When it comes to Israel, many Diaspora Jews harbor a double standard. They want their own countries to embrace pluralism and multiculturalism, owing to the kind of fluid immigration that allowed their own grandparents and great-grandparents to build a better life in America and Canada and many other places across the West. But, when it comes to Israel, they are comfortable articulating their desire to maintain a Jewish majority. Israelis – even those on the left – have a term for this need: they openly refer to Palestinians (whether in the West Bank, whether refugees living abroad or whether Palestinian citizens of Israel itself) as a “demographic threat.”
Palestinian citizens of Israel are pouncing on this usage more than ever. Ayman Oudeh, head of the Joint List, has called it offensive. He wants Israeli citizens to view their Palestinian citizen brethren as partners in nation-building. Still, he is not looking for a melting-pot version of Israeli identity: he demands that Israel grant the Palestinian citizens “collective rights.” Since they already have their own school system, presumably, by collective rights he means at the very least equal funding for schools and towns, including removing the unequal bureaucratic barriers to gaining building permits, something I’ve written about at the Globe and Mail.
Yousef Munayyer is also distressed by the term “demographic threat,” and concludes that it is intrinsic to Zionism. Instead of having a demographic problem, Israel has a Zionism problem, he argued last March in The Nation. This, as Bibi was whipping up fear against the Arab minority on election day, claiming they were coming to the polls “in droves.”
The scope of the issue is more complex than these critiques – as important as they are – allow. There are at least three aspects at play.
First, strategy. There are reasons why a peace activist may choose to use the term “demographic threat” to sell the idea of withdrawal from the West Bank, for example. This kind of reasoning may appeal to those on the centre or even the right who, unfortunately, aren’t moved by human rights imperatives. When it comes to language and lobbying, we must not forget the game of persuasion.
This connects to the second aspect: emotions. Here, the question is this: without undermining democracy, can a majority population privately desire to maintain its majority status? And, in the event that these private desires are shared publicly – through art or literature, say – should the users be chastised as being anti-democratic?
Here, we need to recall what may be motivating these feelings. It may not be anti-democratic tendencies or racism or even a sense of national superiority. As a national liberation movement, Zionism was acutely concerned with Jewish self-determination, more than it was with undermining any other national group in its midst. And, along with the material gains of statehood has come the desire to sustain a modern Jewish national culture, most markedly in the form of Hebrew. To contemplate becoming a minority in one’s country is to consider the attrition of one’s national language, at the very least, if not the possibility of collective safety and self-determination. Even if the fears are unfounded, even, if, somehow, a post-Zionist Israel can engage in a project of radical multiculturalism such that Hebrew culture maintains its treasured place alongside Palestinian culture and Arabic language, the impulse is still understandable.
Finally, there are the public policies themselves. On this, there is clearly much room for improvement. Oudeh’s call for a high-profile “civics conference” in the tradition of other annual conferences in Israel on issues – including security, social issues and economics – is a good one. As is the urgent need to close the funding gap to Arab schools and towns, and to educate against casual racism, including some landlords not renting to Arabs and “social suitability” committees determining who can live where, the kind of practices outlined by Amjad Iraqi in +972 Magazine. These attitudes and the practices that stem from them are corrosive to democracy.
All this is to say that the creation and maintenance of national identity, particularly in a state as young as Israel, is an enormous project. Using the term “demographic threat” as a way of describing the actual collective emotions and preferences of some citizens is as useful as any analytic phrase. To censor it completely, therefore, would be anti-intellectual and anti-democratic. But, when it comes to policy advocacy, thoughtful Israelis should consider thinking twice about using these words. As citizens of democracies, we should at least strive to hear things as our fellow citizens hear them.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.