Why the “Demographic Argument” is Racist and Wrong

26 May 2022

It has been a dizzying political week in Israel. We’ve watched the government (which hangs by a thread after losing its majority with last month’s defection to the opposition of a member of Prime Minister Bennett’s right wing Yamina party) seesaw from near collapse with the defection of Meretz MK Ghaida Zoabi, to quick revival when she returned to the fold a few days later. Things are precarious in Israel’s halls of power, and we simply do not know how long the government will last; predictions abound of yet another election cycle in the fall.

But amidst the turmoil — the government’s shakiness, the series of terror attacks, the violence in the West Bank that has resulted in a number of Palestinian deaths, including the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the Israeli police assault on her funeral procession, and Sunday’s planned extremist Flag March, which settlers have used as a staging ground for violence and incitement in the past — one thing we do know is that the Israeli populist right is at it again, cooking up ever-more racist rhetoric to try and sell the Israeli public.

This week, we learned what former Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud, now relegated to the opposition, are planning. In 2015 they set new standards for political race-baiting in Israel with the infamous video capturing Netanyahu, direct-to-camera, imploring his constituents to vote because “Arabs are coming to the polls in droves.” The implicit threat was clear: it’s us or them; if you don’t vote, they win. In the 2020 election, the Likud blamed their loss on    unfounded claims election fraud by Palestinian citizens of Israel (Americans: sound familiar?).

And now they are beginning to use even more blatantly racist rhetoric (if that were possible). They have begun making the case that “the Arabs are taking over the country.”

The Likud is not alone. Betzalel Smotrich, a man who once proudly claimed that he would object to his wife giving birth next to an Arab woman in a maternity ward and is now the head of the right-wing Religious Zionist party (also in the opposition), claimed that the Bedouin birthrate in Israel’s south was a “bomb” which, if Israel failed to defuse it, would “blow up in [Israel’s] face.”

This racist language – the language of being overwhelmed by a violent swarm of Arabs, colloquially referred to as the “demographic threat” — is part of a broader trend that we’ve seen over the last several years in Israel. From the passage of the Nation State Law that enshrines only the Jewish right to self-determination to the political rise and legitimization of Kahanists in the Knesset, this language paints Arab citizens of Israel as a fifth column and an enemy from within.

It is based on the false and racist notion that the Arab birth rate will outpace the Jewish one and that, one day, Arabs will vote Israeli Jews out of house and home. This is a fear that the Likud and others seek to stoke because it serves them.

This rhetoric might sound familiar to us in the United States. It is not dissimilar from language used by proponents of the “Great Replacement Theory” that possessed a white supremacist to kill ten Black people in Buffalo earlier this month. But the “threats” posed by the “demographic bomb” in Israel or the “Great Replacement Theory” here at home have something else in common, in addition to their racist underpinnings. They are lies. They are false “threats,” invented so that those who peddle them can propose draconian solutions to problems that don’t actually exist.

First, let’s talk about the racism embedded in the very concept of a “demographic bomb.” The notion that, irrespective of who they are or what they do or the values they hold, just by existing — just by breathing — Arab citizens of Israel pose a threat to Jewish citizens of Israel is a textbook definition of racism.

NIF’s Arabic Media Coordinator, Amal Oraby (a Palestinian citizen of Israel), says that when he hears the demographic argument, his immediate response is twofold: first, “it’s classic dehumanization” — he feels reduced to a number, while he himself: his identity, his personality, his being is erased. For Arab women, it is even worse. Those who make this argument “don’t see Arab women as people who want to have a family – they see their wombs as a threat.” And second, he said, he always wants to ask the person making the argument just how they want to solve this “problem.” How do you reduce the demographic threat? The terrible truth, Amal knows, is there are only two possible answers to this question: “Either you kill us or evict us.”

But as I said, the idea of a “demographic threat” inside Israel proper is not only racist — it’s also false.

We know, because numbers are numbers, that the vast majority of citizens who reside in Israel proper — 75% — are Jewish. Just over 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. What’s more, the Jewish birthrate has been outpacing the Arab one for a few years now. In short, the notion that a “demographic threat” hovers over Jews in Israel is not only offensive, it is, quite simply, absurd.

The goal of the Israeli right — Likud’s Netanyahu, Religious Zionism’s Smotrich, and the Kahanist Ben Gvir — in selling the Israeli public this false set of fears is to divide society between a pure, homogeneous Israeli Jewish “us” from the Arab threat — “them”.

And beyond dividing Israeli society – which certainly benefits hardline extremists politically — these populists are also trying to sell and legitimize something else: the idea of a “Greater Land of Israel,” one that includes Israel proper within the Green Line, but also the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well.

Now, if you include the number of Jews and the number of Palestinians who live in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (that is, Israel-proper, the West Bank, and Gaza), the populations are roughly equal. To my mind, this suggests that the two-state solution (or something like it) remains the best and most realistic option for both Jews and Palestinians, no matter how remote and impossible seeming it might appear to be at the moment. But that’s not the goal of the Israeli ethnonationalists. And it is here that the “demographic threat” argument takes on a different, more political, racist hue.

Hardline populists describe Palestinians as a demographic threat in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to justify their political end-game: permanent Israeli control of the “Greater Land of Israel.” Their ideal political outcome is some form of one-state, two legal systems in which they continue to deny Palestinians rights while ruling over them. In order to make such an unjust and anti-democratic structure appear justifiable, they sell Israelis a racist bill of goods: If all Palestinians are a “threat,” they cannot be allowed basic rights or equality. They have to accept permanent status as disenfranchised non-citizens in their own homeland. There’s a word for that kind of political arrangement, but it’s not a Hebrew, Arabic, or English word; it’s in Afrikaans.

Here in the U.S., we’ve learned that the only path to safety is through solidarity and rejection of racist demographic pseudo-theories. We are safe only when all of us have equal rights, basic security, and are treated with dignity and respect. That’s the America so many of us are fighting for.

And that’s the kind of work the New Israel Fund is proud to promote in Israel. We support organizations that work for equality and justice so that everyone will be safer and more secure. Grantees like Sikkuy-Aufoq work to bring Arab voices into the Israeli mainstream. Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together) is building a movement rooted in co-resistance by Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel to build a better, safer future for all. Shatil, NIF’s action arm is working to build capacity among Arab organizations to advocate for more equitable allocation of resources.

The New Israel Fund, together with our grantees and partners, will continue working towards a better, more equal, safer future for all and against extremist forces that fearmonger with racist rhetoric about changing demographics.