Interview with Yoram Ettinger


On Thursday, I met with Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli Consul General to the United States and an official in various capacities in the Rabin, Begin, and Shamir governments from the 1980s to the early 1990s. His positions have included being head of a government Middle East research unit from 1976-1985, Consul General in Houston from 1985-1988, Director of the Israeli Government Press Office from 1988-1989, and the Minister for Congressional Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC from 1989-1992.

In recent years, Yoram has made waves through his investigation of Palestinians demographic projections, made prominent through the publication of “The Million Person Gap: The Arab Population in the West Bank and Gaza,” by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. The basic contention of the report is that through a thorough investigation of Palestinian demographic data from Israeli, Palestinian, and International data sources, that Palestinian population growth rates have been dramatically overstated. This to the point that the Palestinian Authority claims a population of more than 1.25 Million people more than actually reside in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem combined: 2.49 million in mid-2004 rather than the projected 3.83 million reported by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

We began our conversation with a discussion of the history of the “demographic fear” argument, succinctly put that Jews are unable to make and/or maintain a demographic majority in the borders of the State of Israel. The consequence of losing the demographic advantage to the Arab population, it is typically argued, would be that Israel would either cease to be a Jewish state or cease to be a democracy. Yoram pointed out that this fear is far from a new phenomenon in Israeli politics nor in the history of the Zionist movement.

Beginning with the time of Theodor Herzl and the first World Zionist Congress, it was argued by Simon Dubnow, a prominent Jewish historian and demographer, that there was no way that Jews could secure a demographic majority in the land of Israel. His philosophy of Jewish autonomism emphasized Jewish self-rule in Europe, a model adopted by the Jewish communist Bundists. In March 1898, he published a public letter which projected that by the year 2000, at best, the Jewish population in the land of Israel could be no more than 500,000, which was more or less the population of Kiev at the time. Condemning Herzl as a hallucinating messianic visionary, he felt it was much better to focus on autonomy in Europe. With 5.5 million Jews in the land by that year, clearly his projection was flawed.

In the years leading up to Israeli independence, Professor Roberto Baki, a statistician and demographer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “bombarded” David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and other Zionist leaders with arguments that 600,000 Jews did not constitute the critical mass necessary to sustain an independent state. On October 1944, he produced a projection that Israel, at best, might expect one million Jews to make aliyah between 1944 and 2001. Coupled with the expectation of a low Jewish birthrate to match those typical in Western Europe and the sustaining of an Arab birth rate of some 6-7 births per woman such that Jews would soon become a minority in the land. In fact, 2.3 million made aliyah in that period, two and a half times what Baki expected.

However the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) continues to employ Baki’s “flawed” methodology. Why is his approach flawed? Because, Ettinger argues, it severely underestimates Jewish fertility, assumes exceptionally high Arab fertility, minimizes the prospects for Jewish aliyah and excludes any consideration of Arab emigration. In the 1970s, the CBS claimed there were no prospects for another large wave of aliyah as those in the West who could come did not want to, and those under the communist East who wanted to come, did not. However, in this period, some 300,000 people made aliyah from the communist bloc.

In the 1980s, Ettinger argued, the prominent demographers of the time, themselves students of Baki, were “proponents of a demography of doom”, utilizing every platform available to proclaim their assessment that no sizeable aliyah from the Soviet Union was possible. Even if the gates were opened, they argued, Jews would prefer to go to western states like the United States, Canada, and the rest of western Europe. However, more than one million came.

This was in no small part due to the activism of then Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir. In the early years when Mikhail Gorbachev began to open the USSR’s borders to Jewish emigration, some 90% of emigrants went to Europe and the United States. In response (and much to the chagrin of the American Jewish community), Shamir pressured the United States in particular to limit the issuing of refugee certificates to Soviet Jews and lobbied Gorbachev to switch from a policy of allowing almost no flights to Tel Aviv to that of directing all Jewish emigrants to fly through Israel. As a result, argues Ettinger, Israel was able to take full advantage of this unique prospect for a large aliyah wave and augment its Jewish majority.

Today, there are similar claims that there are no prospects for another sizeable wave of aliyah. But, insists Ettinger, the current conditions of economic turmoil in the world at large, particularly in the former Soviet bloc, and increasing anti-Semitism in western Europe, offer another important opportunity to encourage new immigration. Currently under contention is the status of some 100-200 thousand in the former Soviet Union who do not currently qualify as “halakhic Jews” under the Israeli religious establishment’s standards. When this conversion controversy is resolved, and Ettinger is confident it will be resolved in their favor, another large aliyah from eastern Europe awaits.

Moreover, Jewish education in the United States, particularly among the modern orthodox community, is increasingly driven by Zionist values and graduates of this system are “natural candidates” for aliyah. Trending at around four thousand a year, numbers from the United States could reach ten thousand annually, Ettinger claims, if the Israeli government “gets its act together.” Such western emigrants make not only a quantitative contribution to Israel, but a substantially qualitative one as well, bringing with them professional training and expertise which can only help build Israel’s burgeoning economy.

It is the permanent duty of every government in Israel, he argues, to utilize such conditions to encourage aliyah and to “follow in the footsteps of every prime minister from Ben Gurion to Shamir” to insist that aliyah is not only the raison detre of the state, but its most important lifeline. Aliyah “is the most powerful” supporter of Israeli national security and economic growth, and should Israel be proactive, it can expect another massive wave. Through proactive advocacy coupled with government-level immigration and religious reforms, Ettinger expects that an aliyah of some 500,000 Jews will arrive in the next ten years.

Such demographic optimism aside, what of the oft-cited massive Palestinian population growth rate? Ettinger admits that the Arab population of the West Bank surged between 1967 and the early 1990s, in large part because of the positive contributions of Israeli infrastructure, health services, and employment opportunities. Access to the Israeli system substantially extended Palestinian life expectancy, broke down infant mortality rates, and provided incentives for able-bodied laborers to seek work in Israel rather than Abu Dhabi, thereby decreasing Arab emigration.

What Israel’s leading demographers failed to grasp however, argues Ettinger, is a “fundamental law” of demographics: the pre-fall surge. He suggests that “this always happens when western and third world societies integrate.” In the first 20 years, one can expect a substantial surge in growth rates, but after 20 years, modernity starts kicking in. Rather than marrying at 15 and having children at 16, women attend school in higher numbers, get married later, and have children much later such that the “fertile years” are not 15-55 but over 20 to 45. Coupled with increased urbanization, from 70% rural in 1967 to 70% urban today, families are having fewer children. This in part because of increased access to contraceptives and family planning education through UNWRA as well as higher divorce rates.

Beyond these shifts in demographic trends, Palestinian population projections are quite problematic. Ettinger asserts that the key problem is that the Palestinian CBS counts Palestinians as part of local numbers who have been absent from the country for more than one year. Such exclusions are part of an international standard adhered to by demographers across the world, but generally ignored by the PA’s CBS. Disregarding this method allowed for the inclusion of some 325,000 Palestinians as residents who did not reside anywhere in the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem.

In addition, the CBS effectively double-counts Jerusalem Arabs. As holders of Israeli permanent residency cards, Israel counts these people as part of its Arab population. The Palestinian Authority, however, apparently counts these people as both residents of the Jerusalem and again as Palestinian citizens of the West Bank. With somewhere between 230-250 thousand Arab non-citizen residents of Jerusalem today, this is a significant methodological oversight.

The Palestinian CBS also makes no consideration of the possibility of net emigration. Based on an assessment of the 1997 census, the PA has forecast an annual net immigration some 45,000 Palestinians a year. However, when comparing these numbers to those kept by the Israeli Border Police, which register all international entries and exists, the report found that in fact there has been net Palestinian emigration in almost every year between 195o and 2010. The only significant exception was the two years which followed the first Gulf War, in which Kuwait expelled a significant number of Palestinians who resettled in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ettinger’s report also found a significant gap between the statistics reported by the Palestinian Ministry of Health and their CBS with the latter projecting a much higher birth rate than those actually recorded by the Health ministry. The former ministry, since 1995, has carefully recorded births down to the village level while European and Israeli reports have found that only 5% of Palestinian births occur at home, minimizing the potential that births would go unreported. Further comparing these numbers to records of primary education enrollment at age six from both the Palestinian education ministry and the World Bank, the Ministry of Health numbers much more closely match than those inflated statistics from the CBS projections.

With these significant issues and other less dramatic adjustments, Ettinger’s report found that there are more likely some 1.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank and not the 2.5 million estimated by the PA’s CBS; this amounts to a 66% inflation. As for Gaza, they came to a number of some 1.3 million as opposed to the 1.6 million projected by the CBS. Altogether, there is a gap of more than 1.25 Million people between the two, amounting to a 32% inflation, with the lower numbers attributed primarily to stabilized Palestinian fertility and significant emigration from the West Bank. For anyone curious about the study’s particular methodology or precise findings, I highly recommend going to the source itself. Its language and presentation is quite accessible and straightforward.

As would be expected, the report’s findings have been challenged by leading demographers in academia, especially Sergio DellaPergola, one of the leading proponents of the demographic threat argument. In a recent Newsweek article focusing on the debate, DellaPergola asserts that the difference between his projected demographic balance 60-40 in favor of Jewish Israelis, and Ettinger’s, a 65-35 balance, are hardly significantly different. He charges that Ettinger’s findings are more substantially a product of his politics and less so from an accurate understanding of demographic indicators. Hopefully I will be meeting with Professor DellaPergola in the near future to discuss these issues further.

Indeed, Ettinger is a firm proponent of Israeli settlement of the territories and shared his belief that no country can survive should it voluntarily relinquish the “cradle of its history,” here Jerusalem and the Went Bank. Of course, he too charges that DellaPergola’s numbers and others in the demographic alarmist camp too are driven by their politics. Assuming, however, that there is merit to Ettinger’s argument (and there are increasing numbers of Israelis who believe so), what are the implications? He asserts that they are six-fold.

1) Given that “The Million Person Gap” pulls its data from a wide range of sources: Israeli, Palestinian, American, European, and United Nations, he hopes that it will help shift the demographic debate to one based on documented evidence, “not refuted numbers.”

2) With the report’s findings, it may serve as a source to bolster “Jewish optimism versus the conventional wisdom of demographic fatalism.” This, he asserts, can make all the difference in terms of the attitude with which policymakers and the general public address questions of national security as well as economic and social planning.

3) If there is no immediate demographic threat, one can conclude that there is no need to rush into any action which might prejudice a final resolution of the conflict. He believes this data can facilitate a more deliberative process. Whether a hawk or a dove, if one feels that the demographic battle is already lost, there is very little room for diplomatic maneuver. Under conditions of demographic optimism, it expands Israel’s negotiating posture and options for a settlement of the conflict.

4) There is also a domestic element here of “Arab phobia.” Ettinger asserts that such publically professed fears of essentially being out-bred by the Palestinians fuels a highly problematic hatred of Arabs which both only further marginalizes them in Israeli society and makes it harder to consider political solutions in which the two populations can live together in peace.

5) From the point of view of national security, under the demographic threat approach, Yehuda and Shomron like Gaza before them, are seen as a form of demographic gangrene which must be removed before it infects the entire body. This analogy gives way to the simplistic approach that if you want a Jewish state, you must detach yourself from these territories as quickly as possible. If, however, this can be seen as a problem which can be managed, the approach changes significantly. “No one,” Ettinger asserts, “can ignore the security added value of Yehuda and Shomron,” nor can one deny the historical value of these territories to the Jewish state. As long as one is caught up in demographic pessimism, these factors cannot be given proper attention.

6) Finally, in terms of the public debate, while it is legitimate to contend that there are good reasons for Israel to disengage from the West Bank on moral, demographic, and security grounds (although he does not personally agree), it is utterly illegitimate to use illegitimate numbers to scare the Israeli public into another traumatic evacuation. As such, he hopes the study will focus attention on the real issues of history and security.

Ettinger’s final point: “Anyone suggesting that Jews are doomed to become a minority west of the Jordan River, that there is a demographic machete at the throat of the Jewish State and that the Jewish State must concede Jewish Geography in order to secure Jewish Demography, is either grossly mistaken or outrageously misleading!” Whatever one may think of Ettinger’s politics, his report raises enough serious questions to render circumspect the automatic assumption that Israel’s Jewish majority is quickly receding. Given the foundational role that I have thus far found this assumption to play in Israeli leftist and centrist politics, the issue certainly bears open public deliberation and further critical examination. Only in this way can the conversation get beyond the partisan jabs and parries which have characterized the report’s immediate reception.

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