by Fred M. Gottheil
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2003, pp. 53-64
In deep antiquity, particularly in Egypt, the early civilization where the arts were most strongly developed, the visualization was aspective: that is the artist, working in paint or low-relief sculpture, conveyed to his two-dimensional surface not so much what he saw as what he knew was there.
- Paul Johnson, The Renaissance
Palestinian demography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has never been just a matter of numbers. It has always been—and consciously so—a front-line weapon used in a life-and-death struggle for nationhood among two peoples living in what used to be known as Palestine, each having competing ideologies and competing claims to territorial inheritance and rights to national sovereignty.
The problem with staking so much on so narrow a focus as past demography is that the data generated by demographers and others since the early nineteenth century are so lacking in precision that, in some matters of dispute concerning demography, "anyone's guess," as the saying goes, "is as good as any other." Or almost so. Of course, people still engaged in this high-stakes game of Palestinian demographic warfare will argue otherwise. With few exceptions, they insist that their own sources are superior, their own estimates more scientific, and their critics more ideological.
There are really two issues—or two battlefronts—associated with estimating Palestinian demography. The first has to do with sheer numbers, i.e., measuring over time the size of Palestine's total and subgroup populations. The second battlefront is considerably more contentious. It is estimating the percentages of population growth among subgroups attributed to natural increase and to immigration.
This immigration factor—or its absence—is paramount. If a significant percent of a population is composed of recent arrivals, then claims of historic tenancy are compromised. This explains why Arab Palestinians and others use the term "intruder" to describe the Jewish population of Palestine. The importance of Jewish immigration to the Jewish population of Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is undisputed. But Jewish claims to territorial inheritance and to national sovereignty lay elsewhere, in history rather than demography.
On the other hand, for Arab Palestinians, the character of their demography is at the heart of their claim to territorial inheritance and national sovereignty. Their contention, seen by them as being beyond dispute, is that Arab Palestinians have deep and timeless roots in that geography and that their own immigration into that geography has at no time been consequential. To challenge that contention, then, is to challenge their self-selected criterion for sovereignty.
That is to say, the character of Arab Palestinian demography is the single most important piece of evidence supporting the Arab Palestinian claim to territorial inheritance and national sovereignty. The Arab Palestinian population—large or small, growing or not—is determined, they insist, strictly by birth and death rates among Arab Palestinians in Palestine, that is, by natural increase alone. This view of their population origin is associated with their still more insular view of "spatial stickiness," that is, their insistence as well that Arabs have not only been disinclined to migrate out of or into Palestine but also that Arab Palestinians have been disinclined to move from one region to another within Palestine.
Before examining these contentions and the competing Arab Palestinian population estimates offered by scholars in a variety of disciplines, e.g., economics, sociology, demography, and history, it may be useful to speculate on what anyone looking at late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Palestinian demography should expect to discover.
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Many demagogues on this forum are trying to re-write history. It's time to fight back.