Saturday, May 06, 2006

Bittersweet milestone

From JPost Editorial May. 4, 2006 22:36 :

Two population milestones were attained this Independence Day: Our total population topped seven million, and Israel's Jewish population [5.4 million] ... 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.

...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....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.

...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.

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