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It’s All about Demography

By Jason Christopher Damouni

As the world continues to witness endless destruction in Gaza, it is more crucial today than ever before to understand the root of the conflict – demography. In particular, as Palestinian Australians, perhaps we have an even greater obligation to raise awareness about this humanitarian catastrophe. This is because Australia participated in the frequently referenced Battle of Beersheba (1917) which helped the British Empire wrest control of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. Two days later came the Balfour Declaration which meant that life for Palestinians would never be the same.

In reality, it’s not military confrontations that drive the conflict. Rather, it’s the conflict that drives the military confrontations. If underlying political disputes are left unresolved for too long, things tend to culminate in what the world has witnessed over the past six months.

This conflict emerged out of the desire of an overseas-born population (minority) to build a country on a geographically remote territory that couldn’t have been established without causing continued disadvantage to the native-born population (majority).

When Jewish people living in Europe began migrating to historical Palestine in 1882, the local Jewish population accounted for less than 8 percent of the total. This ratio remained constant over the coming decades until the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

The Nakba, 1948.

The term “Jewish state” gets thrown around a lot and people might think, what’s wrong with the idea of a Jewish state? After all, there is a French state, and a Chinese state, so why shouldn’t there be a Jewish state? And in theory, their reasoning would be perfectly valid. The issue is that one cannot build a so-called Jewish state without a Jewish demographic majority because the demographics of a state are what determine the symbols, customs, and ceremonies represented in the official state branding and institutions.

Imposing such an institutional framework on a non-Jewish majority that makes up 92 percent of the population would have been impractical, unsustainable, and, dare one say, outright immoral. Not because that majority despised Jewish people but because it was the majority, period. Those non-Jewish people living on that specific land had their own symbols, customs, and ceremonies. They were Levantine-Arabic speakers who were diverse but who saw each other as Palestinian Arabs who were beginning to form a national consciousness and identity of their own.

This article highlights the critical role of demography in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, emphasizing the historical context and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It points to Australia’s involvement in the events leading to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which significantly altered the lives of Palestinians by setting the stage for the establishment of a Jewish state in a predominantly non-Jewish territory. The piece argues that military confrontations are merely symptoms of deeper political disputes rooted in the demographic engineering necessary for creating a Jewish majority. By examining historical attempts to alter the region’s demographic makeup, the article calls for greater awareness and reevaluating the conflict’s fundamental causes, advocating for a solution that acknowledges and addresses these core issues to achieve lasting peace.

For a Jewish state to be built on that land, it necessitated not only a mass influx of Jewish arrivals but also a mass exodus of the native-born Levantine Arabs to achieve a Jewish demographic majority required for a Jewish state. This is why proposals, dating back to 1895, to transfer the Palestinian Arabs into Jordan next door, among other destinations, was always an attractive thought in the Jewish nationalist imagination. Rabbi Chaim Simons has written a book about this called International Proposals to Transfer Arabs from Palestine, 1895–1947: A Historical Survey, where he documents proposals to transfer Palestinians out of the land. In the early days, the defining question for Palestinian Arab leaders and scholars was to determine how to respond to this Jewish nationalist project.

There is no denying that Jewish people had a presence in ancient times on this land, which to them was Judea and which is now called Israel. Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike are required through Biblical and Qur’anic mandates to acknowledge that Prophet Moses (Musa) led the ancient Israelites out of Egypt from Pharaonic bondage, that Joshua (Yusha) led them into the Holy Land, that Kings David (Dawood) and Solomon (Suleiman) established a Kingdom in Jerusalem (Al-Quds) and built a noble sanctuary there.

We too often hear from propagandists that Palestinians are allegedly “denying” Jewish history and their connection to the land. The previous paragraph shows that the reality is very different. We are obliged to recognize all this Israelite history. Having a historical connection alone doesn’t automatically imply that one group of people asserts its ascendency on a piece of territory at the expense of the other.

For the sake of comparison, nobody would dispute that Zoroastrians from India originated in ancient Persia, now Iran – a Shi’ite Islamic nation with a Muslim majority population and Muslim rule. If Zoroastrians in India were to start a movement to establish a Zoroastrian state in Iran based on this ancient claim and to resettle the area through a mass influx of Zoroastrian migrants, that would naturally cause a few issues with the local Shi’ite Muslims who today call Iran home.

Societies have changed their characters rather frequently throughout history. Britain, which is now a Christian Anglican country, was once entirely a pagan one. If there were a group of people today who saw themselves as descendants of the ancient Celtic Druids and wanted to turn modern Britain into a Druid pagan nation again, that too would cause a few issues.

Would all this mean that modern Shi’ite Iranians are inherently anti-Zoroastrian? Or that modern Anglican Brits are inherently anti-Celtic? Or could we just accept that perhaps majority communities have a right to ensure their self-preservation on the land they already inhabit?

Around the world, we see democracies with representative governments and elected leaders that enable their citizens to participate in key decisions, choosing to open their borders and allow migrants to come in when it suits them, and later choosing to limit migration when it suits them.

We see plenty of populist movements across the European Union where mass migration has been at the center of heated political debates in recent decades. We note in these instances the strongly held sentiment that mass migration must be curtailed for countries like Poland, Hungary, Germany, France, or Britain to be preserved as they are.

Countless critics in these nations openly say they have nothing personal against Muslims, but they would rather their cities not turn into Damascus or Baghdad. Britain took this approach in 2016 when the majority of its population voted for what was then known as the Brexit campaign, to allow Britain to opt out of the European Union and choose an independent migration policy.

It is evident through these examples that democracies around the world become both pro-migration as well as anti-migration depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves. In each case, the common factor at play is public opinion. The citizens of these nations aren’t treated like statistics on a database. They are treated as real people with minds of their own that deserve to have a say on immigration policy. Isn’t that the entire point of democracy? Something Western nations are very good at preaching.

The Balfour Declaration, 1917.

Yet Palestinians in 1917 were afforded no such luxuries. The decision to impose a Jewish homeland on us was made by outsiders with zero consultation with the locals. This might explain why Sir Arthur Balfour didn’t put the question of statehood to a referendum in 1917. He simply made an executive decision and then wrote a letter announcing it to Lord Rothschild, as if his will took priority over 92 percent of the non-Jewish inhabitants of historical Palestine.

And it’s not as if referendums weren’t used in those days. Recall that Australia held two referendums in that exact same period. Australian troops had committed to serving in World War I (1914–18) at the behest of the British Empire and additional soldiers were needed, but there was a very poor voluntary response. So, the government held a first referendum on bringing in military conscription on October 28, 1916 and November 20, 1917. Both these referendums were resoundingly defeated.

Najib Nassar was a Palestinian journalist, owner-editor of the Palestinian weekly newspaper Al-Karmil.

If the Australian government couldn’t justify making such an executive decision  to require the public to enlist for military service without public approval, why should the British government in historical Palestine have had the authority to just declare that they would help establish a Jewish homeland there without putting this question to the public?

Palestinians in those days were more literate than typically presumed to be. Palestine had scholars, poets, and an established press which lies at the root of our national identity. By 1908, we had established Al-Karmil newspaper, and by 1911, the Falastin newspaper. Both were founded by Palestinian Christians and dedicated to spreading awareness about the need to preserve Palestinian society as it was, which is really no different from modern-day Shi’ite Iranians wanting to preserve Iran as it is, rather than allowing it to become Zoroastrian again. And also, not dissimilar from the Brits that voted for Brexit in 2016.

Historical Palestine was a Levantine Arabic-speaking cosmopolitan society made up of Melkites, Maronites, Orthodox, Circassians, Armenians, Druze, Alawites, Shi’ites, Sunnis, and of course local Sephardic Jews who had a local chief rabbinate, their own ecclesiastical courts, and community institutions.

Everyone, for the most part, lived peaceably side-by-side as neighbors. The rapid influx of mass migrants of European and Russian Jewish descent disrupted the organic makeup of Palestinian society. If an independent state had been declared in historical Palestine in 1917, such a state would have ended up being a case of minority rule. It would have been unrepresentative and dysfunctional.

This desire to become the demographic majority of the population is what has led to the current circumstances. Each aspect of this conflict can only be understood through this lens. For instance, the Nakba happened in 1948 because the goal was to have more Jews on the land and fewer non-Jews. The victims of the Nakba were later denied their right of return because if those 700,000 displaced Palestinians had shown up in what became the State of Israel, it would have meant more non-Jews than Jews on the land.

When Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it could have annexed those territories, included all of its local inhabitants in its population census, and offered them full citizenship with the right to vote. After all, Israel already had Israeli Arabs living inside the State of Israel, so why not give every Palestinian from the West Bank and Gaza the right to become an “Israeli Arab”? But that wasn’t an option because there would have been too many non-Jews in a country that defined itself as a Jewish state. Instead, Israel began building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. We find that at every stage of this conflict, the question of demography lies at the center.

Demography Is Politics.

Those who support the project of a Jewish state never miss an opportunity to remind the world that “Palestine was never a country” and “There is no such thing as Palestinians” and “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” It would be more honest to admit that the root cause of this extended conflict is this unreasonable expectation that native-born Palestinians should have just sat back and surrendered their national rights to entertain the desire of an overseas-born Jewish diaspora to resettle itself on land inhabited by our parents and grandparents.

Even after three-quarters of a century, a Jewish demographic majority between the river and the sea has still not been achieved. So instead of constantly blaming the victims, it’s time the world realizes that demography is the root cause of the conflict. Only in addressing this root cause can we be in a position to conceptualize a solution that achieves both justice and lasting peace.

  • Jason Christopher Damouni is a Palestinian Christian who currently resides in Perth. He was born in New York, but his family comes from the village of Al-Damoun, a small Christian village between Nazareth and Haifa. Jason is a sub-deacon in his local Melkite Catholic Church in Perth, the chair of the Palestinian Community of Western Australia, and the communications director of Palestinian Christians in Australia.

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