The Public Humanist

Go Figure: Demographic Dilemmas in Israel and Lebanon

Israel and Lebanon are very sensitive to population figures. Israel was created as a Jewish state, and its government is based on maintaining a Jewish majority. Lebanon was created as a state with many religious groups, and its government rests on the notion of a balance of power between Christians and Muslims in proportion to their numbers.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put Israel’s demographic goals succinctly: "to maximise [sic] the number of Jews; to minimise [sic] the number of Palestinians?” Thanks to immigration the Jewish population in Palestine grew from around 10% in 1920 to 35% in 1946. During the 1948 war, some 700,000 Palestinians left their homes in the war zone—Israeli State Archives show that most were expelled—and very few were allowed to return once the war was over. Whether a Jewish state is one with a Jewish majority, one where Jews hold all the highest offices of government, or one that enforces some degree of religious law, Palestinians, who are Christian and Muslim, do not fit.

Yet since the 1967 war the largest number of Palestinians under any one state’s control is under some form of Israeli rule, either as citizens of Israel or in the Occupied Territories of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. In 2004, the US State Department’s “Country Report on Human Rights Practices” listed the total population of Israel and the Occupied Territories at almost 11 million, 48 % of which were Jewish. On the basis of those figures, one begins to understand Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent comment that without a two-state solution Israel will "face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished." I think what he means is that the state of Israel with a Jewish majority is finished. Or perhaps he means the state of Israel as a democracy. The question then is, if the latter is conditional on the former, can the latter be true?

Most Israelis favor a two-state solution. What they disagree about is where and how large a Palestinian state would be. The Oslo Agreement solved the problem of too many Palestinians under Israeli rule in the best possible way for Israel short of expelling the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories would remain Israeli citizens, the Palestinian population would come under some sort of Palestinian Authority, and the ratio of Jewish to Palestinian citizens in Israel would remain 4:1, as it has been since 1948. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would not be Israeli citizens and therefore would not be able to struggle for equal voting rights, at least not as citizens of Israel. But the Oslo plan was not followed.

Israel did pull its troops and Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip, not so much in the spirit of the Oslo agreements as because Gaza had become an ungovernable hell of 1.4 million inhabitants bottled up in a space 40 miles long and, on average, 3.5 miles wide. Israel is still the power to be reckoned with there since Israeli troops control who and what goes in and out including food and gas. In the pressure-cooker that is Gaza, Hamas and the PLO have exchanged lethal blows. And when one or the other fires the occasional mortar into Israel, Israeli planes drop bombs on Gaza. Still, the Palestinian population continues to grow.

Israel relies on Jewish immigration to maximize the number of Jews. In 2002 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel needed 1 million Jewish immigrants over the next ten to fifteen years to “ensure a permanent and decisive Jewish majority.” These immigrants have not come in the desired numbers even though in the late 1990s the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption revised its practices, perhaps in response to the huge number of Russian immigrants. The new policy is called Direct Absorption and allows immigrants to “integrate themselves as they wish rather than being directed by absorption clerks to places and ways of life not necessarily suited to them.” The ministry also has a program to encourage Israeli Jewish emigrants to return. As for Palestinian refugees, peace negotiations founder on the principle of their right to return to their places of origin in Israel. There is, Israeli negotiators say, no room for them, which is true, figuratively if not literally, in a Jewish state.

Since 1995 Israel has begun to tally its inhabitants in a new way, probably in response to the large numbers of Russian immigrants. It still counts them by religion—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, and unclassified, but now it also divides them into two categories: Jews and others and Arabs. The "others" of the category "Jews and others" are non-Arab Christians, non-Jewish relatives of Soviet Jews, and non-Arabs. They amount to some 300,000 people. Israel has, in addition, some 300,000 foreign workers, non-Jews from East Asia, South America, and Africa. Guest workers from afar have replaced Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories in jobs that Israelis prefer not to do. Not only does this obviate the possibility of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories establishing some sort of foothold in Israel, it makes it extremely difficult for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to support themselves.

The preference for non-Palestinian migrant workers and the building of a wall between Palestinian concentrations of population in the West Bank and Jewish populations in Israel and the West Bank are all, ostensibly, for security reasons. Yet, Jews in Israel and the Occupied Territories still feel insecure, and so Israeli Jews have a plan B. Many have dual nationality. For example, many Israeli Jews have both Israeli and U.S. passports. European Union rules allow Jews who fled their homes during World War II, and their children and grandchildren, to get their citizenship back. As NPR’s Guy Ryssdal reported a week or so ago, the latest popular source of a second nationality for Israeli Jews is Poland.

The dearth of Jewish immigrants, the possibility of increased Jewish emigration, and the overwhelming numbers of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories, add up to a much more real threat to a Jewish state than President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric or the hype about Iranian nukes. Prime Minister Olmert’s fear of a struggle for equal voting rights suggests that he knows this. The demographic problem for Israel flows from its definition as a Jewish state. What measures will it take to maintain a Jewish majority? This is what Annapolis is all about.

What does Israel’s demographic problem have to do with Lebanon? Not a lot although Lebanon too has a sizeable Palestinian population. Palestinians play a role in Lebanese politics and some Lebanese would like to get rid of them, but their mere presence does not challenge Lebanon’s raison d’étre in the way that Palestinians as non-Jews may challenge Israel’s raison d’étre. It is surprising then that Palestinians in Israel (not those in the Occupied Territories) are better off than some Palestinians in Lebanon.

Lebanon denied Palestinian refugees citizenship in the early years after 1948.The principle behind the denial was that Palestinians, if given citizenship, might jeopardize their claim to return to Palestine/Israel. For the same reason, Palestinians themselves did not immediately seek citizenship. Over the years, however, some Palestinian refugees got Lebanese citizenship through family connections or by virtue of their education, the jobs they could fill, the businesses they started, and the money they made. But Lebanon’s system of government is based on confessionalism—the divvying out of political power according to the size of religious communities. By this system Christians had access to more and higher offices in government than Muslims, but they were also aware of their shrinking numbers. Thus virtually all Christian Palestinians in Lebanon got citizenship; Muslim Palestinians, especially poor ones, did not. Since the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon during the civil war of 1975-1990, Palestinians without Lebanese citizenship have been subject to punishing restrictions on work, residence, travel, education, and political organization. Odd that being born even ½ mile south of the border between Lebanon and Palestine/Israel, which was made up by Britain and France after World War I, could make such a difference.

Lebanon’s governing structure, like Israel’s, is sensitive to the size of religious groups. Where Israel keeps track of its population, and counts and recounts and classifies and re-classifies it in order to figure out policies to maintain a Jewish majority, Lebanon has avoided taking a census since 1932. This is because most of the past and present leaders of Lebanon have benefited from the confessional balance of power based on that census. In the 1932 census Christians had a slight numerical edge over Muslims. Hence seats in parliament were apportioned by a ratio of 6 Christians to 5 Muslims. The ratio was changed to 5:5 as part of the Ta`if Agreement that brought the 15 year civil war to an end. Today the CIA World Factbook estimates that Muslims are 60% of the Lebanese population.

More important, perhaps, is the apportioning of high office. At 30%, Maronite Christians were the largest religious group in 1932. As a result, they got the office of president. The Commander-in-Chief of the army has always been Maronite as well. Sunni Muslims were the next largest group and they got the office of prime minister. Shi`i Muslims were the third largest group and they got to fill the position of speaker of parliament. And so on down the line of the 17 recognized confessional groups in Lebanon. Today the single largest religious group in Lebanon is the Shi`a. The highest public office a member of the Shi`i community may hold is still speaker of parliament. The lack of representation and power in government is directly responsible for the lack of attention paid to Shi`i areas of the country in terms of schools, roads, and other economic and social infrastructure flowing from the government.

No wonder Shi’i activists and their non-Shi`i allies have been camped in the center of Beirut for over a year. They are not threatening a coup d`état, which the Lebanese Prime Minister likes to say and which President Bush echoes. They are struggling for proportional representation, a type of “equal voting rights” that Prime Minister Olmert so fears Palestinians in the Occupied Territories may one day demand of Israel. In the absence of a fair share of government-sponsored programs, the Shi`i political parties, Hizbullah and `Amal, have provided the infrastructure and services the government has not.

The best solution to the inconsistency of demographic realities in Lebanon with its confessional balance of power would be to get rid of the confessional system entirely. But, if Lebanese politicians were unable to agree to that in 1990 after 15 years of civil war, such a solution does not seem achievable in the near future. But if they are so wed to Lebanon’s confessional structure of government, they should at least take a census and make it an honest system of confessionalism.

If you are confused about who’s who and who’s where in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and Lebanon, that seems to me to be a proper response. Defining people by religion, counting them, and inventing policies or structures to exclude them as citizens with equal voting rights or equal access to office is a confusing business. It is also a business that causes war and creates the backdrop for great cruelty. And it is not unique to the Middle East.

--Mary Wilson, Professor of History, UMass Amherst

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