Is this the end of 'the dying Diaspora'? – opinion

Since the American and French revolutions, assimilation has replaced acculturation in the Jewish Diaspora.

‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Buried in the back of Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna’s award-winning American Judaism: A History (2004) is a disturbing statistic included in a timeline of many achievements: in 2002, surveys point to a decline in America’s Jewish population, the first since the Colonial era. Sarna concludes this work with the delusion that American Jewry, like Jewries before it, is scholar Simon Rawidowicz’s “Ever-Dying People.”
The flaw in Rawidowicz’s analysis is that Jewish populations in the Diaspora have been declining throughout the modern period. Jews lived for centuries in an autonomous, self-governing community in many lands – perhaps acculturated but separate from the pagan, Christian and Muslim majorities and identifying as Jews.
Since the American and French revolutions, assimilation has replaced acculturation in the Jewish Diaspora. Three centuries of a declining Jewry must compete with a Babylonian Jewry that existed for 2,500 years, a Polish Jewry that endured for 800 years, and Jews in Spain who flourished from the Roman period until the exile decreed by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
When Jewish law was the law of the community, it was portable. Fortunately, exiled Jews found a new home in different lands. Modern Jewry in the Diaspora, blessed and cursed with civil equality, does not acculturate but assimilates in its integration into the non-Jewish majority. Today, the Jewish future is in a sovereign Jewish nation-state. Emancipation, in the scope of a long history of the Jewish people, has failed.
Since Sarna’s history of American Jews was published, statistics concerning the future of our Jewry are bleak. Being Jewish in America – according to a study by the Pew Research Center – is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture for 62% of those questioned. Among Millennials, 32% have no religion. Marriage out of the faith is rampant among non-Orthodox Jews and identification with the State of Israel is waning.
This was a survey conducted seven years ago. One only wonders: What is the status of the newest emerging Jewish generation? Eighteen years have passed since the decline in America’s Jewish population that Sarna includes in his history. There is no reason to believe that it has not accelerated.
I turn to a sober and accurate assessment of American Jewry and the Diaspora penned by Charles Krauthammer in The Weekly Standard, published more than 20 years ago. Krauthammer, a master of the short essay and an outspoken conservative thinker – and a proud and knowledgeable Jew – died in 2018. While his son Daniel has published a book of his father’s essays posthumously, the final work while Krauthammer was still living was Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.
In a tour de force that covers a whole host of issues from chess to dogs, the author devotes a whole section of the work to Judaism, Israel and the Jews. Krauthammer’s analysis of American Jewry and Israel eschews histrionics and hand-wringing for an objective and clinical work deserving of the topic by a physician (he was trained at Harvard as a psychiatrist). How refreshing and brave for a public figure with a standing in the American Jewish community to be so honest – and accurate.
In 1998 – years before Sarna’s history and the Pew Research Center study – Krauthammer penned an essay on “Zionism and the Fate of the Jews.” While the master essayist wonders if Israel can survive in a hostile neighborhood, he states, “Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity.”
KRAUTHAMMER SAW no future for the Jewish people without Israel. He writes, “Some Jews and some scattered communities would, of course, survive. The most devout, already a minority, would carry on – as an exotic tribe, a picturesque Amish-like anachronism, a dispersed and pitied remnant. But the Jews as a people would have retired from history.”
As for American Jewry, Krauthammer writes in a section of the essay on “The Dying Diaspora,” the Jewish population in the US is “headed for not just relative but absolute decline.” The influx of Jews from the Soviet Union and the post-war baby boom sustained the Jewish population but can do so no longer.
The reality of American Jewry is “low fertility and endemic intermarriage.” Jews in America are headed for “a catastrophic decline.” In only three generations, American Jewry’s population will be cut in half. This “chilling future” has arrived with a rise in education and socioeconomic status.
In a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in March 1998, only 70% of American Jews questioned raised their children as Jews. “In just one generation,” writes Krauthammer, seven out every 10 Jews will vanish.” Writing 20 years ago, Krauthammer argues, “A population in which the biological replacement rate is 80% and the cultural replacement rate is 70% is headed for extinction.”
He adds later in the essay, “Yiddish and Ladino, the distinctive languages of the European and Sephardic Diasporas, like the communities that invented them, are nearly extinct.” American Jewry, like other Jewish communities in the Exile, is not immune from the same extinction.
American Jews reading this essay cannot fathom the possibility that the Jews of “The Golden Land” will eventually be so small in number as to be insignificant. We all know – America was supposed to be different. Freedom of religion, enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution, should have been the key to a Jewish Renaissance in America. And, indeed, it was.
America was the home in the twentieth century to great Jewish thinkers, outstanding rabbis in all the denominations, and a flourishing politics and culture. But Rawidowicz’s Ever-Dying People is a reality of the past. Krauthammer writes, “Nonetheless, while assimilation may be a solution for individual Jews, it clearly is a disaster for Jews as a collective with a memory, a language, a tradition, a liturgy, a history, a faith, a patrimony that will perish as a result.”
In my experience as a Jewish educator in the US, I see how central Israel is to those Jews committed to Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish history. Without the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, American Judaism would have collapsed under the weight of demoralization.
For those Jews investing their hopes for the American-Jewish future in ultra-Orthodoxy, you are fooling yourselves. Minhag (ritual) America was viable for more than a century but no more. Those Jews who remain Jews in America will never regain the strength and vigor of this Jewry in its Golden Age.
But that halcyon epoch ended in the last quarter of the last century. Even if there are a million Jews left in America by the end of the 21st century, they will be such a tiny piece in the American demographic pie that they will be reduced to national and political insignificance. The days of an American Judaism independent and bold – standing on its own without Israel – are long gone.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.