Is the Diaspora dying?

Demographic trends notwithstanding, Jewish leaders in America insist that the Diaspora is here to stay – no matter what the future holds for Israel.

Rabbi Naomi Levy throws bread crumbs into the Pacific Ocean at the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, United States September 14, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Naomi Levy throws bread crumbs into the Pacific Ocean at the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, United States September 14, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For modern political Zionism, the root of the “Jewish problem” was the Jews’ minority status in exile.
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the movement’s founding prophet, envisaged that the creation of a Jewish state would result in the negation of the galut (exile). No Jew would find it necessary to live under alien rule; Jews would gradually withdraw to their homeland; anti-Semitism would wither, and those Jews who opted to stay put would be absorbed by their societies.
Herzl granted that there would be a smattering of Jews who would continue to live as Jews outside the Jewish state.
In contrast, cultural Zionist theoreticians, foremost Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), pictured the Jewish state as providing a spiritual center for Jewish civilization that did not necessitate the negation of the Diaspora.
In 1950, once the State of Israel was in existence, its first premier David Ben- Gurion traded political Zionism’s axiomatic demand for the elimination of the galut in exchange for backing from the American Jewish establishment. And, in a 1997 newspaper interview, the renowned historian, rabbi and communal leader Arthur Hertzberg would declare that the Diaspora was “eternal.”
While the term diaspora – from the Greek for scattering – would broaden during the 1960s to include Armenians, Africans, Irish, Indians, Arabs, Turks, Asians and others, Jewish Diaspora skeptics persisted in questioning its sustainability. In 2006, A. B. Yehoshua, the Israeli novelist and essayist, famously disparaged the Diaspora’s staying power and challenged its Jewish authenticity.
The skeptics’ camp was memorably boosted by US Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator Charles Krauthammer’s May 1998 jeremiad setting forth his dark view of the Diaspora’s future.
In “At Last, Zion: Israel and the Fate of the Jews,” Krauthammer argued that the future of the Jewish people rested solely with Israel. American Jewish assimilation was proving to be a disaster – not for individual Jews, but for the collective. America was so tolerant and welcoming that Jews – by the droves – had been abandoning their language, traditions, liturgy, faith and heritage.
Seventeen years on, the data appear to shore up Krauthammer’s fears. Of the roughly 14 million Jews in the world, 6.2 million are in Israel; 5.4 million in the US and the remaining 2.4 million are in Europe, South Africa, South America, Australia and elsewhere.
America’s Jewish population is older, less religiously observant and making fewer babies than the US norm, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. About 35 percent identify with the Reform movement, 30 percent cite no affiliation, 18 percent align with Conservative Judaism, 10 percent are Orthodox, and some 6 percent fall into the hazy “Other” category.
Jewish identity can be tenuous. For example, 42 percent point to “Jewish humor” as a wellspring of their American Jewish identity. About 32 percent of Jewish millennials describe themselves as having no religion. With 58 percent of Jews in the US marrying non-Jews, the extent to which their offspring will identify with Jewish civilization – or champion the Zionist enterprise – can only be a matter of speculation. (The intermarriage rates among European Jews hover around 50 percent or more depending on the country.)
The most vibrant American Jewish stream is the 10 percent who identify as Orthodox – 62 percent of whom live ultra-Orthodox lifestyles. While not all Jews who call themselves Orthodox subscribe to the theology behind the label, 79 percent say that leading a halakhic lifestyle is important to them.
The median age of US Jewish adults is 52 compared to the Orthodox median of 42.
Sixty-nine percent of Orthodox Jews are married, in contrast to 49 percent for the community at large. Unlike other US Jews – who if they have children at all don’t make enough babies to replace themselves – Orthodox marriages yield 4.1 offspring, practically all of whom are being raised as Jews, according to Pew.
In another telling factoid, by the end of 2025, while taking into account that Israeli society is also growing older, half of the Israeli population will still be under age 31, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Krauthammer argued that the Orthodox aside, the Diaspora is committing “suicide by assimilation.” He readily acknowledged that Israel was imperfect, even as a repository of Jewish identity. No matter. “Plant a Jewish people in a country that comes to a standstill on Yom Kippur; speaks the language of the Bible; moves to the rhythms of the Hebrew (lunar) calendar; builds cities with the stones of its ancestors; produces Hebrew poetry and literature, Jewish scholarship and learning unmatched anywhere in the world – and you have continuity,” Krauthammer maintained.
How wise is the Jewish collective to put “all their eggs in one basket” when Israel’s survival is hardly a given. “To destroy the Jewish people, Hitler needed to conquer the world. All that is needed today is to conquer a territory smaller than Vermont,” wrote Krauthammer.
Jews had survived, indeed thrived, in the Babylonian exile (586 BCE) and they endured dispersion by the Romans (70 CE).
The next exile ‒were it to come – would be more reminiscent of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) in 722 BCE by the Assyrians. That led to the disappearance of the 10 tribes from history.
Under Krauthammer’s doomsday scenario, without Israel, Diaspora Judaism would decay into a “picturesque Amishlike” anachronism. Already, the Diaspora is shrinking, graying, out-marrying. Take Israel out of the equation, and it would be difficult to imagine Jewish civilization flourishing.
It’s a thesis that has few takers on the American Jewish scene.
New York University historian Hasia Diner tells The Jerusalem Report that loath as she is to make predictions, her assumption is that Jewish civilization will evolve no matter what. “I can say that the Jews, Judaism, Jewish culture did just fine without a sovereign state in Israel/Palestine.” She adds, “If it cannot survive without Israel, it will no doubt be the fault of the Jews themselves for having invested in it mythic, even sacred, status as the center which it never was.”
Rather than dwell on who needs whom more, Shlomi Ravid, executive director of the Israel-based Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, believes the Israel- Diaspora relationship ought to be about partnership. Judaism has the capacity to adapt; the future may look different, the numbers of Jews may be smaller, but the civilization “can prevail and flourish,” he tells The Report. If anything, Israel’s ability to sustain a “humane Jewish civilization” is dependent on the Diaspora. The Jewish state “desperately needs the voice of world Jews as a reminder of what it means to sustain Jewish civilization.”
For Hebrew Union College/New York sociologist Steven M. Cohen, it is obvious that Jewish civilization can survive “in the very unlikely event that Israel were to somehow disappear.” He hastens to add, “But, just as obviously, Jewish life in the Diaspora would be so much poorer if such an ugly scenario were to materialize.”
Cohen thinks the demographic data is not as calamitous as Krauthammer understands it to be – that smaller, still vital, numbers of committed non-Orthodox Jews will carry on alongside the Orthodox.
He would like to see the committed non- Orthodox marry at an earlier age, marry other Jews, and have more babies. And Cohen would also like to see those who marry out nonetheless brought closer to Jewish civilization – all policies he has long advocated.
Dennis Ross, former US Middle East envoy, author of “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama” and co-chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, argues, “It is unthinkable that Israel would be overrun or destroyed. It is not just Jewish civilization that would be at stake but civilization itself.”
He is, moreover, confident about the future of the Diaspora. The worrisome demographic trends are not new. “What is different today is that affiliation is manifestly declining.” At the same time, Ross sees “new realities” that could infuse vitality in the Diaspora’s intellectual and spiritual life.
He points to the modern Orthodox as a growing and creative part of the community.
There could be an expansion of the boundaries of acceptable religious practices.
“The role of music and other innovations, especially in Reform services, but also in some formerly Conservative shuls is likely to draw in those millennials and others who are searching for some spiritual meaning but have not found it in traditional forms of prayer,” according to Ross.
Add to the equation the positive impact Birthright has had by bringing 500,000 young people to Israel. The overwhelming majority that has made the journey marry within the faith, Ross tells The Report. Programs like PJ library, which promotes Jewish values among young families and has been distributing 400,000 books a month, are also helping to secure the Diaspora’s future. “The point is not that everything is fine, but that the situation is not static, and some trends can and are being affected.”
Marcie Natan, national president of the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is also a believer in the Diaspora’s future. While not discounting the challenges, as she looks back over her many years of communal involvement, Natan finds that today’s issues are not all that different from those of yesterday.
She cannot imagine a world without Israel.
Natan has a fuzzy memory of her family members gathered around their radio set awaiting the outcome of the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine and establish a Jewish state. More vividly, she recalls how unnerved her family in Baltimore was in the days leading up to the 1967 Six Day War – with their worries for Israel’s survival overshadowing her sister’s wedding plans.
Describing Hadassah as a big-tent Zionist organization of 330,000, Natan tells The Report she remains hopeful about the Diaspora’s future. The community is adapting to its challenges. The Reform movement, for example, is finding ways to embrace families in which one partner is not Jewish. She characterizes Hadassah as a “safe place” where all women can develop their Jewish connection.
While averse to contemplating a world without Israel, Natan contends that the Diaspora would, somehow, resuscitate itself and rebuild. She says such a renaissance might be predicated on a Jewish revival led by Chabad-like groups.
She thinks religion will always be a way to preserve Jewish civilization even if Israel were no more. That said, Natan believes the community needs to stand together to defend Israel and obviate the kind of nightmare scenarios Krauthammer warned of.
Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, bristles at “catastrophizing scenarios” altogether.
He tells The Report, “Frankly, I thought Zionism was designed to replace the ‘ever dying people’ trope with greater optimism in Israel and also the Diaspora.” He continues, “Israel is hardly a helpless state; it has massive resources to thwart its enemies.
And Diaspora Jews also are not lacking the means to rebuild their communities and to learn from past mistakes.”
Just asking whether the Diaspora is finished is premised on reckless assumptions, he says. “In 25 years, Jews currently in their 20s and 30s will not yet be 60. There are many hundreds of thousands of them in the US, England, Canada, South Africa, Australia and, yes, France – let alone in smaller communities – who are likely to invest their energies in the coming decades in strengthening Jewish life and forming committed Jewish families.”
Wertheimer also points to programs such as Birthright, Limmud, and the “underappreciated” outreach efforts by Chabad and some non-Orthodox rabbis. “None of them is giving up. And though there are good reasons to worry about the numerical contraction of the engaged Jewish population, among those who do care there is a good deal of creativity, energy, optimism and zest for Jewish living,” he says.
Wertheimer concedes that “we ought to worry about the losses, but that should not paralyze us into believing that nothing can stop the erosion.” The community has to be smarter and invest more wisely in efforts that have a proven track record. “And we dare not ignore those segments of the population with high levels of Jewish commitment, including to Israel. They are the core who will attract others,” he says.
Debates over the viability of the Diaspora and the nature and immediacy of the security threats facing Israel are likely to continue.
Zionist ideology notwithstanding, most American Jews simply don’t behave as if they are in exile. A cornerstone of Zionism is aliya, yet even factoring in Birthright, 57 percent of US Jews have never so much as visited, much less considered moving to, the Jewish state. On the flip side, a 2012 survey found that 37 percent of Israelis had at least considered leaving for the Diaspora.
Tellingly, most members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations focus their labors on Israel’s well-being, even as Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry has lately increased spending to bolster ties with Jews abroad. And as both these centers of Jewish life evolve in ways that cause trepidation in the other, few can deny their continued interdependency.
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of ‘The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness’ (The Toby Press). You can follow him on Twitter @JAGERFILE