Bittersweet milestone

Two population milestones were attained this Independence Day.

haredi child 88 (photo credit: )
haredi child 88
(photo credit: )
Two population milestones were attained this Independence Day: Our total population topped seven million, and Israel's Jewish population, as The Jerusalem Post reported exclusively on Wednesday, surpassed that of the United States to become the largest Jewish community in the world. These achievements represent success beyond, perhaps, the wildest dreams of the founders of the Zionist project a century ago. Yet they also reflect trends that, taken together, do not bode well for the Jewish people as a whole. In the 58 years since its establishment, Israel's population has increased 8.7 times: from 806,000 to 7,026,000 today, of which about 76 percent, or almost 5.4 million are Jews and 20% are Arabs. Since last Independence Day, 138,000 babies were born and 21,000 immigrants arrived. At the same time, according to Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, the last survey of American Jewry measured that community at 5.3 million in 2001, but that number has probably shrunk somewhat in the last five years. The birth rate of American Jews is lower than Americans generally and lower than replacement level. So American Jewry would be shrinking even without taking into account that intermarriage rates are estimated to be well over 60% among non-Orthodox Jews, and that most children with only one Jewish parent are not being raised as Jews and are themselves even more likely to marry non-Jews. Israel, by contrast, with negligible intermarriage rates and Jewish birth rates above replacement level and among the highest in developed nations, is "the only country in the world where the Jewish population is naturally increasing," notes DellaPergola. As the Diaspora shrinks and Israel grows, DellaPergola projects that by 25 to 30 years from now, an absolute majority of world Jewry will live in Israel. Such trends seem to have led some, like author A.B. Yehoshua, to a sort of nativist neo-triumphalism. Speaking at the 100th anniversary celebrations of the American Jewish Committee, Yehoshua stunned the audience by implying that Jewish life can never be lived in its totality outside of Israel. "For me, Avraham Yehoshua, there is no alternative... I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. [Being] Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You are changing jackets... you are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the territory." Yehoshua's glorification of a secular, land-based, cultural Israeliness - largely divorced from Jewish observance - is ironic given that the demographic woes of Diaspora Jewry seem tightly linked to a similar faith in non-religious engines of continuity. The last two generations of American Jewry seem somewhat dumbfounded by their difficulty in translating their passion for causes such as Soviet Jewry, Israel, communal and social activism into a commitment among their children to maintain Judaism as a critical influence on life choices, such as whom to marry and how to raise their children. Yehoshua seems to assume that the Israeli secular majority - which in some ways is much more Jewishly connected and knowledgeable, in others more ignorant and alienated - is immune to such unpleasant surprises. At the AJC, Yehoshua called for "looking honestly at our failure" to take advantage of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, after which millions of Jews headed West to America rather than to Eretz Yisrael to found the Jewish state. He implied that if Jews acted differently, the Holocaust could have been prevented or at least would not have taken a third of world Jewry as its toll. To us, however, a debate in which Israel and the Diaspora point fingers or strut their respective advantages misses the point and illustrates the new failure of vision that is upon us. Without dismissing for a moment the physical threats to the Jewish people, as proudly proclaimed by such enemies as Iran and Hamas, a greater failure of will exists with respect to the opposite threat: that of losing our identity to the embrace of the modern world. A growing Israel is not sufficient to compensate for a shrinking Diaspora. Israel and the Diaspora need each other, differently than in the past, but more than ever. Israel may not rest or celebrate unless the Jewish people as a whole has reversed its demographic decline, and is contributing to our survival as a people, a culture, and a positive influence on the world.