by Hannah Gal
Thursday, 15
April 2021
Explainer
11:33

Israel’s identity crisis

A declining Jewish population poses new and difficult questions for the country
by Hannah Gal
Anti-Netanyahu protesters demonstrating on the eve of the April 9 Israeli election

To coincide with Israel’s 73rd independence day, some surprising new data on the country’s demographics has emerged. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s Jewish population has dropped below 74% for the first time since its founding is significant in 1948. As of this year, Israel’s population stands at 9.3 million, but only 6,870,000 of those citizens are Jews, compared to 1,956,000 Arabs and 456,000 other.

This announcement has exacerbated an already fraught debate over Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Founded in the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel’s declaration of independence boldly proclaimed Israel the Nation State of the Jewish People, with Hebrew as its language and an open invitation extended to Jews of the diaspora.

But as the country’s demography has shifted, so too has the conversation about what a modern Israel should look like. In 2018, this tension came to a head after the passage of the controversial Nationality Bill that was passed into law by the Knesset in 2018. Spearheaded by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the bill re-affirmed Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, confirming it as the national home of the Jewish people with Hebrew as its official language.

Three years on, the law continues to dominate public discourse and divide the public. Apologies extended to the Druse, a minority group in Israel, were largely rejected and Israeli Arabs remain concerned over issues like housing rights and the status of their language. Arabs, for their part, also feel threatened demographically primarily because, for the last four years, the Jewish birth rate has been higher (3.16) than their Arab counterparts (3.11).

The ongoing debate has come to symbolise the clash between those for whom Jewish identity is sacred, and those who view the law as a marker of dangerous nationalism. In other words, those who see the very existence of Jewish life in a Jewish state as a triumph of the persecuted people, and those who fiercely argue that Israel is a state of all its inhabitants.

More broadly, it exposes a lingering rift over Zionism — Israelis who consider Zionism the Jewish people’s saviour, and those who challenge the right of a Jewish state to exist, and for whom Zionism is racist.

Ultimately, however, this debate is not about the Jewish religion, it is about Jewish identity. Israel is a secular society but its people, atheists and orthodox alike, hold a powerful bond to Jewish culture, history and roots. The large majority, be they Moroccans, Iraqis, Romanians, Yemenites, Kurds, Russians or Poles, celebrate the Jewish holidays, circumcise their sons, mark their bar Mitzvah, and light the Sabbath candles.

The Jewish identity is an intrinsic part of Israeli life, intertwined with a long history of persecution and freedom — it is this common undercurrent that bonds and unites the Israeli people.

The ideological, and legal battles are set to continue for years to come. The challenge for Netanyahu — and whoever follows him —  will be to defend Israel as a Jewish state that defends and celebrates Jewish identity, but also protects the rights of all minorities, including non-Jews. In light of these shifting demographic trends, the question has become all the more pressing.

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William Hickey
William Hickey
1 year ago

The news about the population means the culprit is immigration (unless you think Jews are leaving Israel for other places).

It will be interesting to read the arguments on the Jewish side both there and here in reaction to this news. Israel is a secular state, loaded with Jewish atheists, many of them as left wing as their American cousins. The ADL’s position on immigration, highlighted this week by Tucker Carlson, will now either have to change or maintain a special, chosen status for the “Zionist entity,” complete with all of the hypocritical rationales necessary to make that position appear moral for those who profess diversity and inclusion, but continue to practice exclusion.

The Likudnik’s identity argument, buttressed by culture and nationalism, simply won’t cut it for fervent multiculturalists like American Jews. Despite the oppression perfume it’s far too redolent of blood and soil.

So American Jews must either help to open Israel’s borders to the Third World’s poor, or join with the American Right in closing ours.

Immigration is only a policy, not a Commandment. It must serve the interests of the people who live in the nation, no one else’s.

Last edited 1 year ago by William Hickey
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Immigration is more often used as a tool to social engineer a place than better it. Take China who moved millions of Chinese into Tibet and East Turkestan to ethno-engeneer. This has been a tool used from the time of the Pharaohs. The Balkans, the Levant, Indonesia, Malaysia, much of the Pacific, and now the West.

Socialists always seek to break unity of a people, and to increase poverty, as dependence on the state is their means of success, and a disjointed society is divided and conquered, immigration is a tool for this.

William Hickey
William Hickey
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Of course.

Now give me examples of when immigration was used the way you described not by conquerors or victorious revolutionaries, but instead by the elected representatives, chief business interests and the most educated and privileged groups of a nation against the core population of their own society.

I’ll wait.

corfield.john
corfield.john
1 year ago
Reply to  William Hickey

An example you ask for is very close to home its the UK.
Blair when in power with his coterie discussed and allowed the opening of the UK borders to immigration to dilute to him and Brown, Prescott and Straw the warlike xenophobic instincts of the indigenous English.
This was highlighted by a Blair aide and is well documented.
I am surprised by your selective memory not to acknowledge the fact of Blair’s mission to dilute the gene pool of the English by mass immigration has been in the public domain for years.

Last edited 1 year ago by corfield.john
Frederick B
Frederick B
1 year ago
Reply to  corfield.john

Indeed. But if Blair was a disaster for the true English, Boris promises to be terminal. I recommend a scrutiny of his new “points based” immigration system in the unlikely event that you have not already done so. Then there’s Hong Kong….
I do wonder if it is not now time to reclaim England from the Tories immigration-friendly “global Britain”.

Pete Marsh
Pete Marsh
1 year ago

It’s possible to be a Jewish Arab, e.g. Dr Gad Saad originally from Lebanon (before Islam very many Arabs were Jews). Is ‘Arab’ code for Muslim in this article?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Pete Marsh

Uptick for mentioning Gad Saad!

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
1 year ago
Reply to  Pete Marsh

Iraqi and Moroccans are mentioned….

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
1 year ago
Reply to  Pete Marsh

I don’t think Hannah is using Arab as code for Muslim. Arabs are those who come from the Arabian peninsula and or speak Arabic. There are plenty of Caucasian (e.g. Bosnian), Asian (e.g. Bangladeshi), South Asian (e.g. Malaysian) and African (e.g. Gambian) Muslims that are not Arab. The Iranians are not Arabs. Arabs are Semites like a lot of Jews and Christians. Before Israel there were huge populations of (mostly Sephardi) Jews across the Maghreb and Middle East. As with most minorities in prejudicial circumstances which worsened after ’48 and led to dwindling of the communities. Iraq had 150,000 Jews in ’48 and apparently 1 left now. I don’t think that makes them or prof. Saad Arabs.
All that having been said there is of course no such thing as race just humans with instinctive prejudice.

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
1 year ago

There are 6.2 non citizens living in the UK without any right to vote. The ability to become a UK citizen is limited but not as much as places like Saudi Arabia, Australia and others.
The notion that it should be otherwise is just all part of the Socialist anti-national rhetoric about capitalist imperialism. As we all know and as is demonstrated by the CCPs treatment of the Uighurs, Socialism (as opposed to fairness and decency) is anti cultural heritage.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

“it is this common undercurrent that bonds and unites the Israeli people.” Surely that should be just under 74% of the Israeli people.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Indeed, civic nationalism rings very hollow in places like Israel. The nation is the people, not on a map. You don’t become Israeli by living within Israel’s borders, contrary to modern muddled Western thinking.

William Hickey
William Hickey
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron Kevali

The Promised Land doesn’t have “magic dirt”?

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Sure doesn’t Will.

Ann G
Ann G
1 year ago

The problem is the contradiction between demonization of nationalism in general as a result of WWII, and the creation of the State of Israel which is based on a particular nationalism, Jewish nationalism, i.e. the belief in the need for a Nation-state, but only that case.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

Wouldn’t we need to know more about what the definition of Jewish is? Not sure if it means religiously, culturally or ethnically?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

It mostly means born of a Jewish mother. It is matrilineal.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
1 year ago

“Israel’s Jewish population has dropped below 74% for the first time since its founding is significant in 1948.” (sic)
Really? I suspect the non-Jewish population – by proportion – was much higher before they were forced out to refugee camps in Israel’s neighbours. Persona non grata!

Last edited 1 year ago by Roger Inkpen
Stan Konwiser
Stan Konwiser
1 year ago

The problem in a nutshell: The declaration that “Israel is a democratic Jewish State” is a contradiction in terms.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago
Reply to  Stan Konwiser

Bingo. It’s either one or the other. As it happens, they should probably just ditch the democracy (as they will need to eventually anyway) otherwise they will find themselves being voted out of existence. And they are not the only nation in this position.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago
Reply to  Stan Konwiser

How so? It has a democratic form of govt and Arabs are among those elected to the Knesset. It is also primarily Jewish.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It depends on how you define democracy. A narrow definition would say if you have elections and everyone can vote that is a democracy. Others would say democracy involves the equal treatment and recognition of minority groups as being part of the people, ‘demos’, that make up the democracy.
Israel self defines as being a Nation State for the Jewish People – which by definition excludes minority groups which are part of the People but who aren’t Jewish – religiously, ethnically or culturally. So, under the broader definition of democracy, Israel isn’t one.

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

You are confusing the modern socialist ideals of equal outcomes with democracy which I believe has its origins in Greece where only certain people were entitled to vote as it is in the UK now.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Goodman

No, I’m saying there is more than one definition of democracy. But the argument shouldn’t be about the definition it should be about the moral or ethical basis underlying the democracy on offer. I think a democracy that specifically disadvantages people because of their ethnicity or religion has less ethical or moral validity than one that doesn’t.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
1 year ago
Reply to  Stan Konwiser

So I keep hearing but I don’t see why. Care to explain?

Stan Konwiser
Stan Konwiser
1 year ago

Every cultural society has an obligation to perpetuate itself. Not doing so is a recipe for its eventual destruction. The conundrum facing all democracies is how to preserve the culture without violating its democratic ideals.
The best way is to make sure the education system is aligned with the culture and is reinforcing it as well as having a strong enough culture that those entering the country are willing to assimilate and adopt the culture.
Cultures evolve over time and the governing systems need to evolve with them. Too many in the US believe the power structures there no longer represent the values of the evolved culture. This is partly the failure of the education system and the knee jerk reaction of those who are in power wanting to stay that way.
Unfortunately, those forces that are moving to change the culture are often unable to articulate their goal other than to demote the existing power structure. The addition of outside forces in the form of multinational corporations further complicates the situation as their motives are not necessarily aligned with either side.
It is important to distinguish the difference between the quest for power and the goal of preserving or modifying the culture. Those motives are often in conflict. Be sure you understand an activist’s motives before you align yourself with them.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Stan Konwiser

Every cultural society has an obligation to perpetuate itself.
Interesting. Obligation to who?

Stan Konwiser
Stan Konwiser
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

It has an obligation to those that subscribe to it. If a cultural belief or practice loses its followers, that belief or practice disappears. For example: Human sacrifice and slavery were common features of numerous cultures around the world. Having lost cultural support, they have all but disappeared.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Stan Konwiser

Israel seems to have elections every six months. Arabs have the vote and are elected to the Knesset. It seems pretty democratic to me, one of very few genuine democracies between Hungary and India.