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Israel-Diaspora Relations

Backing into a Jewish Majority in Israel

Daniel J. Elazar

It is one of the saddest ironies of our times that in wake of the Holocaust in which six out of sixteen and a half million Jews were killed, and the reestablishment of the Jewish state which offered the greatest possibilities for Jewish redemption in two thousand years, the Jewish people are in the midst of a demographic self-destruction of major proportions. The recent report to the Israeli government by Prof. Roberto Bacchi, Israel's leading demographer, only highlights what he and others have been telling us for two decades or more: that not only is the Jewish people as a whole still suffering as a result of the loss of the reproductive capacity of a major segment of its population and one that was still reproducing above replacement levels, but that the Jewish diaspora has long since dropped below replacement levels in terms of its reproduction, not to speak of assimilation.

The one new dimension to the Bacchi report is that the Jewish birth rate in Israel, which has been the one significant Jewish community where Jews are reproducing above replacement level, is also dropping -- from a yearly average of 29.6 per thousand between 1951 and 1959 to an average of 14.6 per thousand between 1980 and 1984. Between 1950 and 1953, the average Jewish woman had 3.94 children, whereas between 1979 and 1983 that figure had dropped to 2.77. Most of that drop was the result of the changing birthrate among Israeli women born in Asia and Africa: from 6.09 children to 3.06, but the birthrate of mothers born in Europe and America, and Israel also dropped: from 3.10 and 3.52 to 2.74 and 2.79, respectively.

In reporting the projections of the Central Bureau of Statistics for the year 2000, the CBS expects Israeli Jewish women to continue to produce enough children to maintain a certain level of population growth (much less than that of their Arab counterparts, but that is another story). In this respect, Israel will still stand apart from the diaspora. There the combination of delayed marriage, low reproduction rate, and intermarriage is leading to a continued downward trend. Bacchi gives the following population figures for the diaspora, based on the work of the demographic unit of the Institute for Contemporary Jewry:

1939: 16,155,000
1945: 10,392,000
1970: 10,240,000
1985:   9,500,000

The same demographers project less than eight million Jews in the diaspora by the year 2000, with the decline coming from demographic loss, not as the result of aliya, which the demographers expect to remain small and to account for only a fraction of the change.

Bacchi and his colleagues, Uriel O. Schmelz and Sergio Della Pergola, are generally correct in the trend they project. But it must be noted that there is a difference of opinion among the demographers as to just how bad the situation is. Three schools seem to have emerged.

One is the Israeli school, represented by Bacchi, Schmelz, and Della Pergola, which is the most pessimistic. Their very careful demographic work has resulted in very cautious and conservative estimates of the contemporary Jewish population which leads them to their conclusions.

The second school, consisting of what might be called the "mainstream" American demographers, such as Sidney Goldstein, Alvin Chenkin, and Gary A. Tobin, see the situation less pessimistically, but also as generally unfavorable. For example, while the Israelis see the Jewish population in the United States as around 5.7 million, the mainstream American demographers, who are also conservative in their estimates, see it as over 5.8 million. The discrepancy is accounted for by the results of recent demographic studies undertaken in a number of local American Jewish communities which have discovered unexpectedly large Jewish populations in sunbelt metropolitan areas (American Jewish Year Book 1985). Thus 88,000 more Jews were "found" between 1983 and 1984 as a result of these studies.

By the same token, the Israelis take the lowest figures of Jewish population in the Soviet Union, those of the Soviet census. Since it is likely that the Soviets undercount Jews for their own purposes and policies, half a million or more Jews "pass" as Russians or members of other nationality groups, the census proposing too low a figure. Hence it may be more reasonable to estimate the higher figure, although there is insufficient evidence to do so unequivicably.

The third group consists of the demographic revisionists, principally Professors Steven M. Cohen and Calvin Goldscheider of the United States who suggest that, at least for American Jewry there is no population decline. While the Jewish birthrate is low and intermarriage is a reality, there are enough conversions to Judaism on the part of non-Jewish partners and a sufficient improvement in the birthrate after a decade of less than replacement rates to at least hold the American Jewish population steady if not to provide for a slight increase. They estimate the actual intermarriage rate of American Jewry at 25 percent and expect the Jews to gain approximately half of the offspring of intermarriages. Moreover, they claim that the far-below- replacement-level birthrates of fifteen years ago (1.5 children per couple) represented an aberration caused by the deferral of marriage of the "generation of 1968." They agree that the present rate of 2.1 children per couple is, in fact, the norm and has been since the 1920's.

If the optimists' analysis is applied to other parts of the diaspora, then Prof. Bacchi's gloomy forecasts are premature, to say the least. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing which of these schools is right.

This writer, who is not a demographer but a consumer of demographic data, tends to accept the views of the middle school, based upon the worldwide study of Jewish community organization which I conducted between 1968 and 1978 and which is being continued under my direction at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. That study is focused on Jewish communities country by country and, of course, has had to bring together and assess the various demographic studies and estimates for each.

We have found a general tendency of the Israelis to undercount, usually for good scientific reasons, exercising due caution as demographers. This is a useful counterpoise to the tendency of Jewish community leaders and journalists in the past to exaggerate the Jewish presence in their communities by simply assuming that, since there were X numbers of Jews a generation ago, there must be X plus 10 percent or whatever today. Thus, in the case of the number of Jews in Argentina, the local leadership used to give the estimate of 500,000 and the late Pinhas Sapir was fond of speaking of 750,000. The very low figure of 233,000 presently in use is far from those optimistic guesses. It, in turn, is based on positive responses to the "Jewish" questions in the Argentine census and distributing those who mark "no religion" according to the precentage of Jews in the total population. Every other bit of information that we have suggests that Jews in Argentina, as elsewhere, are more likely to indicate "no religion" or to refuse to answer the census questions than any other group, often on principle. Examining the various estimates and how they were obtained, we came to an estimate of 350,000 Jews in Argentina or 117,000 more than the 233,000 estimated by the Israeli group. Similarly, the last Australian census found 10,000 more Jews than had been expected in that country, raising the total from 65,000 to 75,000, or approximately 17 percent more than anticipated. All told, we would suggest that Bacchi and his colleagues have "lost" one million Jews who are still "out there".

The great unknown in all this is what is really happening with regard to assimilation and intermarriage. We have insufficient comprehensive data to draw any real conclusions, especially outside the U.S. It is clear that intermarriage is not a one way street, at least at this stage, but it is unclear what happens in the next generation when the children of couples in which one partner has converted to Judaism reach marriageable age after having been exposed to an intermarriage that works within a climate of decultured and minimally religious Jewishness.

Beyond that, it is also clear that the Jewish population is aging rapidly. Eighty-five percent of American Jews are over the age of 16. Jewish school enrollments have dropped by hundreds of thousands since their high point in the mid-1960's, in great part because of the drop in the Jewish birthrate.

On the other hand, as Cohen and Goldscheider argue, the children of the post World War II baby boom are now at the peak of their childbearing years and the overall number of Jewish births is increasing, whereas it was the much smaller cohorts born in the Depression that were at the peak of their childbearing years in the 1960's, and there were simply fewer of them available to have children. Thus there may even be a sudden spurt upward in Jewish population, which may or may not signify a shift in the downward slide.

Two other factors need to be taken into consideration: the increase in birthrates among seriously Orthodox Jewish families and the increased intensity of Jewish commitment among those Jews who care at all. The first has direct demographic implications. If ultra-Orthodox families are having between 7 and 10 children apiece, even though they may represent only 5 percent of world Jewry, they will constitute a very high percentage of whatever growth there is, especially when bolstered by the 3 to 5 children of modern Orthodox families. Unfortunately, we have no proper statistics available as to the impact of that population on Jewish demography overall.

With regard to the second factor, obviously the only way to change the demographic situation is through persuasion, that is to say, by talking up the need for a greater number of Jewish babies. Such things as family allowances and benefits really do not make the difference in an affluent society, if they ever did for Jews, and in any case they are not available in the diaspora. It is simply necessary to mount a campaign to encourage young Jews to marry other Jews and have children, more children at that.

Where the organized Jewish community can help in the diaspora is in assisting young couples in covering the costs of Jewish education for their children, by subsidizing day schools, summer camps, and the like sufficiently so that tuition and fees can be kept at the affordable level for larger families. Failing that, the economic costs of bearing additional children, especially for serious Jews, will simply be too great and only the highly committed ultra-Orthodox who are willing to make real economic sacrifices for their Jewish commitments will continue to bear large families.

Paradoxically, because of the political situation in the diaspora as well as in Israel, where the Orthodox are organized and have more power than other groups in Jewish life, the Jewish community, which may not be willing to subsidize non-Orthodox Jewish education will end up subsidizing education for the Orthodox community in any case. There are demographic merits in this, although little attention has been paid to the likely consequences for Jewish life a generation or two from now, after the year 2000. If the present trends - even the more moderate ones projected by the mainstream American Jewish demographers, hold true, there will indeed be an overall decline in the Jewish population in the diaspora coupled with a great increase in the percentage of diaspora Jewry that is Orthodox. That will change the balance of power within diaspora Jewry in crucial ways.

What of Israel and the diaspora? If Bacchi's projections are correct, sometime around the year 2010 Israel will become the largest Jewish community in the world as a result of the combination of Jewish population growth within the Jewish state and decline in the diaspora, including the United States. Thus, we will back into the Zionist ambition, not out of strength, but out of weakness.

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