The Jewish state, by the numbers
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 May 2008)

The absurd cover line on Maclean's this week, "Why Israel can't survive," misrepresents the magazine's contents. The article it advertises, by Michael Petrou, doesn't say Israel can't survive. It says Israel can survive only if it accepts Petrou's advice.

Rightly, Petrou considers Israel an astonishing success. It's flawed, like all democracies, and burdened by the worst leadership since its founding 60 years ago. Yet it remains a modern state, with free speech, good universities, sophisticated industry and low unemployment.

But not for long, if you believe Petrou. Two factors make the future bleak. First, West Bank settlements enrage the Arabs. Second, demography proves that Arabs will soon outnumber Jews and dominate Israeli society.

Petrou calls the settlers in the occupied territories a barrier to peace. All simple-minded reporters say that. But it's convincing only if you don't think about it.

Eliminating settlements would please commentators such as Petrou and please the peace movement in Israel. Hell, it would please me. But it wouldn't impress a single jihadist warrior and wouldn't alter the program of Hamas. Innocent Westerners find it hard to understand the truth: The jihadists don't want a nicer Israel, they want no Israel at all. They say so with the same clarity Hitler exhibited about his plans.

Closing the settlements would cheer up people who want to admire Israel. It would make conversation more agreeable at thousands of dinner parties. But it would contribute nothing to Israel's security. Those who miss this point can't be taken seriously.

Petrou delivers what he considers the blunt truth about demography: Israel can be Jewish or democratic, but not both. If it remains a Jewish state, the Jews will be a minority ruling "a land mostly inhabited by Palestinians." If it chooses democracy, then the Arab majority will out-vote the Jews. And the Zionist dream will die.

That means Israel must negotiate a two-state solution to live in peace. How? Petrou doesn't say. Nor does he mention Israel's many attempts to make peace. He writes as if the Oslo Accords and everything following them hadn't happened. And he doesn't realize that Fatah, the likeliest peace partner now on offer, is a chaotic parody of a government, without popular support. Its main backers are wild-eyed optimists in the Israeli and American governments and many Europeans who love to hear themselves voicing peaceful thoughts.

Petrou's demographic argument has everything on its side except credibility. Like many journalists, he's pathetically over-impressed by social scientists.

Remembering the lugubrious predictions of Quebec separatists about the coming death of the French language should have taught us a lesson: Beware of predictions based on the wobbly calculations of demography. Can anyone recall Paul R. Ehrlich's 1968 best-seller, Population Bomb? He said population growth would lead to hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation before 2000; life expectancy in the United States would decline to 42 by 1980. Instead, agriculture improved, population rates fell, the world went on and Ehrlich became a joke. The anticipated famine of 2007, caused by expensive fertilizers instead of population, won't help his reputation.

Demography in the Middle East is just as dodgy. As Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post on Monday, "The Arab demographic time bomb is a fiction." The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been using creative arithmetic to build a largely imaginary future. It claims that 3.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza plus 1.2 million in Israel. It argues that Arabs have far more children than Jews. Therefore, the 5.5 million Israeli Jews will soon drown in an ocean of Arabs.

Petrou, buying all this outright, predicts that it will happen in one or two decades. He may not know it but all the figures he relies on are challenged. The more you study population indicators (births, children entering school, etc.), the shakier the PA's numbers look. The PA also lumps in 400,000 Palestinians living abroad, assumes high immigration (a dubious notion) and ignores the falling Arab birth rate and rising Jewish fertility (the two rates are now converging). And, of course, Israel's net Jewish immigration rate remains healthy.

The American-Israeli Demographic Research Group, a credible academic committee, believes the PA's census totals are inflated by about 50%. That renders most demographic speculation meaningless. It's all detailed on the Web, should anyone at Maclean's want to glance at it.

Long ago, when I worked there, our editor, Ken Lefolii, called Maclean's a magazine that respects the readers and the facts. A modest goal, perhaps, but worth a try.

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