Hitting home

The stats may be in Herzl's favor, but scoring against the Diaspora could be a Pyrrhic victory.

french aliya 298 (photo credit: )
french aliya 298
(photo credit: )
"If you build it, they will come." It was the God-like figure in the film Field of Dreams who uttered these words, and he was merely instructing lead actor Kevin Costner to plow under his crops and create a baseball park. But it worked for him, just as it worked for the Jews. The latter - inspired by Theodor Herzl's declaration that, "If you will it, it is no dream" - created a Jewish state from an arid scrap of land vacated 2,000 years earlier by their ancestors. It took more than a few steamer ships, clandestine treks, and, more recently, airplanes - not to mention a high birthrate and a lack of assimilation - but just a few days before Herzl's 150th birthday on May 2, the Jewish population in Israel edged past that of the United States. The government released statistics ahead of Independence Day showing that there is a slightly greater number of Jews in Israel (around 5.35 million, depending on whom is included) than there were Jews in America as of 2000. Demographers are predicting that an outright majority of Jews will reside in Israel in the next two to three decades. This historic event, this apparent triumph for Zionism, has been greeted with much fanfare. But many Jews - both those who observe from the sidelines and those who play the field - are calling it a meaningless win, like an exhibition trouncing after a World Series clinch. Others go so far as to suggest that it's a Pyrrhic victory. There are some enthusiastic boosters. Zeev Bielski, for one. The chairman of the Jewish Agency, Bielski's a man whose job description is to straddle the two worlds of the Diaspora and Israel. While the agency's official duty is to encourage aliya from the four corners of the earth, the chairman also has to spend a good part of his time in those corners rustling up funds both for immigration and absorption from Jews who have no intention of living here. Still, he makes no bones about applauding the demographic shift underway. "It's a miracle that happened to the Jewish people, that after hundreds of years of wandering all over, we have a Jewish state, and that the majority of our people are living in a Jewish state." "It's a victory for Herzl," he continues. "Years and years ago he thought of a Jewish state, and it's a dream that actually came true for all of the Jewish people." A.B. Yehoshua also seems to be on board. Speaking at a Washington gala to mark the 100th anniversary of the American Jewish Committee, he declared that only those who live in Israel can live genuinely Jewish lives, and that "Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel ... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all." He infuriated his audience and was later criticized within Israel as well, though he was espousing the classic - if much disavowed - Zionist line. Many of those who have chastised him, however, appear to have done so on grounds of tact - or tactlessness - rather than content. Bielski, for instance, says that Yehoshua "made a mistake." The error was that "instead of bringing people close to Israel, in a positive way, so that they want to be here, you tear them to pieces, because they're not one of us." Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri, who wrote the Making of Modern Zionism, also takes issue with the way Yehoshua packaged his message. But, he says, the author was "basically right in saying that Jewish life in the Diaspora, and even in the United States ... is a partial Jewish existence." While Jewishness plays a role in Diaspora Jews' private life, "public life is not determined by Jews and they don't have to make the tough decisions." He gives the admittedly extreme example of the way American Jewry and Israeli Jewry dealt with pre-Mandela South Africa. While both condemned apartheid, Jews in the US boycotted the country, while Israel dealt them arms. Israel, he explains, had to weigh moral aversion against existence. American Jews made a "moral statement, [but] not a moral act." Yet Avineri doesn't make much of the recent score when it comes to Jewish population masses. "I don't think the issue is one of figures. Israel succeeded to become a major Jewish population center, whether it's half a million more than the US or less doen't matter." In other words, Zionism has already won; Israel is already the center. Another committed Zionist, Meimad-Labor MK Michael Melchior, welcomes the numerical news while at the same time downplaying its importance. "The Jewish People was never determined by its numbers. We were always small. Even if we're becoming bigger [in Israel] than American Jewry, we are still small," Melchior says. "But numbers won't determine our fate." He once quipped to a Chinese diplomat that "the whole of the Jewish people is not more than a legitimate margin of error in [calculating] the population of China." He notes that he comes from Copenhagen, with a small Jewish community, and still serves as the chief rabbi of Norway, whose Jewish community is concentrated in Trondheim. "They've never had more than a 100 Jews ever, but they've always had a very active Jewish life." Melchior, who has served as the Minister for Diaspora Affairs, takes a different approach from that of many Diaspora Jews, who are constantly concerned about a declining Jewish population. While there were 5.3 million American Jews as of 2000, a study in 1990 found that an estimated 5.5 million Americans were Jews. "We spend such a lot of the time in Jewish meetings and congresses talking about numbers," he laments. "We have a good old tradition from the Torah [where] we don't like counting Jews. It's even a Jewish law that we don't count, because every person is his own individual and his own world, and to make him just a number isn't something we like to do." Steven Cohen, a former Hebrew University sociologist who studied American Jewry before taking a position at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, agrees that the numbers aren't the issue. For one thing, he disputes the statistics, referring to other studies placing the Jewish population in the US at 5.7 or even 6 million. He stresses the difficulty in quantifying just who is a Jew, pointing out that all demographic surveys of American Jewry discount some of those who are Jewish according to Jewish law - for instance, the matrilineal granddaughter of a Jew who has a gentile father, has intermarried, and attends church - and include some of those who aren't - such as the daughter of a gentile mother and Jewish father who has attended Jewish day school, had a bat mitzva and now is a member in Hillel. He argues that whatever the numbers are, the issue is one of quality over quantity. "Intermarriage and low Jewish birthrates ... will cause the departure of large numbers of Jewish families and their descendents from Jewish culture, leaving a smaller number of more committed people," he says. Cohen adds that the demographic change will go "largely unnoticed" by Israeli Jews - and American ones. "It's not a major concern of theirs. Even Jewish communal institutions and communal leaders don't think it's an important issue." MAYBE. BUT there are some who are worried, if not by the incremental population shift, then by the implications of a weakened Diaspora and a concentration of Jews in Israel. On the latter point, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently sounded the alarm. The restoration of Jews to their historic homeland carries "a price and a danger," he wrote. "It radically alters the prospects for Jewish survival. "For 2,000 years, Jews found protection in dispersion - protection not for individual communities which were routinely persecuted and massacred, but protection for the Jewish people as a whole. Decimated here, they could survive there." Following the Holocaust - which centralized European Jewry to facilitate their extinction - Jews decided they needed to protect themselves, with their own army. "But," he continued, "in a cruel historical irony, doing so required concentration - putting all the eggs in one basket, a tiny territory hard by the Mediterranean, eight miles wide at its waist. A tempting target for those who would finish Hitler's work. "His successors now reside in Iran." Others are concerned less about the end of world Jewry and more about its future. Avinoam Bar-Yosef, director-general of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, talks of the necessity for parity between the Israeli and Diaspora populations. "We need to keep a balance [since] we want the Jewish people to not only survive but thrive. This is a global Jewish challenge," he says. "The balance is important because we are small in numbers, and to achieve our goals of thriving and tikkun olam [making the world a better place] and contributing to world culture, science and civilization, we have to do it in a situation where not all of the Jewish people is concentrated in one place." In addition to the "hard power" of Israel - the military and diplomatic institutions of the state - there is the "soft power" of the Diaspora, Bar-Yosef says. "I would like in the future for the Jewish community to still be leading in the academic world, in finance, in the media. Those are very important assets to the Jewish people globally." Sometimes such distinctions between "hard" and "soft" power aren't clear, according to Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress. "I think that Israel is in a far, far more secure position if the Jewish community has a strong presence in America," he says. While he doesn't think "where Jews live" has an effect on issues of Jewish identity, it can have an impact politically - meaning that a large network of American Jews can help Israel by lobbying on its behalf. "If the numbers in America dwindle enough, they wouldn't have the same political strength as they do," Rosen says, adding that he and his peers in the US don't see that as a present danger. Newly installed Minister of Immigrant Absorption Zeev Boim, in a letter to the American Jewish Committee following the brouhaha over Yehoshua's comments, stressed the role of Diaspora Jews in strengthening Israel. "It is difficult to imagine Israel's capabilities in the military and economic spheres, and in facing the challenges of immigrant absorption, settlement and development, without the moral backing of world Jewry, the generosity and the aid during periods of crisis, and the support for the state's vital interests," he wrote. Avineri also acknowledged the role that a strong Diaspora has played in Israeli history. "There is no League of Jewish States, so obviously Israel has needed a lot of international support, and part of getting that support has been through Jewish communities," he says. "It's a symbiotic relationship. Both Israel and the Diaspora need one another." But he adds that, "The stronger Israel is numerically, politically and economically, the less significant is world Jewry's help." Bielski also sees a risk in a depleted Diaspora. "If we have fewer Jews in America, we'll have a less [effective] Jewish lobby and less influence, which is very important for Israel." But he indicates that that risk is less significant than the goal of ingathering: "To come on aliya is the number one priority, so come on aliya." In other words, come home, just like they do in baseball.