Distinctions between Jews and gentiles are no longer as sharp as in previous generations, at least from a sociological point of view, according to Hebrew University demographer Prof. Sergio Della- Pergola.
While the difference between the two groups may remain keen from the perspective of the Orthodox community, such distinctions are becoming less and less clear from a nonreligious perspective, DellaPergola, who holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
He spoke ahead of a two-day seminar on the growth of the global Jewish community at the Van Leer Center in Jerusalem. This development can be clearly seen by way of the new phenomenon that the conference was called to discuss, that of the “hundreds of thousands around the world joining the Jewish people without conversion,” the professor said.
According to DellaPergola, there are anywhere from 12 million to 20 million Jews in the world today, depending on the criteria used to define Jewishness. Aside from the “very vast population of [those of] Jewish origin, background, affinity or even partly Jewish by their own declarations,” mostly in the United States, there are the descendants of Conversos, people purport to trace their lineage to the Lost Tribes and the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jews and who stand at the center of the conversion debate in Israel, he explained.
There are “two completely different and contradictory processes” at work in contemporary Jewry, DellaPergola said. One is the distancing from Judaism and the losing of “culture, substance, identity and relevance” that determines the “very high periphery of those who are partly Jewish or of Jewish background.”
On the other hand, he said, while in the past assimilation into a host society meant that one sheds one’s identity, “when you look at the characteristics of [such people today] in terms of their affiliation or interest or participation – the levels are very low – but the levels are not zero,” he said. It brings up “intriguing questions,” he said.
There are those who have assimilated into mainstream American culture who still affiliate with communal institutions and synagogues to some degree, and “some of them do fast on Yom Kippur and quite a few of them do participate in a seder on Passover,” he said.
"Assimilation is no longer always “a transition from something to nothing,” he said.
Several of the authors of last year’s Pew Research Center Study of American Jewry, shortly after its publication, wrote a blog post in which they asserted that “a rising percentage of the children of intermarriages are [identifying as] Jewish in adulthood.
“Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25 percent are Jewish today,” the Pew researchers wrote, contrasting this figure to 59% for single-Jewish- parent children under 30. “In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.”
DellaPergola said the rapid evolution of Jewish identity has brought about a debate between those who assert that a Jew is “someone who does something Jewish” and those who “would say a Jew is someone who says ‘I am Jewish.’” Doing something and declaring something “are today two different things, and so there is this inherent contradiction [in which] you will find the maximalists who will take on board anyone who has done at least something – has read The Jerusalem Post
at least one day in his life – and this is enough of a Jewish act to be considered Jewish, and the minimalists who would say the person has to be consistently Jewish in behavior and especially "in own identification” to be considered one of the tribe, he asserted.
“The sociology of the matter has become so interesting and so complicated that different authorities will, in terms of sociologists, say we have 6.8 million Jews in the United States and others will say there are one million fewer,” he explained.
Jewish identity today can be considered “a continuum” that is “very fluid and very flexible, and you will find that someone is inside on a given Thursday and he is outside on the following Wednesday,” DellaPergola averred. “This is particularly [the case in] North America and the United States.”
In terms of communal ramifications, this means that “there is no more consensus,” he continued.
Those who are more open in their definition of who is a Jew, are those organizations that have difficulties in surviving and therefore “tend to be more inclusive because they have a vested interest in showing that they are bigger and more worthwhile and therefore more legitimately claim funds and a share of power,” he said.
“Of course, you have the opposite voice which is the Orthodox rabbinate that tends to be much more restrictive and – perhaps because of the trend which I am outlining – the tendency has become to sharpen and make more difficult access to Judaism, and certainly we see this in the State of Israel, which is of course part of the general pattern.”
Much of Jewish self-definition and affiliation is dependent on outside pressures, and growing anti-Semitism in Europe, while driving some away, has brought others to a stronger sense of their identity, DellaPergola said.
Many of those who come back to Judaism, however defined, have non-Jewish spouses and children, whom they then begin to try to bring into the communal fold, he said.
“Inside identification of the Jewish collective is very much a function of what happens outside,” he explained.