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A Jewish State

Demographic Trends in Palestine

Nizar Sakhnini was born in Acre in 1932 and became a refugee in 1948. He is an expert on Palestine and the Palestinians. He currently resides in Canada.

Nizar Sakhnini
Palestine Expert
March 25 2006

Maintaining Jewish majority is a basic criterion of the Zionist project. Palestine, however, was not an empty desert. Accordingly, creation of a Jewish State with a Jewish majority required two processes: importing Jews from all corners of the world to Palestine and dispossession and ethnic cleansing for the indigenous population.

The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine was sponsored by Hovevei Zion. This wave brought about 35,000 immigrants during the period 1882-1903. Almost half of them left within several years of their arrival. The number of Jews living in Palestine before 1882 was no more than 8000.

About 40,000 Jews immigrated between 1904 and 1914. As with the first wave, half of them left in later years. This 2nd wave included a number of Socialist Zionists. Prominent among them were Ben Gurion, who became the first Israeli Prime Minister and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the second President of Israel.

In its reaction to the bad situation in Czarist Russia, the Russian Jewish intelligentsia was subdivided into two main groups: the nationalists who advocated Zionism and the revolutionaries who were a sort of assimilationists who advocated joining the other Russian socialist revolutionaries. During the early years of the twentieth century, however, a radical development entered Zionism, which would prove to have been vital. A young Jewish intellectual from the southwest of Russia issued a pamphlet called The National Question and the Class Struggle. In his pamphlet, Ber Borochov produced a socialist solution to the Jewish problem within a mixture of Zionism and Marxism. Borochov argued that it was no use immigrating to non-Jewish countries like America, because there would be the same problems there. The Jews needed a land of their own in an 'empty' or undeveloped country like Palestine, which, according to Borochov, was under populated.

Those Socialist Zionists, unlike the Lovers of Zion before them, were not content with theory and in 1902 they began to immigrate to Palestine. They packed a bag and made the exodus to Palestine. Nobody organized this. While cautious Zionists stayed at home and while political Zionists like Herzl and Weizmann worked to set up a Jewish State officially, the Socialist Zionists just got up and left. They were intent on creating a model socialist society, based on social, economic and political equality, which would be an example to the rest of the world. Zionism, for them, was not just a flight from anti-Semitism but an attempt to create a New World and a new solution for the Jewish people. In Ben-Gurion's words, it was "a revolt against a tradition of many centuries, helplessly longing for redemption. We substitute a will for self-realization, an attempt at reconstruction and creativity in the soil of the homeland. We call for a self-sufficient people, master of its own fate. Instead of a corrupt existence of middlemen, hung up in midair, we call for an independent existence as working people, at home on the soil and in the creative economy."

Ben Gurion and the other Socialist Zionists believed that the final socialist redemption was surely at hand. The perfect society that they intended to create in 'Eretz Yisrael' would be a model for the revolutionary struggle of other peoples.

Yitzhak Ben Zvi described his decision to make the alyia in 1905 as a sudden vision, a moment of self-discovery and conversion of life. He had been speaking at a Jewish revolutionary rally when suddenly it appeared in his mind's eye, "the living image of Jerusalem, the holy city with its ruins, desolate of its sons".

Those early settlers saw Palestine as "A land without a people, for a people without a land". The 'discovery' of the Palestinians was a shock, and most Zionists either ignored the Arabs or avoided the thought of them, hoping that they would go away. Ahad Ha'am warned the settlers not to underestimate the Palestinians. The majority did not listen to him.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was one of the settlers of the first wave. When his ship had approached Jaffa in 1882, he had had grave doubts about whether the "Land of Israel" really was his country. He found himself watching the Arab passengers on board and suddenly he realized that they were far more at home in the East and in the "Promised Land" than he was. They were not merely in the way of the Jewish State. They were in the way of his new self and were an implacable obstacle – a "fortified rampart" – to all that he held to be most sacred. Eventually he found that he could not swallow his doubts so he left 'Eretz Yisrael' and became a Territorialist, believing that the Jews should seek a country in a land other than Palestine.

Most Socialist Zionists, however, continued to believe that they would be able to build the Jewish State. They believed that the final Marxist redemption was at hand and this made all Arab resistance to their plans seem futile that would wither away in the new socialist era. (Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World. Macmillan, London, 1988, pp. 60-64)

As of 1919, the British officially facilitated Jewish immigration to Palestine. As a result, a new wave of about 40,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine during the period 1919-1923, few of whom returned to their countries of origin. Another wave of immigrants arrived in Palestine during the period 1924-1929. About 23,000 of them left the country in due course.


A fifth wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine during the period 1929 – 1939 sparked by the Nazi accession to power in Germany. This wave brought about 250,000. The Zionist-German 'Transfer Agreement' was a major tool used in making this wave possible. (For details related with the 'Transfer Agreement' see: Edwin Black, The Transfer Agreement: The Untold Story of the Secret Pact Between the Third Reich & Jewish Palestine, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1984)

Another 150,000 illegal Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in Palestine during the period 1939-1948.

The above figures indicate that all the efforts of the Zionist Organization to mobilize world Jewry and encourage voluntary Jewish immigration did not succeed in attracting adequate numbers to settle in Palestine. A first census held following the Proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948 found a population of 872,700 of which 716,700 were Jews and the rest, 156,000 were Palestinian Arabs representing no more than 18% of the total number of the population of the newly created state.

The creation of the State in 1948 opened the doors wide for a large-scale influx of immigrants. This open door immigration was made possible by a number of factors without which it would not have been possible. Among these factors were the ethnic cleansing operations during the 1948 war, which forced the panic-struck indigenous population to abandon their homes and lands and seek refuge in the adjacent Arab countries. The Absentees Law as well as the Law of Return issued in 1950 facilitated confiscation of Arab homes and lands to build settlements for the new Jewish settlers. Moreover, financing of immigration and settlement would have been impossible without the agreement for German reparations to Israel as a state, and to the Jews as individuals.

Between 1949 and 1951 more than 600,000 immigrants arrived, among them were fewer than 2,000 American Jews. Most of the new immigrants came from new sources. (Norman H. Finkelstein, Friends Indeed: The Special Relationship of Israel and the United States. Brookfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press, 1998, p. 49)

About 650,000 Jews were living in the Arab countries and constituted a largest reserve of potential immigrants to Israel. An even larger reserve for potential immigrants was the Soviet Union where millions of Jews lived. The Jews living in the Soviet Union, however, were not free to immigrate and the Zionist movement concentrated its efforts in the early fifties on the Jews living in the Arab countries. However, once again the Zionist movement had to resort to a number of tactics to coerce the immigrants. An intriguing example of such tactics was uncovered as to the driving force behind the decision of the Iraqi Jewish community, which numbered 130,000, to emigrate.

One month before the 1950 Passover holiday, Iraqi authorities announced that any Jew wishing to emigrate to Israel could freely do so. Few applied for exit visas. The majority was simply not inclined to leave.

During the Passover holiday, a bomb was thrown at Dar al-Beida café, a meeting place for the young Jewish intellectuals, from a passing car and exploded on the pavement. No one was hurt. The next morning, leaflets were distributed at Baghdad synagogues warning of more incidents. A second bomb exploded at the U.S. Information Center in Baghdad, which was frequented by many Jews. About 10,000 Jews applied for immigration. The majority still thought it best to remain in a country where they enjoyed considerable prosperity. However, when a third bomb killed a Jewish boy and blinded another person, there was a stampede for exit visas. The Jewish community was convinced that emigration to Israel was essential for their survival.

Several months after the last group of Iraqi Jews departed, the nature of the conspiracy against them became clear.

In June 1951, a Palestinian refugee saw an Israeli person, Yehuda Tagar, enters a department store in Baghdad and ran to the police to tell them about it. Investigations revealed that Tagar and his companion were, according to their confessions, members of 'the Movement', a Zionist ring that was operating in Iraq. The members of 'the Movement' were arrested and a cache of arms and explosives was confiscated. In all fifteen members of the ring were tried, and two of them were executed for setting off the blast which killed the Jewish boy.

After serving ten years in prison, Tagar returned to Israel and published an account of his exploits. Several other members of 'the Movement' also gave their story to the Israeli press. All their accounts confirmed that the bombs had been set off in order to 'encourage' the Iraqi Jews to immigrate to Israel. "The Zionists were not only willing to use terrorist methods to drive out the Arabs from the Jewish state but they did not hesitate to use violence against their fellow Jews who hesitated to emigrate to Israel..." (Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland. London/Boston: 1987, pp. 198 - 201)

In 1949 immigration almost overwhelmed Israel, but it was not destined to last. From 1948 until 1960, about 870,000 Jews came to live in Israel. During the next decade, 1961-71, about 338,000 arrived, and in the period 1972-82, the number halved again to 178,000.

In 1984 there were 19,000 Jewish immigrants to Israel, but this was exceptional. Even so, 10,000 left later on. The next year was the worst on record, with only 12,000 coming and almost 17,000 leaving, which resulted in a net loss of about 5000. In 1987 there was another net loss of 4,500 emigrants.

Radical changes took place during the late 1980s. Prominent among these changes was the liberalization in the USSR and the end of its control over Eastern Europe. These changes opened the door for mass emigration of Soviet Jews, which were expected to reach one million in the 1990s. The new emigrants had an unusually high level of education, which would promote Israel to a regional super-power. Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir declared that "For a big immigration we need a big and strong state", implying that Israel cannot stay within its pre-1967 war borders.

Most of the Soviet Jews wanted to go to the USA, where they had relatives and a chance to live in political and economic security. However, American laws limited Soviet immigrants to fifty thousand per year. Closing the doors in the USA in this way forced the Jewish exodus to Israel. This meant that America would pay for their settlement in the form of increased aid to Israel. The USA would also reap the whirlwind of conflict that would come from Israel's expansion to accommodate the Soviet immigrants. In the long run, the Jewish State could become a high-tech commercial rival of the U.S. Israel would then be in a position to attract American Jews to settle in the expanded state, which is the ultimate Zionist goal.

The Zionists were jubilant over the exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel. The Zionist lobby had for years insisted that American trade concessions to the USSR be based on the freedom of Jews to emigrate. They stopped short of pressing liberalization of American immigration rules to allow Soviet Jews to go to their preferred destination. Forcing Soviet Jews to go to Israel was a key goal of the Zionists.

William Safire wrote an article in the New York Times on 12 February 1990 stating that "the prospect of a million Jews in Israel over the next decade changes all demographic assumptions". He agreed with Shamir that "a big and strong state" was needed because of the influx; thus the annexation of the occupied territories must follow in due course. Safire concluded that the Soviet emigration doomed all hopes for a Palestinian state.

Indeed, the extremist parties which openly advocated 'transfer' soon found their way into the Israeli ruling coalition, including Ariel Sharon, Rehavam Ze'evi, leader of the Moledet party, and Raphael Eitan, leader of the Tsomet faction. The new extreme-right coalition opened the door wide for the new Soviet emigrants and expansion of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The new coalition partners, Ze'evi and Eitan, made no secret of wanting the Palestinians expelled which was the central point of their platform. (Michael Palumbo, Imperial Israel: The History of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1990, pp. 293 - 299)

Population estimates of the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel as quoted in Ha'aretz on 5 November 1998 were as follows: May 1948: 800,000; May 1958: 2,000,000; Feb. 1982: 4,000,000; Sept. 1991: 5,000,000; Sept. 1998: 6,000,000 of which 79% were Jews and 21% were Arabs.

These figures, however, are misleading and give the illusion of a Jewish majority. The reality is completely different.

To start with, the Jews are not a coherent group. They are subdivided into three major categories: Jews originating from the Arab countries, European Jews and Jews coming from the USSR. Moreover, they might be subdivided into two major groups: Religious Jews and Secular Jews.

As far as the Palestinian Arabs are concerned, the above figures include Arabs in areas occupied in 1948 only. They do not include Palestinian Arabs in the areas occupied in 1967.

Accordingly, the above figures rang the bell. In response, a systemic effort to confront the Arab 'Demographic Threat' was introduced according to which annual conferences were held in the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center – Herzliya to discuss and confront this basic and strategic threat to the 'Jewish State'.

The first conference was held on 19-21 December 2000. Its report stated that "Israel is the country of the Jewish people and must confront directly developments that manifest existential dangers. Failure in this confrontation or an attempt to avert it is liable to lead to the demise of the Zionist enterprise..."

In its elaboration of 'The Geodemographic Aspect', the report stated, "The demographic trends in Israel and its surroundings and their ramifications pose a severe threat to Israel in terms of its character and identity as a Jewish state belonging to the Jewish people. The demographic threat to the continued existence of the State of Israel is the most immediate and most likely to materialize. The threat is developing rapidly, while the pace of designing a national policy dealing with the threat is slow..." (Journal of Palestine Studies 121, Volume XXXI, No. 1, Autumn 2001, pp. 50-61. For more details on all conferences held to this date, see the Website of the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center – Herzliya at:

The demographic threat came back to haunt the Zionist leadership. This explains their 'unilateral' actions, including withdrawal from the Gaza strip and building of the racist wall of hate they are building to isolate the Arabs within a large open air reserve camp. It also explains the talk about a two-state solution with the Palestinians getting no more than 10% of Palestine within which they would live under total Israeli control and hegemony and enjoy nothing more than a limited meaningless autonomy.

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