Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel by the Numbers

This week’s Torah portion is the portion Bamidbar, is the opening portion of the book of the same name. In the larger world, this fourth book of the Pentateuch is most commonly called, ‘Numbers.’

Numbers are an important concept. Yes, I know…what a brilliant statement, Rabbi! How much of an understatement can I possible make? I remember when my children were very small and started school in England. The teacher explained to us that the twin goals of the first year was “developing literacy and numeracy.” Without ‘numeracy’ – without some mastery of basic mathematics – a person cannot be a competent consumer. Even though my vocation does not require working with numbers, I apply basic math to my life each and every day.

So numbers are important. Let me run some numbers by you.

There is a particular country in the world, a tiny country when compared to the land masses of the world. Its landmass is a mere 20,770 square kilometers. It is called Israel. Israel, as you know, is the world’s one and only Jewish state. That isn’t to say that only Jews live in it. Israel has a total population of 7,746,000 as of May 2011, according to Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

Now as you know, this singular country of Israel has an ongoing conflict with a few of its neighbors, the vast majority of whom deny Israel’s right to exist. I’m talking, of course about the Arab world, a vast swath of the earth comprising more than two dozen countries. Only two of those countries – Egypt and Jordan – have formally recognized Israel and concluded peace treaties with her. But one of those, countries, Egypt, has recently entered a period of turmoil and transition. The party which is likely to gain power at the end of this transition – the Muslim Brotherhood – has stated its intention to unilaterally abrogate that peace treaty, when it comes to power. So I’m going to include Egypt in the next stream of numbers that I give you, those measuring the Arab countries that are the enemies of Israel. I’m also not going to separate out a number of countries which, while they haven’t formally recognized Israel, are unexpected to participate in military action against her. I’m talking about countries such as Bahrain – which has a Jewish ambassador to the US – Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. I’m including these countries, which together do not amount to much either in landmass or population, because they do participate in hostilities against Israel: for example, by bankrolling terror against Israel and spreading libel against her through media such as Al Jazeera. The numbers won’t include non-Arab countries hostile to Israel: for example, Iran, a country in the late stages of developing nuclear arms and which has sworn to exterminate not only Israel, but all World Jewry, inshallah. Or Turkey, which used to be a close ally of Israel until an Islamist government gained ascendancy and is now outright hostile. After all, when using numbers one has to draw the line somewhere.

So the total landmass of Arab countries, including the Palestinian territories which may very well be incorporated into another Arab state in the near future, equal 9,049,136 square kilometers compared with Israel’s 20,770 square kilometers. That means that Israel’s landmass is .23 percent that of her Arab enemies. And those same Arab countries have a combined population of 237,224,600 compared with Israel’s population of 7,746,000. That means that Israel’s population is 3.3 percent of that of her Arab enemies. In this case, numbers tell an interesting story…or is it, a frightening story?

But let’s talk about refugees, a hot topic nowadays. The various conflicts and wars of the 20th century and the nascent 21st century have created millions of refugees in the world.

The definition of ‘refugee’ according to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of refugees of 1951: “…a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Using the above definition, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 8,400,000 refugees worldwide at the beginning of 2006. This number includes refugees from all the world’s conflicts…except the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The latter’s numbers are compiled by a different agency within the UN: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). According to that agency, the number of worldwide refugees from the one group of people – Palestinian Arabs – was 4,600,000 in 2006.

Whoa! One of three refugees in the world today numbers from this one country, a tiny place the size of New Jersey??! 1/3 of the world’s refugees??!

That’s because the UNWRA uses an entirely separate definition of ‘refugee’ than the UNHCA. The UNWRA includes also, and uniquely, the descendants of those who actually left the Mandate of Palestine when about two-thirds of it became Israel in 1948. In fact it counts as a ‘descendant’ anyone who can trace ancestry to those refugees through at least one grandparent.

(By the way, the figure of 4,600,000 is the UNWRA’s figure. Several Palestinian NGO’s insist that the actual number is close to 7,000,000.)

This would mean very little, except that the UN General Assembly considers all who meet this expanded definition of ‘refugee’ to be refugees ; and the UN will consider all claimants who meet this definition to fall under any peace deal requiring repatriation of Palestinian refugees. And the Palestinians about to claim statehood at the September session of the General Assembly, which the General Assembly is sure to endorse, will demand repatriation of any of these number who want to ‘return’ to Israel – not Palestine – as part of any peace deal.

As you can see, any peace deal including the right of return of Palestinian ‘refugees’ would lead to the death of Israel as a Jewish state – by sheer demographgics.

Numbers, my friends. When talking about Israel, they can be a little overwhelming.

But not all the numbers tell a distressing story. There are numbers that tell a story that should make us proud. There are many numbers that fall into this latter category, but I want to mention only one set.

Let’s return to the population of Israel. As I said, it stands at 7,746,000. Of those, only 5,818,200 are Jewish – about 75 percent. And what about the other one quarter of the population? The vast majority of them are Arabs, citizens of the Jewish state with all rights including the franchise. The latter has resulted in Arabs holding seats in every Knesset – the Israeli parliament – since the founding of the state. In the current 18th Knesset, Arabs hold 14 of the 120 seats. Eleven of those ministers belong to distinctly Arab parties; the other three belong to ‘Jewish’ parties Israel Beiteinu, Labor, and Likud.

These numbers tell a very different story, one of an open and free society in tiny, embattled Israel. A society that is free to all its inhabitants. A country that is under siege by a hostile world 400 times its size in terms of landmass, and with a population 30 times the size of its own. Yet despite this, Israel ensures equal rights to its Arab population. Even though Israelis might with some validity fear their own Arab population as at least a potential ‘fifth column,’ they trust in their democratic principals to extend full rights of citizenship to their Arab residents.

This is why the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, received such a warm and resounding welcome this week when he addressed a joint session of the US Congress. The sense that this tiny, embattled country represents our counterpart in its part of the world, our one true partner in bringing stable democracy to a bad ‘neighborhood’ of the world. The warmth for Netanyahu transcended party lines; both Democrat and Republican members of Congress gave him numerous standing ovations.

President Obama, in contrast, received Netanyahu in a decidedly frosty atmosphere last week; this after – some say – blindsiding him in his speech at the State Department the day before. One wonders why the Congress is so friendly and affirming toward the leader of the Jewish state, while our president is not very friendly at all. I’m not here today to present my thoughts on the matter, just to repeat others’ observations and leave the question up to you.

Israel by the numbers. It is easy to be left worrying by some of the numbers, and we should worry. Some of the numbers just make one proud. We should be proud.