When will Israel stop seeing Palestinians as a ‘demographic threat?’

Israel’s political and social outlook, rooted in its desire to be a ‘Jewish state,’ makes it impossible to view the Palestinians as anything but an existential problem, even those it accepts as citizens.

By Amjad Iraqi

Palestinian Muslim worshipers perform traditional Friday prayers in a street in Wadi Joz neighbourhood outside Jerusalem’s Old City, as policemen block their way to Al Aqsa mosque, October 17, 2014. (Activestills.org)
Palestinian Muslim worshipers perform traditional Friday prayers in a street in Wadi Joz neighbourhood outside Jerusalem’s Old City, as policemen block their way to Al Aqsa mosque, October 17, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Last week, Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet reported about the auctioning of a letter written by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to then-Haifa Mayor Abba Hushi. In the letter Ben-Gurion rejected attempts to allow Palestinian Arabs to return to Haifa after fleeing during the 1948 war, stating that “until the war is over, we don’t want a return of the enemy.” 

While the letter does not reveal anything new regarding the Israeli leadership’s intent to keep as many Palestinians as possible out of the new state, it does offer a chilling reminder of the origins of this Israeli policy towards Palestinians, which has remained remarkably consistent 67 years after the state’s establishment.

In the eyes of Israelis, Ben-Gurion’s attitude towards the presence of Palestinians in the state was justified: demographics in any ethnic and national conflict have precarious effects on the politics, security and stability of the different communities involved. More significantly, for the Jewish community, Israel needed to be Jewish-majority country where they would not be threatened by the domination and racism of others, as has been the case for centuries.

The terrible irony is that in its desire to escape its history as a persecuted minority, the Israeli Jewish population became an oppressive majority obsessed with racial control. To this day, the Palestinian people — whether in refugee camps, under occupation, or minority citizens inside Israel — are viewed by the Israeli state as an existential challenge. It is not just the right wing that espouses this racial paradigm; liberal Zionists, in their attempt to advocate for a two-state solution, repeatedly warn that the Palestinian population living under Israeli control will soon surpass the Jewish population, and that Israel would be forced to abandon democracy if it wants to preserve its “Jewish character.”

This obsession over the Palestinian “demographic threat” has become so normalized in both Israeli and international discourse that people have forgotten that at its core, it is both a sinister and racist concept. A Palestinian’s personal character, their advancement in society, and even their indifference to politics mean little to the state – it is their blood that determines their status and defines them as a danger. This view has served to legitimize numerous laws and policies that attempt to manipulate the state’s demographic landscape, with the aim of minimizing and containing the non-Jewish population under its control.

Ben-Gurion’s letter is one testament to how the denial of the Palestinians’ right of return, and the expulsions and flights that preceded it, were seen as key instruments in achieving the state’s goals. The same persistent fear of the right of return was also a factor that encouraged Israel in 2003 to ban family unification between Palestinian citizens of Israel with spouses and children from the occupied territories. While the ban was initially defended as a “security measure,” it is now widely viewed as a means of preventing Palestinians from entering and living in Israel. These policies, of course, contrast with the Law of Return, which allows any Jew in the world to acquire citizenship and residency in Israel solely on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.

A group of Jewish boys visit the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta, located on the edge of West Jerusalem, Israel, March 4, 2014. During the Nakba, the residents of Lifta fled attacks by Zionist militias beginning in December 1947, resulting in the complete evacuation of the village by February 1948. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
A group of Jewish boys visit the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta, located on the edge of West Jerusalem, Israel, March 4, 2014. During the Nakba, the residents of Lifta fled attacks by Zionist militias beginning in December 1947, resulting in the complete evacuation of the village by February 1948. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

The demographic fear not only targets Palestinians outside the state, but also those within it. The Admissions Committees Law, which allows hundreds of small communities to reject housing applicants based on “social and cultural criteria,” was enacted out of concern that the Supreme Court’s landmark Ka’adan ruling would allow Palestinian citizens to access lands outside of their Arab locales. Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth), led by its mayor, Shimon Gapso, is attempting to discourage the movement of Palestinian citizens into its neighborhoods in order to preserve the city’s “Jewish identity.” In Jerusalem, where the demographic policy is most severe, Palestinians are being forced out of the city through residency revocations, confiscation of properties, physical separation and other means, while settlements for Jewish citizens rapidly expand in their place.

In view of these and numerous other examples, the obsession over the demographic threat necessitates a simple question: when does the threat end? The cynical answer is that it doesn’t. Israel’s political and social outlook, rooted in its desire to be a “Jewish state,” makes it impossible to view the Palestinians as anything but an existential problem, even those it accepts as citizens. Even if two states are formed, refugees are naturalized in a Palestinian state or their host countries, and equal rights are granted to the Palestinian minority in Israel — all of which are increasingly unlikely — the Palestinians, by virtue of their identity and connection to the land, will still be viewed as a danger.

It is hard to say if Ben-Gurion knew when he wrote his letter to Abba Hushi that Israel’s “war” would never truly be over. It is clear, however, that the result of that ongoing war is not democracy or peace, but discrimination and oppression. Many Palestinians are responding to this by articulating a joint future based on recognition, diversity and equality, but it is precisely this future that Israel as a “Jewish state” cannot accept. As long as fear, racism and separation guide Israel’s vision of itself and the Palestinians, the demographic threat will never cease.

Amjad Iraqi is a Projects & International Advocacy Coordinator at Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

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