And the angel of the Lord said to [Hagar], “I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count…Behold you are with child and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has paid heed to your suffering.  He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him.  He shall dwell alongside all his kinsmen.”
-Genesis 16:10-12

In discussions of the definitions of a Jewish state, one assumption that is generally taken for granted is that a majority of the population needs to be Jewish; and conversely, if the percentage of Jews falls below 50%, the state will, sooner or later cease to be “Jewish,” as the majority will change the definition to something else.  Of course, this assumption leaves open a difficult question: who is a Jew for purposes of calculating this percentage.  In any case, assuming that a reasonable consensus can be reached on this, a question I am asked frequently by visiting groups, and that figures in various policy discussions and political debates, is: What shall we do about the rapid growth of the Arab population relative to that of the Jews?  Are we not simply going to be submerged by a sea of Arab babies while we hew to middle-class standards of two kids and two cars? Galilee Diary: Demography/demagoguery

From my observations and conversations with Arab teens and students and educators in the Galilee, my answer to the question “What can we do about the ‘demographic threat?’” is simple: college scholarships.  It is clear that as the Arab population becomes more attuned to middle class aspirations, their value system changes: If you are a farmer, having ten children is useful.  If you want your children to be doctors and lawyers, having ten children is a big problem, even though Israeli college tuition is only a small fraction of that in the US (about $3,000 per year [!]).  All the young Arabs I know, who may have anywhere from four to 16 siblings, are planning on families of 2-3 children.  At this point, the highest birth rate in Israel is among the Ultra-Orthodox.  The Christian Arab birth rate is below that of the Jews in general, and the Muslim rate is falling toward the Jewish rate year by year, as the population modernizes.

It therefore seems to me that wise policy would be to invest in the educational and economic integration of the Arabs, not only for demographic reasons, but for moral and economic and democratic ones.  However, Israeli Arab young people face several obstacles on the path to such integration: a) In a number of popular fields, the Israeli universities impose a minimum age requirement; since most Arabs don’t do army service, they are ready for college at 18, but have to mark time until they are 21 to be accepted;  b) because schools are partly funded by local municipalities, and the Arab municipalities are at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, the schools have fewer resources; and, in addition, the psychometric exams are culturally biased, resulting in generally lower scores for the Arabs.  Thus, many Arabs find themselves excluded from Israeli post-secondary educational options.  Before the fall of communism, many got scholarships to Eastern European universities; since then, they have to pay their own way.  Jordanian universities are another option, relatively accessible, but very expensive.  King Abdullah distributes scholarships through various Arab political parties in Israel, but these are relatively few.  In a recent conversation with an Arab high school principal, I learned of a new option that has become popular: The universities in the West Bank, in Jenin and Nablus.  He did a little survey for me: Of 30 college-bound kids who graduated this year and are already starting college this fall, ten are at Israeli universities and colleges, nine in Europe, two in Jordan, and nine in the West Bank.

Somehow, it seems to me not in Israel’s interest to have its Arab citizens getting their higher education in the Palestine Authority – or funded by scholarships granted by Arab nationalist parties.  Fear-mongering about the “demographic threat” may have its political and fundraising uses, but doing something constructive about it would not be all that difficult, and would make this a better place to live for all of us.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!