The Flat-Earth Society: the Israeli-Arab Conflict and Climate Changes


Demographic trends mean that Israel can’t have it all. It can’t be a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state in control of its whole historical land. It can only have two of its objectives at a time. Think of it this way: Israel can be Jewish and territorial — but not democratic. Or it can be democratic and territorial — but not Jewish. Or finally, it can be Jewish and democratic — but not territorial. This third choice is the one that can conceivably lead to a two-state solution.

— by Steve Sheffey

The demographic reality is that Israel needs a two-state solution for its own survival more than the Palestinians “deserve” a state. Yet, the Jewish community has its own flat-Earth society: those who deny the demographic threat to Israel’s democratic and Jewish character. However, acting as if we understand Israel’s security and existential needs better than the people of Israel is a good working definition of chutzpah. Israelis have a much greater stake in the peace process than we do and a better understanding of the risks they face. Unlike previous administrations, the Obama administration is engaging not by pressuring Israel, but by strengthening Israel.

Those who deny demographic reality have much in common with climate change deniers. And yes, the scientific consensus is overwhelming: global warming is occurring and is caused at least in part by human activity.

Full article after the jump.
When President Obama delivered his speech on climate change, he said of those who deny the overwhelming evidence that human activity is causing global warming, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-Earth society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”  

The Jewish community is plagued by its own version of the flat-Earth society: those who deny that Israel has a demographic problem and wish away the reality that unless Israel relinquishes the West Bank, it will have to choose between being a democracy and being a Jewish state.

True: Israel’s moral, legal, and historic claims to Judea and Samaria far exceed those of the Palestinians. Relinquishing the West Bank to the Palestinians (not “giving it back,” because the Palestinians never had it) means relinquishing land to which Israel has had ties for thousands of years. Israel controls the West Bank because Jordan attacked Israel during the Six Day War. Since then, the Palestinians have refused offers from Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert that would have led to the creation of a Palestinian state. Even today, they refuse to negotiate unless Israel agrees in advance to certain concessions.

So if Israel has superior moral, legal, and historic rights to the land, and if the Palestinians have repeatedly spurned peace offers, why should Israel relinquish land it holds so dear? The answer is not that the Palestinians deserve it, but that Israel needs to. Israel cannot remain both Jewish and democratic unless it has a large Jewish majority.

Today, Palestinian residents of the West Bank cannot vote. Why should they? No country would allow people living under a temporary military occupation to vote in its elections. But a permanent occupation, or annexation where Jews living in the West Bank can vote and Palestinians living in the West Bank cannot, would mean that Israel is not a democracy. And if the Palestinians do vote, Israel would not remain a Jewish state for long.

It is not about whether the Palestinians “deserve” a state. If there were 25 million Jews in Israel, I would not write this article. Israel could annex the West Bank, remain both Jewish and democratic, and that would be it. But the demographic reality is that Israel must find a path to a negotiated settlement in order to remain Jewish and democratic. That is why pro-Israel groups across the spectrum support a two-state solution, including AIPAC.

The Jewish flat-Earth society is led by Yoram Ettinger. You can see Ettinger cited in nearly every article denying the demographic reality. Some of you have seen Ettinger at right-wing pep rallies, masquerading as unbiased sources of information. We’d like the demographic threat to be untrue for the same reason we wish global warming was not caused by human activity: In both cases, we don’t like the consequences, and we wish we did not have anything to do with them. But we must confront reality, not deny it.

Just last week, we learned that contrary to claims that there are only about 1.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank, Israeli authorities say the number is actually 2.5 million, according to Dr. Assaf Sharon.

The debate over the future of the territories is important enough to hold based on real facts and data. The so-called facts in the ideological right wing’s strategy are baseless. Rightists forget that a lie that is repeatedly told does not become the truth. Annexation of the territories means a binational state. You can be in favor of it or against it, but you can’t deny it.

Aaron David Miller says that “to understand Israeli demographics, there is no better guide than Sergio Dellapergola. The Italian-born researcher holds a Ph.D. in demography from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is now a professor emeritus of Israel-Diaspora relations.” According to Dellapergola:

Jews constitute 49.8 percent of the total population that lives between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River — 52 percent, if one includes non-Jewish relatives. If one excludes foreign workers and the Gaza population, Jews represent 62 percent of the total; excluding Palestinians in the West Bank, their share rises to about 79 percent; excluding the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, the Jewish share of total population would be 83 percent.

Miller concludes:

[D]emographic trends mean that Israel can’t have it all. It can’t be a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state in control of its whole historical land. It can only have two of its objectives at a time. Think of it this way: Israel can be Jewish and territorial — but not democratic. Or it can be democratic and territorial — but not Jewish. Or finally, it can be Jewish and democratic — but not territorial. This third choice is the one that can conceivably lead to a two-state solution.

Ettinger and some other amateur demographers disagree (unlike Dellapergola, Ettinger is an amateur — he has no academic training in demography), arguing that Palestinian numbers are inflated and fertility trends are changing. But last week’s numbers refute Ettinger’s claims. Moreover, Dellapergola’s analysis takes into account the exaggerated numbers of the Palestinian Authority as well as changes in fertility rates.

But let’s step back for a minute. What if Ettinger is right? Does it really matter whether Jews are 60%, 50%, or 40% of Israel’s population? The reality is that unless Jews are an overwhelming majority in Israel, Israel cannot be a Jewish state and a democracy. Those on the right surely know that a state that were 40% Palestinian would never elect a Likud government.

The United States is culturally Christian not because Christianity is enshrined by law, but because an overwhelming percentage of American citizens are Christian. Israel can function as a Jewish state and still remain democratic only if an overwhelming percentage of its citizens are Jewish. It will just not work otherwise, even if Jews remain a bare majority. The Zionist dream is neither a state where Jews are a slight majority, nor where they are a sizable minority. The Zionist dream is a democratic Jewish state — a state infused with Jewish values and that runs on the Jewish clock. This dream cannot be realized without a large Jewish majority.

So what should we in America do about it?

  • First, we should take our heads out of the sand. We do no one any favors when we play with numbers to avoid reality.
  • Second, we should support efforts to bring the parties together to negotiate a two-state solution. This does not mean pressuring Israel. It does mean recognizing that Israel needs a two-state solution more than the Palestinians do, but also realizing that Israel cannot be expected to commit suicide in the short-run to prevent committing suicide in the long-run. Israel needs a partner for peace. We saw in Gaza and Lebanon what happens when Israel unilaterally withdraws.

The Palestinians could have had a state by now, were it not for their leaders’ intransigence. If the purpose of a two-state solution was to do a favor to the Palestinians, then I’d agree with those who say “too bad — they had their chance and they blew it.” But once we understand that a two-state solution is essential for Israel, we are left with the distasteful, but inescapable, conclusion: If current Palestinian leadership is unwilling or unable to negotiate in good faith with Israel, then to support Israel, we need to find ways to help the Palestinian Authority become a real partner for peace. That is why the U.S. gives aid to the Palestinian Authority — not because they are good friends, but because a destabilized Palestinian Authority would set the peace process back even further. Is it possible that the Palestinians will never negotiate in good faith? Yes. But if recent events in the Arab world have taught us anything, it’s that our crystal balls are very cloudy when it comes to Arab politics. Time is not on Israel’s side — we have to try.

So who decides what risks Israel should take for peace? Some people sitting in the relative safety and security of America think Israel does not take enough risks for peace, or that the U.S. should pressure Israel to do more. But we should support a two-state solution by backing Israel, not by pressuring Israel.

The bar for registering disagreement with the government of Israel should be much higher for those of us who live outside Israel, and thus will not personally suffer the literally life or death consequences of Israel’s actions. My kids are not at risk of being blown to smithereens at a restaurant or playground, and they do not serve in the Israeli army. Israelis, not us, will pay the immediate consequences if we are wrong. I tend to resolve the doubts about the trade-offs between taking risks for peace and security in favor of the government of Israel, because they stand to gain or lose much more than I do, and their attention is necessarily much more focused than mine.

Respect for the citizens of Israel necessitates a proper respect for their exclusive right to be “wrong” when it comes to their security. What if we, in America, are wrong? We should not assume that we cannot be wrong about what is going on 7,000 miles away. We should not concede that we might be wrong, but proceed anyway, and let the chips (or, in this case, rockets) fall where they may. Israelis understand the risks they face. I think it is presumptuous for us to think we have to save Israel from itself, so I am reluctant to criticize Israel from a position of less risk and less knowledge.

This goes for the right as well as the left. I went on a trip to Israel, where one of the participants asked the tour guide how Israel could possibly consider giving up Hebron. His voice rising in anger, he pointed out that Hebron was King David’s original capital, and that the holy Cave of Machpelah is in Hebron. The tour guide replied that many Israelis are getting tired of sending their children to serve in the army, risking their lives, to defend a few hundred settlers who insist on living in Hebron. But, he continued, if all 240,000 Jews from Chicago moved to Hebron, not only would Israel never give it up, but they would even put up a sign that said “Hebron — Brought to You by the Jews of Chicago.” We are not in position to tell Israel it has to cede land for peace, but neither should we insist that Israel keeps land, so that it’s there if we ever want to visit as tourists.

The Obama administration is pursuing negotiations by strengthening Israel, not threatening it. Many of us get nervous about U.S. engagement in the peace process, because in the past, “engagement” has been synonymous with “pressure on Israel.” We remember the George W. Bush administration: Bush rebuked then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 by rescinding $289.5 million in loan guarantees for Israel as punishment for what Bush considered illegal settlement activity. In 2004, the Bush administration abstained, rather than vetoed, a U.N. resolution condemning Israel for its actions in Gaza, during a military operation aimed at stopping terrorism and weapons smuggling. Bush pressured Israel to allow Hamas to participate in the Gaza elections, thus conferring on Hamas a legitimacy it could never have otherwise achieved. And we all know that if President Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he would be impeached.

But President Obama has never rescinded, or even threatened to rescind, loan guarantees for Israel, and has never turned his back on Israel at the U.N. After his re-election, he gave Israel a free hand in Gaza.

The U.S. is engaging the way a true ally and friend should engage: not with pressure, but by creating a dynamic where Israel can, if it sees fit, negotiate a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Instead of threatening Israel, the Obama administration is working to help guarantee Israel’s security to restart peace talks.

And what about global warming? Some of our friends might take this analogy the wrong way; many of those who refuse to look at the evidence on demography also refuse to look at the evidence on global warming. You can find an academic-looking study to support anything. Don’t believe in evolution? Don’t believe in vaccinations? Your “proof” is out there. But according to NASA:

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

But what if all those studies and all the scientists are wrong? What if today’s crackpot is tomorrow’s visionary? That is a separate article.

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