Differential demographic growth in multinational states: Israel's two-front war.

Author:Toft, Monica Duffy

"[In] Israel, a parliamentary democracy, Ultra-Orthodox Jews--who rarely work, pay no taxes and do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)--are bearing children at afar higher rate than all other groups combined.... [O]ver time this process of high reproduction and abstention from military service may threaten Israel's survival from within."

Imagine a fortress under siege. Imagine further, that within this fortress reside groups and factions with different visions of how to defend the fortress against those who seek to breach its walls and slay its inhabitants. One group believes that prayer and meditation is the way to proceed, while most other groups believe that only by force of arms and skilful management of resources can the fortress remain secure. Fortress leadership is based on the principle of majority rule, where the largest group has the biggest say; though all parties have at least some representation. Yet as the siege lengthens from years into decades, the prayer group is growing in numbers while the defense-by-force group dwindles. The prayer group gains control of education and insists that young people be taught to pray and meditate rather than to fight. A breach in a thinly defended section of the wall prompts a fierce debate. Some minority factions call for a change in the structure of leadership that will allow them to recruit defenders from all able-bodied inhabitants--by force if necessary. Others insist the risk of destruction is preferable to abandoning their democratic traditions. As they argue, the prayer group's members are consuming a larger share of the fort's resources even as the number of its defenders dwindles. Eventually, there may be no one left to defend the walls.

This is a fictional and one might say unlikely story, but in many ways it resonates with the current situation of the state of Israel today. Israelis have always felt as though they lived within a fortress under siege--surrounded and at times actively attacked by hostile and more populous Arab states. And within Israel, a parliamentary democracy, Ultra-Orthodox Jews--who rarely work, pay no taxes and do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)--are bearing children at a far higher rate than all other groups combined. These children overwhelmingly become Orthodox Jews in turn, and over time this process of high reproduction and abstention from military service may threaten Israel's survival from within.

To explore the concept of the demographic disintegration of states, it is useful to begin with an overview of the interaction between the structure of government and differential population growth, as well as how diaspora issues affect local and regional politics. An introduction to and a comparison of Belgian, Yugoslav (Serb), and Israeli efforts to overcome the threat of demographic disintegration follow. Finally, it is possible to summarize lessons to be learned by Israel in its own struggles to survive in its current geopolitical context.


Because there are thousands of nations and ethnic groups, but fewer than two hundred sovereign states worldwide, multinational states are the norm and ethnically homogeneous states are rare. This means that in almost any given state, two or more distinct peoples--with a distinct language, ethnicity, religious practice or territorial identification--reside side by side. (1) Most often these groups live together in peace, arguing about the distribution of this or that value but tacitly agreeing to resolve their differences within the framework of the state's governmental system.

But when that state's governmental system is based on the democratic principle--the principle that the majority rules--the differential population growth of groups within a state can have dramatic political consequences. In the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, for example, young African-American women were reproducing at a rate far in excess of other ethnic groups, including Hispanic-Americans. (2) Conservatives argued that this was due to misguided welfare policies that gave increased benefits to mothers on welfare with multiple children. Liberals argued that the increased benefits were specifically targeted to help these children get the nutrition and education they needed to become responsible citizens. Yet many African Americans came to view bipartisan attempts at welfare reform in the 1990s as a form of genocide. They reasoned that in a democracy, more African-Americans would constitute an eventual threat to white rule and dominance, and by that logic, efforts to curb African-American population growth amounted to a deliberate and politically motivated threat.

In the state of California, these matters have actually come to a head. In the 1990s the voters of California passed a series of referenda reversing decades-long practices such as the provision of health care and education resources to the children of illegal (mostly Hispanic) immigrants (reversed in Proposition 187 in 1994) and affirmative action programs in the state's hiring and university selection processes (reversed in Proposition 209 in 1996). But Hispanic-Americans perceived these referenda as a direct insult and a targeted threat against them. (3) Because they now constitute a majority of the state's population, the backlash against these "anti-Hispanic" referenda has been striking and far reaching. Regardless of the eventual outcome in terms of the distribution of resources and benefits in California, many non-Hispanics have been leaving and continue to leave California, (4) thus accelerating the process by which Hispanic-Americans in California gain increased control of the state's government and economy.

There is of course a long history of multinational states attempting to tinker with the relative population growth rates of their citizens. Even states without democratic systems of government--such as the Peoples Republic of China--have engineered dramatic policies aimed at altering the demographic composition of their states. In the 1930s and well into World War II, the Nazis promoted the birth of ethnic Germans, even minting a medal for German women who bore more than fifteen children. But for the most part, authoritarian regimes have had less to worry about from differential population growth of component ethnic groups because until recently such growth had no necessary political consequences, especially for large and powerful states.

But demographic difference can matter in another way that has to do with regime change from authoritarian to democratic. If a multinational authoritarian state in which there is a numerical gap between groups suddenly becomes democratic, the distribution of power should shift to favor the majority group at the expense of minority groups. Thus, instability or even violence may be an unintended consequence of the ongoing process of democratization so strongly fostered by the European Union, the United States and Japan, who control most of the world's trade. This means that for the foreseeable future differential growth rates and political liberalization will have considerable political consequences, especially for small states and especially surrounding the issue of diasporas.

Demographics, Diaspora and International Intervention

It is an unfortunate artifact of wars between states that the resolution of such wars often creates states whose boundaries either split national and ethnic groups or disperse them to other states. World Wars I and II, for example, dramatically altered the maps of Europe and divided or dispersed Germans, Jews, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Albanians and hundreds of other nationalities. When a dispersed group grows in proportion to its fellow nationalities in a new state, it may gain enough influence to cause that state to pressure a neighboring state about the treatment of fellow nationals within that state. In this way interstate tensions over differential demographic growth may increase the likelihood of interstate war.

In other situations, a state's efforts to resolve its own differential demographic growth problems may spark international intervention--including trade sanctions and even military action. This is what happened to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in its attempt to resolve its Kosovar Albanian "problem" by military action that amounted to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1948 and 1949.

Although the consequences of differential demographic growth are generally more severe for states whose governments are based on the principle of majority rule, they may strongly affect authoritarian states as well. Differential demographic growth may be an underestimated cause of civil wars as well as interstate wars. It is therefore a subject worthy of further study.


Under what conditions does differential demographic growth lead to the destabilization of multinational states? The logic of demographic disintegration is simple. Among a government's many other functions, few are as important as the control of the distribution of valued resources within a state (offices, employment, money, security). In many multinational states, the principles of distribution have little to do with race or ethnicity or nationality and are therefore unlikely to serve as the basis of a conflict that could escalate to violence. Such states are also less likely to be destabilized by differential population growth. But in states where there is some correlation between the distribution of benefits and group identity, differential population growth can be a major source of conflict, and a source with a potential to escalate to violence including terrorism and civil and interstate war.

Hypotheses on Demographic Disintegration

Four main variables explain the likelihood that differential demographic growth will lead to violence. First, there is the regime type of the state itself, which for simplicity's sake can be...

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