Demography and Demagoguery

If demographic danger warnings are not to remain in the realm of mere demagoguery, the root causes of rising birth rates must be understood and the speculative nature of demographic forecasts appreciated.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on December 23, 2003.)

Last week there were warnings of demographic dangers facing Israel. Deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert said that one day the presence of too many Arabs west of the Jordan river will endanger the State of Israel. He concluded that Israel must immediately and unilaterally withdraw from much of the area presently under IDF control and remove the Jewish settlements. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the demographic danger lies within the state itself – meaning Israeli Arab citizens.

In many parts of the world, governments states with rapidly growing populations have been concerned about it. The concern is that the country’s infrastructure – housing, health care, jobs, pensions – would not keep pace with the growing population. This would result in falling standards and quality of life for all.

China took Draconian measures to curb population growth, restricting each family to one child. Egypt promoted birth control measures. The population problem has been especially serious in countries with large Moslem populations that traditionally have high birth rates, which have also increased dramatically with improved health care.

Very high birth rates present a problem, maybe even a danger, mainly to the community in which the high birth rates occur. The Gaza Strip is a good example in areas west of the Jordan River that Olmert referred to in his speech. A Palestinian population, packed like sardines and living in poverty, already lacks a minimum of modern amenities.

It is such conditions that accelerate rising birth rates. Whatever the future political settlement for the area will be, no government will be able to provide a proper infrastructure for this burgeoning population. It is truly a time bomb that only emigration can defuse.

The Bedouin population in the Negev with an annual rate of natural increase of 5.7 percent has an unenviable world record in this respect. Negev Bedouin are Israeli citizens, and if Netanyahu had them in mind he should have mentioned the challenge this poses to the government – including his own ministry – instead of speaking about a danger to the citizens of Israel.

This high birth rate is a danger to the Bedouin community and is the direct result of the abject conditions in which the majority of this population has been living for many years. Unless the Israeli government makes a serious effort to alleviate these conditions, they will be perpetuated and maybe even become worse, with even higher record birth rates.

Negev Bedouin have the lowest standard of housing, education and health care, and the highest level of unemployment in Israel. They are in far worse shape than any other segment of Israeli society – new immigrants, development towns, or Arab villages. They are in a traumatic transition from their traditional nomadic life style to enforced urbanization, and they have been neglected by successive Israeli governments.

No wonder the Islamic Movement from the north finds them easy prey; no wonder attachment to Islam and Palestinian nationalism are becoming common among Negev Bedouin. There are efforts by Robert Arnow, a New York philanthropist, and by Ben-Gurion University, to encourage university education among Bedouin women, and by the IDF to encourage young men to volunteer for army service and subsequent university studies. But these are just modest beginnings when we consider the dire distress of the Negev Bedouin.

The birth rate of Negev Bedouin should be a wake-up call for the Israeli government. The Minister responsible for Bedouin affairs is deputy prime minister Olmert. The minister responsible for allocating the necessary resources is Netanyahu.

If demographic danger warnings are not to remain in the realm of mere demagoguery, the root causes of rising birth rates must be understood and the speculative nature of demographic forecasts appreciated. Even more important, we must realize we are dealing with human problems and the challenges they pose to governments and societies – not with “demographic dangers.”


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