Non-Jewish majority: The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

Security has been a “primary justification” for Zionist policies of land expropriation and removal of Palestinians.

"Zionism might have won the battle for Jerusalem and the settlements, but in doing so it guaranteed it would lose the war for control over Palestine/Israel as a whole," says author [EPA]

“The Jewish majority is history.”

So declared Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar in the space of Palestine/Israel in his most recent column, published on October 16. Eldar learned the news not from a public pronouncement to that effect by the Israeli government, which naturally has little interest to disseminate information of such “unparalleled importance”.

Rather, the new data, revealing that Jews now account for approximately 5.9 million out of the 12 million residents of Israel and the Occupied Territories was published in Haaretz‘s economic magazine, The Marker, in an article dealing with government attempts to raise the bar for obtaining tax benefits.

A Ministry of Finance memorandum on the proposed changes to the law revealed the population figures without comment. But the implications are crucial. Not merely because of the demographic ceiling that has now been broken, but also because of what the structure of the tax law in question tells us about how Israelis have long considered the territory of Israel/Palestine – as one unit.

The Ministry of Finance wants to increase the threshold for companies to obtain tax breaks based on the number of consumers they sell to. The existing minimum market is 12 million people, and now that the population of Israel/Palestine as a whole has reached that level, any company that serves the Israeli/Palestinian market would be eligible for the tax break, when the law was intended to encourage exports outside the home market.

Fair enough. But what’s not fair is the fact that Israel and the Occupied Territories are considered as a single market from the perspective of Israeli enterprises, which have long had the West Bank and Gaza as a captive market, while Palestinian industries and agriculture have been severely restricted by Israel for decades in order to prevent them from competing with Israel. 

 Why Palestinians are going to UN Security Council

The process of de-development and de-industrialisation has been a marked feature of Israeli rule over the Occupied Territories. Thanks to the weakness of Palestinian negotiators, the incompetence and corruption of the political leadership, and the connivance of the American and EU as “honest brokers”, it was institutionalised into the Oslo-era economic relationship through various agreements, most notably the Paris Protocol of 1994, which severely restricted the ability of Palestinians to develop any new industries which might challenge existing Israeli industries.

‘Apartheid exists’

Exploring the implications of the demographic parity between Jews and non-Jews in the space of Israel/Palestine, Eldar declares: “In other words, in the territory under Israel’s jurisdiction a situation of apartheid exists. A Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority.” That might well be true, but the implications behind this assertion, that apartheid didn’t exist when Jews were the majority, is open to question. 

(In South Africa Apartheid was based on skin colour or “race”, but with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1966 [which, it’s worth noting, the US did not ratify until 1994], the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid of 1973 and the Rome Statute of 1999 Apartheid, the concept of race was broadened to cover other communal markers of identity such as religious, national or ethnic origin.)

It’s not merely an historical coincidence that in South Africa the National Party, which was the driving force behind apartheid, came into power in 1948, the year of Israel’s establishment. Most every white settler colony, whether South Africa, Rhodesia, or Israel, as well as existing states born out of this model of settlement, such as Australia or the United States, required restrictive racial laws to ensure the ongoing power of the dominant group.

The various apartheid laws enacted in the 1950s were particularly intense because whites were a small minority in South Africa compared with the black population. In contrast, Israel was able to expel and/or prevent the return of most of Palestine’s non-Jewish inhabitants, thus producing a strong Jewish majority inside the Green Line and a slight majority in all of mandate Palestine.

This ratio would be skewed significantly towards Jews for several decades before returning to a level of relative parity in the last half decade that hasn’t been seen since the immediate aftermath of the 1948 war.

One of the reasons Israel has been able to enact and continue policies of systematic discrimination for decades without serious reproach from Western powers is because of the expert way it has attenuated them to provide a veneer of democracy within Israel and while being subsumed under the rubric of “security” in the Occupied Territories. Accuse Israel of discrimination and the first response will be that “Arab citizens have full political rights” – they can vote, serve in the Knesset and even in the country’s highest court.

To explain how these rights are constricted and undermined by dozens of laws that systematically discriminate against Palestinian citizens economically as well as in access to land and most components of social citizenship (education, healthcare, language and access to upper echelons of political life) requires far more time than most Americans and the majority of Europeans are willing to give to the subject, especially when it still doesn’t fit with the still widespread – if increasingly challenged – image of Israel as a supposedly Western-style democracy.

In the Occupied Territories, which have from the start been administered under a de jure system of separation, exclusion, discrimination, economic domination and removal from land – that is, apartheid – these violations are either justified or buried under the discourse of security. Indeed, security has been a primary justification for Zionist policies of land expropriation and removal of Palestinians since the very beginning of Zionist settlement in the late 19th century.

Apartheid is both a crucial strategy and natural consequence of most colonial projects, which require the separation of the coloniser and colonised in order to establish and maintain the political, economic and social hierarchies that entrench the power of the former over the latter. (Such policies are not the exclusive province of European settlement projects; from inter-war Japanese colonialism in East Asia to Bahrain’s treatment of its Shia citizens today, legalised discrimination, separation, exclusion and domination have long been a strategy of rule in situations where rulers and ruled are from distinct communities.) 

 Empire – Palestine state … of mind

In this regard, the Oslo peace process made it harder to discuss the apartheid regime in place in the Occupied Territories precisely because that regime was supposed to be coming to an end with the never realised “final status agreement”. Indeed, perhaps the most important reason Israel has worked so hard to continue the peace “process” despite having no intention of its agreeing to terms that would allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state is that the process helps deflect most criticism of its policies by allies.

Demographic tipping point as strategic opening

Some mainstream Israeli leaders, like Ehud Olmert, have argued in recent years that it was important to reach a two-state deal rather than merely extend the process indefinitely because once Jews became a minority in the space of Israel/Palestine, Palestinians would no longer have an incentive to press for separation. Instead, they would allow the cold hard facts of demography to make an unassailable case, as Eldar too argues, that a state ruled by a minority that denies full rights to the majority can only be considered an apartheid regime. 

Many have thought it strange that a man that worked so hard to colonise East Jerusalem while serving as its mayor would suddenly become, from an Israeli perspective, a “dove”. But Olmert could argue for a two-state solution because under his mayoralty, which extended through the entirety of the Oslo era, from 1993-2003, Israel permanently solidified its grip on Palestinian East Jerusalem through its ring of settlements, increased Jewish majority in the parts of the city across the Green Line (that particular tipping point had in fact occurred before Oslo commenced) and deployment of policies which pushed tens of thousands of Palestinians out of the city.

Olmert perhaps believed that with his particular mission accomplished – all of Jerusalem safely in Jewish hands – a two-state solution would be possible. But this was always a pipe dream. Neither Olmert nor any mainstream Israeli politician has ever been willing or able to satisfy minimum Palestinian demands on the three-core components of any “end of conflict” agreement – removing most settlements, allowing East Jerusalem to serve as the capital of Palestine, and allowing a meaningful number of Palestinian refugees to “return” to Israeli territory.

Negotiators might well have assumed that Palestinians would cede the right of return as part of a grand deal, but that would only have happened if Jerusalem and settlements were adequately addressed. More than perhaps any other Israeli leader, Olmert ensured the impossibility of dividing Jerusalem, while he and every other Prime Minister since Rabin’s assassination has either enabled or explicitly encouraged increased Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which was already too integrated into Israel to be separated well before Oslo, in the late 1980s.

A covenant of peace, possible again?

Zionism might have won the battle for Jerusalem and the settlements, but in doing so it guaranteed it would lose the war for control over Palestine/Israel as a whole. It’s not surprising, then, that we have arrived at the larger demographic tipping point, despite Olmert’s and others’ warnings about an apartheid-like future for Israel if a two-state agreement was not reached soon with Palestinians. It was simply always going to end this way, with Jews and Palestinians (and now, as part of the world-wide process of globalisation, increasing numbers of migrants from everywhere else) being forced to imagine a way to share rather than divide the small strip of land they all call home.

A 1930 letter from Arthur Ruppin – who was both one of the chief architects of Jewish settlement and an outspoken member of Brit Shalom, the main pre-1948 Zionist movement supporting a bi-national solution to the burgeoning conflict – best describes the situation that continues to define Israeli-Palestinian relations to this day:

“The Zionist aim has no equal example in history. The aim is to bring the Jews as [a] second nation into a country which already is settled as a nation – and fulfill this through peaceful means. History has seen such penetration by one nation into a strange land only by conquest, but it has never occurred that a nation will freely agree that another nation should come and demand full equality of rights and national autonomy at its side. The uniqueness of this case prevents its being, in my opinion, dealt with in conventional political-legal terms. It requires special contemplation and study.” 

It never occurred to Ruppin – or at least he did not admit – that his own actions in directing Jewish colonisation in Palestine were among the most important factors making it so difficult for Palestinians to accept the kind of bi-national solution that suddenly seems like less of a pipe dream now that the demographic tipping point has been reached and non-Jews once again constitute a majority in the territory of Mandate Palestine. 

 Israel approves three new settlements

Nevertheless, Ruppin was correct in arguing that, whatever its presence on the land in the past, the only way Jewish immigrants could create a viable national homeland in the midst of territory inhabited by another nation which constituted a numerical majority would be to create a political, economic and social arrangement that offered the indigenous population significant advantages over the traditional course of ethno-national development.

At the start of Zionism Theodor Herzl tried to solve this problem by imagining Jews literally buying out Palestinians and then making bourgeois Palestinians full citizens in a Jewish state which, having solved the “Jewish problem”, would not be meaningfully Jewish in any cultural or even Political way (in his more sober moments he also imagined “spiriting the penniless population across the border” as a way of dealing with those Palestinians who didn’t accept his vision). 

By the 1940s, it was clear that neither most Jews nor Palestinians were interested in such a bi-national arrangement, making a war for control of Palestine as inevitable as it was tragic. Similarly, once Israel gained control over the West Bank (which as the biblical heartland of Judaism was always far more important ideologically than Gaza, which in biblical times was most often enemy territory) and began the post-1967 settlement enterprise, the present imbroglio became inevitable, regardless of the good intentions any particular Israeli or Palestinian leader during the ensuing 45 years.

A land once again ‘sui generis’

It’s not surprising that the first post-war international committee to consider the future of Palestine, the Anglo-American Committee of 1946, largely supported the Brit Shalom inspired proposals of the Ihud Party as the best model for solving the inter-communal conflict that was moving the country towards civil war. It’s also not surprising that, still constituting the overwhelming majority of the country’s population, the Palestinian Arab population had little interest in a model that in practice could only mean reduced political and economic power for them.

The Jewish advocates of bi-nationalism talked of the need to find an accommodation between “natural rights” of Palestinians and the “historic” rights of Jews. We can today find fault in the often patronising way Palestinians were described even by progressive Jews of this era – their natural rights were counter-posed to the Jews’ development of the country, as if Palestine existed in a state of suspended animation before Jews came and revivified it. But we’d be hard-pressed to find any major Israeli figure utter words such as these, given in testimony before the United Nations in 1947: 

“Palestine is a land sui generis, and no one can have in Palestine everything that he wants. In all of the history of Palestine, no one has had everything that he wants. Palestine is not just a Jewish land; it is not just an Arab land, among other things, Palestine is a Holy Land of three great monotheistic religions. The Arabs have great natural rights in Palestine. They have been here for centuries. The graves of their fathers are here. There are remains of Arab culture at every turn. The Mosque of Aksa is the third holy Mosque in Islam. The Mosque of Omar is one of the great architectural monuments in the world of Islam. The Arabs have tilled the soil throughout all these centuries; they have, as we say, great natural rights in Palestine.” 

 The economics of West Bank occupation

It is to their credit that despite the colonial characterisation of indigenous rights as merely “natural”, the Ihud leadership saw this not as the limit of Palestinian rights, as for example did the Balfour Declaration three decades earlier, but as the fundamental grounding for full and equal citizenship in a post-independence Arab-Jewish state. 

As demographic parity came to loom on the horizon, Israeli, Palestinian and other activists and scholars have sought to imagine – or re-imagine – creative arrangements for ensuring the emergence of a peaceful and democratic order in the post-Jewish majority future. Many proposals abound, from the right-wing Zionist idea of annexation of the entire territory and expelling enough Palestinians to recreate a Jewish majority for several generations, to more democratic solutions involving various forms of confederation, federation, condominium, shared or parallel sovereignty over the entire territory of Israel Palestine. 

My colleague Ambassador Mathias Mossberg and I have previously argued on Al Jazeera regarding the idea of establishing “parallel states” across the same territory that any viable solution would, at a minimum, have to enable sovereignty and control to be shared so that neither demography nor control over territory would determine the right to live on the land with full human, political, civil and economic rights.

As wonderfully demonstrated in a new documentary airing on Al Jazeera on the history of the Jaffa orange by the filmmaker, Eyal Sivan, such a dream did exist once, among the sizeable number (if clearly minority) of Jews and Palestinian Arabs, who worked and even lived among each other in mixed towns like Jaffa. 

More than half a century later, such economic and even political co-operation, were supposed to be the foundation for the “New Middle East” to which the Oslo peace process was to give birth. But Oslo was an impossible peace because the balance of power still too strongly favoured Israel for its leaders to make the hard sacrifices necessary to achieve a viable two-state solution. 

With the demographic tipping point now having been reached, that balance, if painfully and violently, will inevitably swing toward the Palestinian side. As this occurs Israel/Palestine could suffer the same fate as 1980s-era Lebanon, or Israelis and Palestinians could seek inspiration from the largely forgotten and often distorted memories of Jewish-Arab co-existence to create a future in which all the country’s inhabitants, “from the River to the Sea, are free“. That may sound naive and pollyanish but one thing is for sure, when practical solutions are no longer viable, utopian solutions suddenly no longer seem so unrealistic. And that offers both peoples a unique opportunity to move towards a just and lasting settlement to their century-old conflict, if they’re able to seize it.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.