Being in Egypt: When Jews Were a Demographic Time Bomb

From the Haggadah:

And they did us evil, those Egyptians. They made us seem malevolent, as it is written: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel has become too many and too massive for us. Let us find a solution for this before they further multiply.

Two points. First, the evil that the Egyptians did to the Jews was to construe them as malevolent, as wicked. Second, their wickedness consisted in becoming a massive nation within a nation. The Egyptians understood the wickedness of the Jews, in other words, by virtue of the demographic challenge they posed to the Egyptian nation.

I’m not big on readings of the Haggadah that seek to extract contemporary political instruction from the text. Often those sorts of exercises seem more facile than fertile. But it’s hard for me not to see a kind of parable of contemporary Israel/Palestine in this passage.

Where a generation ago the Palestinians were construed as wicked primarily in terms of the terrorism they were supposed to threaten Israel with, nowadays the threat is understood to be almost entirely demographic. Even if every Palestinian were to lay down his or her arms, their mere existence as a people within the borders of Israel is understood to be a malignant growth within the nation. Actually, according to Wikipedia, that understanding of the demographic threat has always been there; it just has become more prominent in recent years, perhaps because of the cessation of most forms of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This understanding of the demographic time bomb—itself a revealing phrase—is something that unites Zionists of all stripes. A few years ago, writing in Commentary, Michael Oren identified “the Arab demographic threat” as one of “seven existential threats” facing Israel.


Estimates of the Arab growth rate, both within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, vary widely. A maximalist school holds that the Palestinian population on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines is expanding far more rapidly than the Jewish sector and will surpass it in less than a decade. Countering this claim, a minimalist school insists that the Arab birthrate in Israel is declining and that the population of the territories, because of emigration, is also shrinking.

Even if the minimalist interpretation is largely correct, it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population—one-quarter of the population under age 19–and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs.

Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.

Ideally, the remedy for this dilemma lies in separate states for Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The basic conditions for such a solution, however, are unrealizable for the foreseeable future. The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops—the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judaea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.

Notice the stress Oren puts on “ideally”—even he thinks a two-state solution to the “demographic threat” isn’t likely— and the challenge he sees in removing the settlers from the West Bank (and the small numbers of settlers he mentions).

Now here’s the more liberal Peter Beinart speaking recently at Columbia:

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

And it is because of my fear of that that I write much of what I do on this very subject.

Beinart’s more optimistic, I think, about the prospects of a two-state solution. But the same understanding of a demographic time bomb is there.


  1. John Maher April 13, 2014 at 9:50 am | #

    The concept of excluding others from de facto legal personhood to a condition of Amagmben’s ‘bare life’ is a valuable means for keeping others as ‘exceptional’. I say that whatever the injustices of Israeli exceptionalism and exclusion and thus oppression of Palestinians, growing human populations of anyone will result in a hastened collapse of the ecosytem and should be outlawed. Breeding for political and goals must stop in both the middle east along with political and social exclusion. For me the greater problem is not whose recipe for harissa sauce goes on the falafel but a combined total human population demanding too many falafels.

  2. fosforos17 April 13, 2014 at 10:28 am | #

    But the Bibli9cal claim is flat-out impossible in its own terms.. The number of Israelites that came into Egypt to escape famine is given as seventy. Moses (son of Amran-son of Kohath-son of Levi)_belongs to the third generation of those born in Egypt, and at the time the supposedly “massive” Israelite population required exactly two midwives. The redactors of Exodus “solved” the need to extend three generstions into a four-hundred-year span by giving absurdly long lifespans to Kohath, Amran, et; al., but they (as good masculists) forgot to invent additional midwives. So why did such a great number flee Egypt? Exodus admits that with the Israelites it was a great “mixed multitude” that fled the catastrophe-stricken land of the Nile. This, I submit, is the only logical way to read the demographic information in Exodus. And the conclusion is striking: we Jews are originally Egyptians and the “slavery” we escaped was not that of the Israelites but that undergone by all the common people of Egypt–and Genesis is explicit thst it was Joseph who was instrumental in imposing that condition on the Egyptians!

  3. billmon April 13, 2014 at 10:54 am | #

    This is why liberal Zionists will never, ever give up their lip service to a “two-state solution” — not matter how ridiculous Israeli settlement policies make the very idea. Without it, they (per Beinart above) would have to accept the end of apartheid, and that they will never do.

  4. BillR April 13, 2014 at 11:35 am | #

    A talk given by Max Blumenthal last Tuesday about someone who has trouble sleeping at night at the thought of Palestinian babies born that night.

    As with just about all facets of Israeli racism, it’s no good blaming the right wing bigots as everything they call for had already been experienced or implemented by the more level-headed “Labor” Zionists:

    The Palestinians’ birth-rate was so much higher than the Jews’ that her sleep was often disturbed, she would say, at the thought of how many Arab babies had been born in the night.

    That was Prime Minister Golda Meir.

    • bencohen821 April 13, 2014 at 3:57 pm | #

      And what did she do about it? She gave this “demographic threat” equal rights, and access to generous social programs, despite the fact that they largely did not serve in the military or identify with the state.

  5. bencohen821 April 13, 2014 at 3:55 pm | #

    Israelis and Palestinians have very different ideas about how the state should be run. Wanting to live under a government that reflects your values and beliefs isn’t evil.

    The present era has witnessed the birth of many new states; political entities that did a better job of providing their citizens with the governments they wanted. The Czech’s and Slovaks went their own ways. South Sudan and Sudan separated. East Timor became independent. Instead of remaining in unhappy marriages, different peoples have agreed to live and let live. I see this as an expansion of human freedom, authoritarians such as Corey Robin see it differently.

    The unavoidable result of merging Israel into an Arab state would be to reduce the Jews to a state of dhimmitude, the same position as Copts in Egypt. Given that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinians a state, and they have refused, it requires a seriously warped morality to support the Palestinians.

    • BillR April 13, 2014 at 7:01 pm | #

      These are standard talking points of Islamophobic merchants of hate whose star seems to be waning lately ( ).

      A sane take from the Israeli dissident, Uri Avnery on how Jews have historically fared as minorities in Islamicate societies:

      • bencohen821 April 13, 2014 at 8:52 pm | #

        Calling something Islamophobic is not an argument, just like calling something racist isn’t an argument.

        Do non-muslims have equal rights in Muslim societies? No. Would any reasonable person accept second class citizenship? No. Why should Israel accept an agreement that leaves them as a minority?

    • Arker April 22, 2014 at 7:28 pm | #

      “Given that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinians a state, and they have refused, it requires a seriously warped morality to support the Palestinians.”

      Given nonsense, nonsense is the result.

      In fact no such offer has ever been on the table, and the current Israeli government has made clear it is no more willing than any previous one to countenance a viable Palestinian state. It requires a seriously warped morality to justify ethnic cleansing, period.

      • bencohen821 May 17, 2014 at 3:40 pm | #

        *sign* This is just ignorance on your part; everyone is entitled to their own facts, not their own opinions. Both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians a state, in 2000 and 2008 respectively.

        Now the far right in Israel does want to annex the entirety of the West Bank, which would effectively make the West Bank Palestinians Israeli citizens. Importantly this annexation would not include Gaza, or a right to return for Palestinians leaving in other countries. While I don’t agree with this position is it really such a bad outcome? It would certainly be preferable to the “one state” outcome proposed by many in the BDS movement.

        With that being said, I don’t think you have much to worry about. The Israeli public and government is still committed to the two state paradigm, much to the chagrin of people on the far right. What they won’t agree to is two states at any cost, it has to be two states on their terms; meaning, no right to return, a demilitarized west bank, control over the Jordan Valley, and concessions in and around East Jerusalem.

        If the Palestinians were willing to accept peace along the lines acceptable to Netanyahu they could have a state.


  6. Mary Hughes Thompson April 13, 2014 at 10:51 pm | #

    Why then do you believe Palestinians should accept an agreement that leaves them as a minority? Palestinian Israelis have been forced to accept second-class citizenship. And Palestinians on their own land are denied even basic human rights, including the right to see their children grow up.

    • bencohen821 April 13, 2014 at 11:38 pm | #

      I think given the circumstances, Israel has displayed extraordinary tolerance toward their Palestinian minority. There are some issues involving family re-unification, marriage, segregation, that need to be hashed out once the conflict ends, but these are extremely minor.

      After all the Arab Israelis have revealed their satisfaction with their situation by choosing citizenship in Israel instead of in a future Palestinian state when given the chance.

  7. mariapalestina April 13, 2014 at 10:52 pm | #

    My comment was a reply to BenCohen 821

  8. Aaron Gross April 13, 2014 at 11:53 pm | #

    Corey Robin seems to be missing the implication of the Schmittian distinction between a political enemy and a “wicked” or “malevolent” foe. Look how easily he switches from moral foe (“wicked”) to political enemy (“threat”): “Where a generation ago the Palestinians were construed as wicked primarily in terms of the terrorism they were supposed to threaten Israel with, nowadays the threat is understood to be almost entirely demographic.”

    In fact, Israelis distinguish between the political and the moral much better than that. It’s very unusual to hear malevolence or wickedness ascribed to the Palestinian demographic threat to Israel. (Yes, you can find examples, but they’re exceptional.)

    The fact is that the Palestinians are a demographic threat to Israel, just as Israel was a demographic threat to Egypt in the Bible story. On one side, Israel has an obligation to remember that the metaphorical “time bomb” comprises real, live human beings; Israel often falls short of that duty. On the other side, Jews in Israel/Palestine have an obligation to remember that a growing population of Arabs really is a threat to their political existence, even if those people are not malevolent. That’s obviously the case in a Jewish state, but it would also be the case even in a one-state arrangement.

    • Stig Ramirez April 14, 2014 at 8:42 am | #

      I think it’s been noted before, and it warrants repeating, that Corey Robin cannot read Hebrew or Arabic and has never even travelled in Israel–much less lived there. He is a perceptive critic of right-wing American and Anglo-American thought, but he does little more than project this onto the exotic stage of Israel. His lack of contextual subtlety is frustrating.

      • Corey Robin April 14, 2014 at 9:18 am | #

        Except for the fact that I did in fact once travel to Israel when I was much younger, most of this is true. I’ll also note that I’ve never traveled to or lived in 17th century England or 18th eighteenth century France, about both of which I’ve also written extensively, though no one’s ever complained about that.

      • BillR April 15, 2014 at 1:22 am | #

        The ironic thing is that if someone understood Israeli Hebrew well–and not just the language, but the code words and Orwellian phraseology–that person would arrive at a much darker picture of Israeli society than, say, someone like Max Blumenthal who only managed to grasp a few snatches and words. The “Heart of Darkness” that beats there is straight out of 19’th century Conrad. There are several ex-Israelis at mondoweiss who sometimes give a glimpse of the groupthink produced by the Israeli educational/brainwashing system. Here’s danaa:

        To listen to the voices on israeli facebooks baying for Syrian and iranian blood is to lose your faith in humanity (but you have to read hebrew to get the full extent of it. It is beyond bad…).

        Here is Shmuel:

        How about (in reference to Arabs in general): “It is forbidden to show them mercy, they should be given some terrific missiles (tilim al hakef kefak), wiped out (lehashmid otam), these cursed, wicked [people].”

        It’s a real Jonestown-like cult mentality and one only hopes that there were several hundred more active psychotherapists like Avigail Abarbanel who could deprogram these people and integrate them into a world where they are not bedeviled by Hieronymus Bosch-like visions on a regular basis.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant April 16, 2014 at 3:10 pm | #

        I, too, have never been to Israel nor do I speak/write Hebrew. I don’t speak/write Arabic, either.

        But I don’t need to. The Israeli government and its hasbara-ista defenders do us ‘Muricans the right good favor of making clear its policies in English, and they do so with the help of the ‘Murican press and our AIPACed ‘Murican political class. And this is before we get the opportunity to hear from English speaking non-Israeli survivors (Palestinians) of the continued occupation, and the English speaking journalists and documentarians who also bring us their stories.

  9. jonnybutter April 14, 2014 at 1:46 pm | #
    • bencohen821 May 17, 2014 at 3:46 pm | #

      I think the circumstances that confronted Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weizmann were a bit different than the circumstances that confronted Frazier Glenn Miller.

  10. BillR April 15, 2014 at 1:33 am | #

    Corrected link to Shmuel’s posts:

    and, of course, the memorable essay by Gabriel Ash on the famed Israeli historian Benny Morris given to “paint[ing] apocalyptic visions with a smile on his lips” ( ):

    Morris, a respectable, Jewish, Israeli academic, is out in print in the respectable daily, Haaretz, justifying genocide as a legitimate tool of statecraft. It should be shocking. Yet anybody who interacts with American and Israeli Zionists knows that Morris is merely saying for the record what many think and even say unofficially. Morris, like most of Israel, lives in a temporality apart, an intellectual Galapagos Islands, a political Jurassic Park, where bizarre cousins of ideas elsewhere shamed into extinction still roam the mindscape proudly.

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