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Hung Up on Demographics

Hung Up on Demographics

By Ruben Navarrette - February 17, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a wise choice when he named Michael Oren as his country's ambassador to the United States. With his scholarship, diplomatic skills, military experience and vast knowledge of the Middle East, Oren should make Israel proud. And as a product of the United States who immigrated to Israel in 1979 -- born in New York, raised in New Jersey, educated at Columbia and Princeton -- he also makes America proud.

Oren recently capped off a visit to Southern California by meeting with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Two days earlier, demonstrators had interrupted Oren's speech at the University of California at Irvine. Eleven students were arrested. Even under pressure, Oren finished his remarks.

Still, there are things that even someone as talented as Oren is going to have trouble explaining away. Take Israel's growing obsession over its changing demographics. For the last decade, Israeli academics and officials have warned that by 2020, Palestinians will -- because of higher birthrates -- outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories. That would render obsolete the concept of Israel as a Jewish state. To many Israelis, this is a time bomb.

In 2002, when Netanyahu was in between stints as prime minister and on the lecture circuit, I saw him give a speech in Dallas where he talked about the anxiety a nation senses when the majority feels it is about to become the minority. When asked why Israel won't allow Palestinians living in refugee camps to enter Israeli society, he said that this kind of mass migration would "flood" Israel. Then, in a gesture I found offensive, he defended the decision by referring to the relationship between Americans and Mexican immigrants.

"You know about this," he said about the need to control migration. "This is the reason you have an INS."

Netanyahu painted a pathetic portrait of two great nations -- the United States and Israel -- desperately afraid of a foreign element in our midst and determined to contain it, both battling our demons and, you could say, resisting our destiny.

I was curious about what Oren would say concerning his country's demographic fixation.

"Well, because the Jewish state is predicated on having a stable and significant Jewish majority," Oren said, "it has to be part of our discourse. What you have, though, is -- part of the discourse, is different types of statistics. Different groups will adduce different statistics about the number of Arabs or the numbers of Jews or their relative growth rates and there's a debate about that. But I think there is no debate over the fact that, that, in order to have the Jewish state, you have to have a stable and considerable Jewish majority."

Hold on. This sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like some of the unpleasant talk coming out of various European countries -- among them France, Italy and Germany -- where people are once again dabbling in an ugly nativism. In fact, this kind of nativism has all too often victimized Jews. So, I asked Oren to explain the difference. Why isn't this sort of philosophy just as ugly when Israel preaches it? At that, he went global.

"There are about 190 states in the world," he said. "The vast majority of them are nation-states. And the majority of those nation-states have non-national minorities in them. So it's -- there's nothing unusual about Israel's case. We are surrounded by 22 Arab nation-states that have non-Arab minorities in them. So with everybody, at a certain degree, that is an issue. It's about the nature of the nation-state. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and we have a national minority in it that's non-Jewish and we guarantee the full and unequivocal democratic rights of that native -- that minority. But this is the one and only Jewish national state."

That's a nice, diplomatic answer from, well, a skilled diplomat. What do you expect? But it's not very persuasive.

In Israel, as in the United States, we've got to learn how to discuss some of our most important and sensitive issues without going out of bounds. If you want to talk about immigration and how it impacts a society's evolving culture, fine. Talk about the economic burden, crime rates, overpopulation and other consequences. But when we start expressing worries about changing demographics, we're way beyond the chalk lines.

ruben@rubennavarrette.com

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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