How Israel's Changing Demographics Could Disrupt the World


A few weeks ago Israel's prime minister discussed a long-term strategic forecast for the country with his cabinet. There was something worrying about the conclusions of this meeting as it predicted that the population of the country will soon have a different face. Although the PM did not elaborate on what effect this could have on the nation and the world, specialists argue that Israel may soon find itself facing an entirely new and unprecedented set of problems.

The presentation had game-changing charts in it that provide an outlook on what Israel's population will look like in 15 years. According to the projection, by 2029 the population of 25-29-year-olds will climb to 704,000, of whom 202,000 will be Israeli Arabs (almost a 100% increase from 2009) and 127,000 of whom will be ultra-Orthodox Jews, (more than a twofold increase). But what is more worrying is that by 2060, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli Arabs and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) will outnumber non-Haredi Jews. According to other statistics that look at the number of Arabs in the territory of Israel and Palestine taken together, Arabs now represent more than 50% of the entire population.

Israel's ethnic and religious heterogeneity gets reflected in social differences between various Israeli communities. The country's Jewish population itself is not homogeneous, as there are Haredi Jews who oppose Zionism and do not recognize the State of Israel. Most of them do not work, and Haredim are exempt from military service that is compulsory for all Israelis. If the number of Haredi citizens increases greatly it increases the number of people who will not be willing to serve in the army and refuse to be part of the state.

Arab communities mostly concentrate in northern and central Israel and along with the Haredim are less prosperous than non-Haredi Jews. But if ultra-Orthodox Jews are perceived as an important part of the State of Israel, there is huge resentment and racism toward Israeli Arabs. Center Against Racism showed that 75% of Jews would not live in the same building with Arabs and 59% considered Arab culture primitive, while 50% would support a state policy that would encourage Arabs to emigrate to other countries. Radicalization is vivid, which is proven by multiple surveys showing that Arabs feel more and more marginalized and blame Jews for their hardships. There are concerns that against the backdrop of the widening discrepancy in the living standards among Arab and Jewish communities, Arab Israelis could become increasingly involved in terrorism just like what happened during the Second Intifada, when terrorists reached out to Israeli Arabs to recruit them.

Israeli officials have expressed their concerns over the growing Arab community many times. In 2009 Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren listed this community that is expanding more rapidly than the Jewish one as one of the threats to the state of Israel. According to Oren Israel is predicated on a stable Jewish majority of at least 70%. If this changes the state will need to deal with the problem of self-identification: whether it's a Jewish or a democratic state. If it chooses to remain a Jewish state than Israel risks becoming isolated, which could prove fatal for the country. If it chooses to become a fully democratic state than Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. The same position was once expressed by the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for which he was severely criticized by Arab Members of Knesset.

The rapidly growing Arab community in Israel is accompanied by increasing numbers of Jews who leave the country for over a year and do not return. The explanation for this is that the safe haven that Israel was supposed to create for Jews did not actually turn out to be so safe. Some specialists predict that if the emigration of the non-Haredi Jews gains momentum than the Haredim community with its high birthrate could eventually comprise up to 70% of all Jews in Israel, which means that they will have more representation in the Knesset and the government (even though political participation contradicts their beliefs).

To answer the question of whether such an ethnic composition could lead to a thaw in relations between Israel and the Arab world, I would say it is highly unlikely. The growing Arab community will lead to even more tensions between Arabs and Jews. Ethnic instability within Israel could trigger even confrontation with neighbors if Israel's treatment of Arabs inside the country becomes even more oppressive. A diplomatic solution to such a conflict would be extremely hard to achieve, and surely Israeli efforts to establish a safe haven for Jews in the heart of the Arab world would fail.

Another important issue to consider here is U.S.-Israeli relations. The United States is Israel's biggest export and import partner, and provides over $3 billion of financial aid annually. Of course the United States with its large and influential Jewish diaspora will try to prevent the worst-case scenario from happening. But suppose that there is no Jewish majority in Israel. How would the bilateral relations between the countries change? From a purely strategic point of view it would make sense for the United States to maintain good partner relations with whoever is in power in Israel, because any partnership for the USA is vital in the Middle East now. Israel allegedly possesses nuclear arms, which makes any confrontation in the region potentially disastrous. However, if Hamas eventually positions itself as a victor in the eyes of Arabs who outnumber Israeli Jews, chances for the United States to have a partner in Israel will reduce to zero.

The majority in Israel will not become a minority overnight — it will take 50 years. In this time the government has to adjust to changes by accepting the Arab community as part of the state and making a renewed effort at the peace talks. If this is not done in time, Israel's simmering ethnic tensions could boil over into violent, all-out conflict.