Interview with Sergio DellaPergola

SergioDellaPergola My first meeting of the week was with Professor Sergio DellaPergola, a professor at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is also widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on Jewish demographic and population statistics. It has been Dr. DellaPergola’s work among others that have offered an empirical basis for the “demographic argument” for territorial partition.

It is DellaPergola’s assessment that Arab population growth in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza have and will continue to outstrip Jewish-Israeli growth leading to a situation in the coming decades of population parity between the two. His basic argument is laid out in an article in the 2003 edition of the American Jewish Yearbook, which can be accessed here. For many advocates of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, this has raised significant fears. If Israel does not territorially and politically disengage from the Arab population, particularly those in the West Bank and Gaza, it is believed that Israel will be forced to choose between remaining a democratic state, whereupon its Jewish character will be lost, or a Jewish state whereupon its democratic character will be lost.

Such stark choices and the population analysis itself has come under attack from various points in the Israeli political scene. Critics claim that this approach underestimates the potential for Jewish population growth through aliyah and accepts flawed census data from the Palestinian Authority as given. Foremost among these voices has been that of Yoram Ettinger, whom I interviewed in late September. His report, “The Million Person Gap,” asserts that Palestinian population data suffers from a number of methodological and empirical shortcomings. So much so, that his study estimates that the Palestinian population has been overestimated by at least 1.25 million people.

DellaPergola has been hesitant to engage in this discussion as Ettinger is not a demographer (although the two have appeared on numerous television programs, radio interviews, and print debates together). He believes that Ettinger has fundamentally misunderstood important demographic indicators and their meaning for population projection. There are two threads in this debate: the demographic data and political ideology. At some point, these two do intersect, but it is important to start from each individually rather than their intersection, which he charges that Ettinger’s report does. Once understanding the margins of demographic data, however, DellaPergola asserts there is perhaps little room for debate: the Arab population is growing at a faster pace than the Jewish one.

DellaPergola says that in determining population projections, there are three and a half variables to be considered: 1) the balance of international migration, 2) the level of fertility, 3) the level of health, and perhaps less significantly changes in religious practice on the Jewish side of the equation. In most of the demographic literature, it is assumed that level of modernization has fairly standard effects, namely that a modernizing population will have lower fertility rates, lower mortality rates, and slower population growth. In many respects, both Jewish and Arab population indicators have followed these expectations.

And yet, an important factor which moderates these expectations, which apparently has been taken less seriously by demographers as a whole, are cultural inputs. These, DellaPergola asserts, tend to bring higher population growth than expected. In the Arab sector, fertility has remained higher than would be expected by the modernization model even as mortality rates have been lowered by improved access to healthcare. Moreover, the interplay between Jews and Arabs has contributed to an environment of demographic competition which sustains high growth rates. Indeed, Israel has one of the fastest population growth rates in the developed world, both from Jewish Israelis and Arabs.

The paradox, he asserts, is that access to the “more modern Israeli society” has created huge benefits to the “less modernized Palestinians” who have ready access to significantly improved healthcare and living standards, lowering mortality rates and increasing fertility. This good health leading to more robust population growth in the Arab sector is arguably the last thing which the Israelis intended to achieve through occupation. It is also a political point which parties on both sides are uneasy to concede.

The Palestinian population is indeed growing very quickly, slowed by modernization but still high by any standards. This is true for Arab population both in pre-1967 Israel and the territories. Of course, Israeli population growth is also unheard of in the Western world. Whereas in western Europe, one expects 1.8 children per couple, Jewish Israelis are having 2.9. While this average is bolstered by very high ultraorthodox population growth, fertility is also quite high among secular couples.

Rather than a response to war, fear, or self-defense, DellaPergola believes that these trends are more rooted in “familism,” a cultural feeling of the importance and centrality of family in society. This perhaps originally religious normative value has transcended these boundaries and become the “universal patrimony of the Jewish people in Israel.” Of course, these values are also predominant among the Palestinian population, and one should not expect that modernization would fundamentally change this cultural norm anymore than it has for Israeli Jewry.

The norm, he argues, is essentially stable population growth. The models which exist today are very similar to those which existed a decade or two ago, and will likely remain the same for at least a decade or two to come. The notion of “demographic momentum” also supports DellaPergola’s demographic model. This is not the idea that a particular population is enjoying a growth tailwind, but rather that momentum is determined by an interaction between the average fertility and the average age of the population.

Even where fertility levels are the same on average, those populations which are younger will have more children, meaning their actual birthrates will be higher. As a consequence, the actual growth rate of Arabs in Israel is two times that of its Jewish population. Differentials between the two will disappear eventually, as Arab fertility decreases and Arab age composition becomes gradually older. But such developments, he argues, take on average two decades before their effects are noticeable.

And what of the potential for a new wave of Jewish immigration to Israel? Unlike Ettinger, DellaPergola is incredibly skeptical of such an eventuality. The largest sources for aliyah, namely the United States followed distantly by the UK, Canada, and France, have historically not provided new olim in large numbers. Despite the relatively poor economy in the United States and growing feelings of social and perhaps political uncertainty, aliyah from the United States has remained one of the lowest proportionally of any country in the world.

With approximately 2500 a year from 5.5 million, this is not even 1:2000. And should we expect that this number will suddenly change to 20,000 a year, an 8-fold increase? Aliyah from other western Jewish diasporic centers is now ten times higher that from the United States, but this still only amounts to immigration in the 1000s. Lacking catastrophic societal collapse, as was the case with the fall of the Soviet Union bringing some 1 million Jews to Israel, such expectations of high aliyah are unfounded.

As for the Palestinian demographic data, DellaPergola agrees that “they got it wrong” (I have already written on this subject at length with regard to my earlier discussion with Yoram Ettinger). They significantly overprojected net immigration, which was probably negative, and as a result claimed a larger population than actually existed. He does not accept, however, that such mistakes were made intentionally. A census conducted by the PA in 2007 indeed found that their earlier numbers projected from the 1997 census were significantly overstated by about 300-400,000, and Palestinian demographers admitted to him their mistakes.

Taking into account this model, DellaPergola then believes only then can one turn to the question of politics. For him, the ideal is that there should exist a national state for the Jews, one which has clear symbolism, language, and institutional values and connotations reflective of Jewish history and memory. Israel is and must, however, remain a democracy meaning one man, one vote.

He does not see a contradiction between a predominant cultural pattern for society, here Judaism, and the fully functional operation of democracy. The vast majority of countries operate like this. While the United States is perhaps an important exception to this rule in many ways, many of the countries which are broadly considered to be the most liberal and most enlightened are in many ways quite parochial. Quoting from several constitutions, he pointed out the Irish language of “faith in the Holy Trinity,” Greece’s privileging of Orthodoxy, and Norway’s law that those children raised in mixed households where one parent is Lutheran Protestant, must be raised and educated in that tradition. So too do many Muslim countries enshrine shariah, Islamic law, in their legal systems and constitutions.

In this respect, Israel is hardly exceptional. However, if one wants a country to be Jewish, speaking Hebrew and conforming to certain narratives and traditions, it may require that a certain threshold of the population actually be Jewish. “The moment you have a great number who cannot accept the idea of Israel as Jewish state, you have to give up something.” If you do not want to give up on the state’s Jewish and democratic character, DellaPergola believes that you must give up population and land.

What is this threshold? As it currently stands, in the borders of pre-1967 Israel, the Jewish population is just short of an 80% majority. Including the West Bank, the Jewish population is over 60% and even with the Gaza String, the number is at least 51% (although Ettinger contends this employs flawed empirical data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics). DellaPergola aruges that even if we assert that Ettinger’s estimates are correct, is a 67% Jewish majority truly sufficient to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic character?

What does it mean for much of the remaining 33% to not have voting or citizenship rights? If they were to have such rights and therefore the ability to influence affairs of state, would Israel truly remain a Jewish state? There are those on the right who see no necessary disconnect between some forms of citizenship for Palestinians and the preservation of both democracy and a Jewish institutional framework. However, from DellaPergola’s perspective, such an approach is highly problematic at best as shown by a comparison with several cases of divided nations like Cyprus, Belgium, or the former republics of Yugoslavia.

Such demographic concerns, however, do not simply translate to a belief that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank must end. DellaPergola is also an advocate of territorial exchange (the swap), placing those areas in Israel with significant concentrations of Arabs under Palestinian sovereignty. Although it has become a toxic asset among Israel’s left since its adoption by FM Avigdor Lieberman, Yossi Beilin and Ephraim Sneh – both of Israel’s moderate Left – were once advocates of this approach. It has not ceased to be a good idea, he asserts, simply because someone else less politically acceptable to them has taken it up as his own.

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