Wombs In The Service Of The State

Gideon Levy

The only solution remaining for anyone who is so upset by the demographic problem is population transfers. First we expel the foreign workers, then we move the Arabs.


9 September 2002

   Israel has decided to tackle its "demographic problem" head-on. Last week, after a five-year hiatus, Shlomo Benizri, the minister of labor and social affairs, convened the Israel Council for Demography. There were two items on the agenda, reports said - the need to encourage families to have more children, and the problem of foreign workers in Israel. 

On the face of it, this is just another committee. But the reconvening of this particular body, and the total indifference with which the event was greeted, is cause for serious concern. In the present public mood in which outbursts of racism are considered politically correct, Benizri's move - as a representative of the increasingly nationalist ultra-Orthodox Shas party - is no surprise. Nevertheless, one can only express astonishment at the people who have agreed to sit on a committee that evokes appalling historical connotations. 

First, there is the makeup of the committee - its 37 members include public figures, lawyers, scientists and physicians. No fewer than three leading gynecologists are on the panel - Prof. Shlomo Mashiach, the president of the association of obstetricians and gynecologists, Prof. Yosef Shenkar, Dr. Hanna Katan, and an immunologist, a microbiologist and a physician who specializes in medical ethics. 

There are also representatives of the women's organization Na'amat, and the Women's Lobby. For what purpose did gynecologists and women's representatives convene? To encourage a higher birthrate in Israel? Not at all. They convened to encourage the Jewish women of Israel - and only them - to increase their child bearing, a project which, if we judge from the activity of the previous council, will also attempt to stop abortions. Does this remind you of anything? 

And how will the gynecologists contribute to this endeavor? Will they make do with proposing methods to increase the Jewish fertility rate and prevent abortions, or will they also suggest techniques to encourage abortions and reduce the birthrate among Arab women? And what about non-Jewish women from the former Soviet Union? 

As blunt as these questions may sound, they will in fact be at the center of the committee's discussions, even if they are swaddled in various bizarre disguises. After all, getting into the bedrooms of the country's citizens, and the use of scientists, physicians and women's organizations to mobilize the wombs of women for national purposes, are elements of control reserved for totalitarian regimes. True, David Ben-Gurion also campaigned for a higher birth rate, but he didn't do it by means of gynecologists and a war on abortions. 

However, even if the committee should decide not to enter into questions of birth rate, we should recognize that the "demographic problem," if it is in fact a problem, will not be solved by a committee or by any other methods dictated by government. There is no reason to suspect Benizri of desiring the end of the occupation - which is the only democratic solution to preserve Israel's Jewish character that will work - since he and his party have recently expressed vigorous support for the settlements. 

Therefore, the only solution remaining for anyone who is so upset by the demographic problem is population transfers. First we expel the foreign workers, then we move the Arabs. 

In the early 1970s, the Gafni Commission, an interministerial body with task of "examining the rate of development in Jerusalem," was established. Its recommendations, which were submitted in August 1973, stated: "The ratio of Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem must be preserved" - the ratio at the time was 73.5 percent Jews and 26.5 percent Arabs. Since then, Israeli governments have invested great efforts to implement that recommendation - innumerable new neighborhoods have been built for Jews only, while the lives of the city's Palestinian residents are turned into a living hell. They are stripped of residency rights, their homes are demolished, they are denied construction permits, they receive meager services and master plans for their part of the city are not approved. The aim of all this is to push them out of the city and maintain the sacred balance. The result? Twenty-nine years after the Gafni Commission turned in its report, the Palestinian minority in Jerusalem has increased to 32.5 percent. The conclusion? Either a population transfer or the end of the occupation in Jerusalem. No commission is needed to conclude that. 

Israel is a binational, multicultural state, and it is high time we recognized that fact. The only way to cope with it is to become a society that is more just. The only legitimate way to preserve the Jewish majority, for those to whom that goal is of overriding importance, is to end the occupation and perhaps also step up immigration. Defining the Arab citizens of Israel as a "demographic problem" raises harsh memories and sends them a highly offensive message. 

What are they supposed to feel when the government, which is also their government, convenes a committee that has the aim of reducing their share of the population, as though they were a cancer whose growth must be stopped. 

Since the rate of natural increase among the country's Arabs is higher than among the Jews, what's needed is not a commission of gynecologists but a different policy, which will turn the Arabs into citizens capable of identifying with their country. 

The Arabs in Israel will be neither a "problem" nor a "demographic demon" if the attitude toward them is fair and egalitarian. This is a country in which the streets are plastered with posters calling for a population transfer and no one bothers to remove them or to indict those who put them up. (It is not difficult therefore to guess what would happen if posters were put up calling for the expulsion of the Jews). A commission on demography is just another bad omen. 





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