israel has many utopians and social experimenters. Whether they realize it or not, some of their ideas put this fragile polity at risk. Far better, I contend, to rely on common sense and tried and true ideas than the brainstorming of well-meaning academics. 


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