The demographic threat

Israel’s politics of reproduction

Saturday, 17 December, 2011 - 11:24
London, UK

Jimmy Johnson

The Netanyahu government on December 2nd ordered the removal of several government ads displayed in various American cities. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption's (MIA) 'Returning Home Project' had placed several video ads and billboards warning Israeli expatriates of the dangers of marrying American Jews. The ads all finished with the line, “They will always remain Israelis, their children will not.”

U.S. commentator Jeffrey Goldberg denounced and ridiculed the campaign and the Jewish Federations of North America issued a critical statement and sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador to the United States. The outcry resulted in the the removal of the videos (only one of which is available on the MIA's website at the time of writing)

But why is the fact of Israelis living in the U.S. or Israelis marrying non-Israelis seen as so threatening? And where do Palestinians fit in all this?

The MIA launched the campaign in October to lure yordim ('those who go down', Jewish emigrants from Israel, commonly a derisive term) back to Israel. The campaign includes a generous benefits package comparable with that of olim ('those who ascend', Jewish immigrants to Israel). An estimated 700,000 Israelis, nearly 10% of the population, live abroad and the government has announced numerous initiatives over the years to entice yordim to return. The perceived danger of Israeli emigration and acculturation has its roots in the settler-colonialist attitude that guides Israel's relationship with the indigenous Palestinians. 

The yerida (the term for Jewish emigration, the root of yordim) phenomenon raises questions of brain drain, but this is a secondary consideration. The primary concern for Israeli officials is what is referred to as a Palestinian 'demographic bomb', a deeply racist term for the impending Palestinian demographic majority in territories under Israeli control, or for a significant increase in the Palestinian population of Israeli inside the 1967 borders.

In 2003 then Finance Minister, Netanyahu said "We have a demographic problem, but it lies not with the Palestinian Arabs, but with the Israeli Arabs." He continued, "if Israel's Arabs become well integrated and reach 35-45 percent of the population, there will no longer be a Jewish state." Each yored (singular of yordim) increases the percentage of the Palestinian Arab population of Israel (though Palestinian citizens too emigrate and there is wide Israeli support for the government to encourage this emigration). Netanyahu has more recently added African refugees and undocumented workers to the demographic “threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country.”

This is not simply a right-wing phenomenon. Tel Aviv Mayor and longtime Labour Party member Ron Huldai echoed Netahyahu's comments last week when he wrote of African migrants as “a wave of infiltrators” responsible for “distress caused to residents of neighbourhoods who have to cope with their absorption.” 

On a broader level, members of Israel's Labour party, originally a founder and supporter of the settlement project, gradually came to espouse separation and a two-state solution, based on a partial withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory. The main driver of this transition has been the fear of an Arab majority in Israel-Palestine and its impact on Israel's self-perception as a democracy - hence the wish for a smaller Israel with a secure Jewish majority. Uri Savir, the Peres Centre for Peace President and lead negotiator at Oslo, while condemning the Israeli Right, tacitly supported its racist premises when he recently wrote that  "the lack of a political solution to the Palestinian issue based on a two-state solution makes the demographic reality into a time bomb in our democratic system." He may be espousing peace and democracy, but he also believes that too many Arabs is intrinsically a problem, though not so much a threat to Jews as to the idea of a 'Jewish democratic state'. 


This wish to see Israel as both Jewish and democratic, and to achieve that end through a two-state solution in which Israel is explicitly a Jewish majority state, is characteristic of the Israeli liberal left. One of its better-known promoters is Professor Ruth Gavison, who has written about the subject extensively. In her view, Israel can be both Jewish by definition and a democracy, only so long as it protects both human rights and a Jewish majority. 

A good example showing which of these two aspirations is in fact more important to Gavison is a recent op-ed she wrote for Israeli daily Ha'aretz, titled 'Civic equality does not mean freedom of immigration' . In this article, which defends the recent prohibition on entry of Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens into Israel, Gavison argues that, 'even if the security situation changes, Israel's immigration policy might need to include elements similar to those of the current law, due to its desire to maintain a Jewish national state…. There can be no self-determination for Jews in a democratic Jewish state unless a stable Jewish majority is secured.' 

This racist discourse – which goes back to the 1950s though it really came of age after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza after 1967 – has become internationally hegemonic. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz told U.S. Congress in 1988 that Israel faced “a very large, clearly ticking demographic time bomb.” What Schultz, Netanyahu, Savir, Huldai and others can agree on is that Palestinian babies are incredibly dangerous.

Australian scholar Claire McLisky provides a useful framework in her “(En)gendering Faith?: Love, Marriage and the Evangelical Mission on the Settler Colonial Frontier,” a chapter in the new collection Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity, and Culture. She focuses on a different settler society, Australia, but what she says has great relevance for Israel/Palestine. She writes, “Heterosexual love, marriage and reproduction have always occupied an ambivalent place in settler colonies like Australia. While reproduction of the 'right' sort of settlers is imperative to the numerical increase of the colonizing population, indigenous peoples' reproduction is more problematic.” McLisky's approach can shed light on connections between the attempts to lure yordim to return, on the one hand, with the panic over the Palestinian 'demographic time-bomb', on the other.

The 'demographic time-bomb' is a perpetual discussion point in Israeli politics. It is the crass racism of the variants of 'too many Arabs' that provides the logic of the recent campaign to bring yordim back to Israel. In an attempt to prevent 'too many Arabs', Israel chose to describe Jewish diaspora as a dangerous place to reproduce and caused uproar and scandal throughout the diaspora. In this logic, the only couplings more dangerous than yordim pairings outside Israel are those of Palestinians. As McKlisky notes, “indigenous peoples' reproduction” is “problematic.”


Jimmy Johnson enjoys tap-dancing and is the founder of Neged Neshek, a project documenting Israeli arms exports. He is former International Coordinator for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and can be reached at [email protected]

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