A Dose of Nuance: What we don’t know and what we do

The story that we tell of Herzl, Nordau, Bialik, Alterman, Ben-Gurion, Rabin, Golda and the like is no longer most Israeli most Israelis’ narrative.

November 3, 2016 18:30

Then-Prime Minister David Ben- Gurion (center) watches the plane coming in carrying Theodor Herzl’s coffin at Lod airport, on August 16, 1949. (photo credit: DIAMOND SAM/GPO)


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It is around this just-ended season of holidays that the Israeli press often takes note of what’s changed in the last year. What were the major accomplishments? Who passed away? And invariably, in a country in which immigration was a key issue of conflict with the British under the Mandate, was one of the Jewish state’s founding miracles and where population size does matter, the beginning of the new year entails a look at Israel’s demographic picture.

The numbers are sometimes literally hard to believe. In 1918, when World War I ended, there were approximately 60,000 Jews living in Palestine. By 1948, just 30 years later, that figure had swelled to more than 10 times the original number and stood at some 717,000.

Just three years ago, Israel’s population had grown 10-fold since independence in 1948.

Among Israel’s many breathtaking accomplishments, population ranks high.

The fledging state’s ability to absorb millions of immigrants was, relative to its size, unmatched by any other country.

Israel’s birthrate today, which even among educated Jews (among whom one might expect to be low) is higher than that of the US or any other European country, is also astonishing.

Particularly after the Shoah, Jews believe that numbers matter. There are many fewer Jews in the world than there were right before the Shoah, and many, many fewer than there would have been had the Nazis and their collaborators not been as successful as they were in eradicating a third of the world’s Jews. It is quite understandable that we tend to celebrate good demographic news.

Our preference for positive population statistics may explain why the English- language press has given very little attention to the most recent study made public by Israel’s leading demographer, Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University. DellaPergola has long pointed out that even the postwar growth in Jewish population is a mixed story. Yes, Jewish population is growing. However, he notes, after the war, the world’s Jewish population increased by a million within 13 years. Adding the next million, however, took 40 years. There was growth, but it was slowing.

Now, says Prof. DellaPergola, when one factors together the lower Jewish birthrates outside Israel with assimilation and intermarriage, the picture is even less rosy. In fact, he says, the North American Jewish population is shrinking and, barring any dramatic shift, will continue to. The last Jew in North America, he predicts, will die in about 300 years.

Obviously, much can change in 300 years. Three centuries ago, it would have been impossible to predict a Jewish world that looks anything like ours. So it is a bit early for sackcloth and ashes.

What will be with North American Jewry, we really do not know.

Yet here is what we do know. We know that though in 1948 only 5% or 6% of the world’s Jews lived in Israel, today that figure is almost 45%. Israel is the world’s largest Jewish community, and growing. The United States, which is the world’s second largest Jewish community, is shrinking.

All of this matters for many reasons.

These figures have political, educational, policy and even military implications.

But as we embark on a new year during which we hope that some of last year’s vitriol between American Jews and Israelis might be diminished, these numbers also point to one of the causes of the tension. Israel, quite simply, has grown into a kind of national adulthood, and though it desperately needs the support, loyalty and political clout of American Jews, feels itself the center of the Jewish world in ways that it did not just a decade or two ago. American Judaism, on the other hand, feels a bit like the parent who struggles to watch a newly grown child leave the nest and make her or his own decisions. Even if it was inevitable, and even if it is healthy, the transition is still difficult – and painful.

Israel is a rapidly changing country.

Ashkenazim are no longer a majority.

The story that we tell of Herzl, Nordau, Bialik, Alterman, Ben-Gurion, Rabin, Golda and the like is no longer most Israelis’ narrative. If anything, they see that story as the story that was imposed on them, that often shunted them to the side.

And the changed demography is not only a matter of numbers. The secular Israeli working the fields of the kibbutz, the Srulik whom American Jews loved to coddle and to whom they loved to condescend, has virtually vanished. The kibbutzim are mostly gone. Relatively few Israelis work the fields. And Israelis are no longer so secular.

A new religiosity is emerging in Israel, in a form deeply troubling to much of North American Jewry. Some elements of this religiosity that are inspiring.

Others are worrisome, and some are downright offensive. But the neatly groomed, understated, increasingly egalitarian Judaism, colored by decorum and a kind of Protestant civility, is just not the Judaism emerging in Israel.

To be sure, many American Jews (like many Israelis, myself included) disagree with (either all or part of) Israel’s current settlement policy. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s medieval rejection of non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism understandably enrages many American Jews. Other policy issues are equally contentious.

But the root cause of our distress is deeper than policy. It is a matter of growing pains and shrinking pains. A country that is home to 45% of the world’s Jews will not behave the same way as a country that not long ago was home to 6% of the world’s Jews. A country that is a military, technological and demographic powerhouse never behaves like a country whose survival hangs by a thread.

That is not to suggest that the “new” Israel will always act wisely or ethically.

Sadly, it will not. But the changing and sometimes painful relationship between that new Israel and Jews worldwide is largely the result of Israel’s extraordinary success and flourishing. Whatever discomfort we may sometimes feel as a result of the divide, it would do us all well to recall that its greatest underlying cause is worthy of celebration.

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just published by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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