Counting Jews

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A newly-released World Jewish Population Report has been making waves. Some critics, especially in Israel, charge that the report, in claiming the existence of a non-Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, is both slanted and unduly pessimistic. Other critics, especially in the Diaspora, complain that the report is too old-fashioned in its definition of Jewishness.     

According to the report, whose principal author is the demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University, there are now about 13 million Jews in the world. The largest concentration—5.7 million, as determined by Orthodox standards of religious law—live in Israel.  Of the Diaspora's 7.7 million, most—5,275,000 "core" Jews, defined as people who identify themselves as Jews or who are identified as Jews by those they reside with, and who have no other monotheistic religion—live in the United States. Thus, 82 percent of all Jews live in either Israel or America, trailed by France (483,500), Canada (375,000), the United Kingdom (292,000), the Russian Federation (205,000), Argentina (182,300), Germany (119,000), Australia (107,500), and various other communities numbering under 100,000 souls each.

The report certainly offers grounds for demographic pessimism. With the singular exception of Israel, worldwide Jewish fertility continues to be low, the population continues to age, intermarriage continues to increase (over three-fifths of all recently married Jews have non-Jewish spouses), and relatively few children of intermarried couples are raised as Jews.  

Zionists may take satisfaction in that Israel is the bright spot: not only is it the center of Jewish civilization, but it has become home to the world's largest Jewish population, especially when to the figure of 5.7 million are added the 313,000 halakhically non-Jewish members of Jewish households (mostly from the former Soviet Union). More Jews now live in greater Tel Aviv than in metropolitan New York.

Still, what worries many Zionists is the shrinking of Israel's Jewish majority via-à-vis its Arab minority. The combined Jewish and Arab population in sovereign Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza is 11,222,100. This leaves the total core Jewish population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River at just 50.8 percent. That figure can be adjusted up or down according to which variables are taken into consideration. If the non-halakhically Jewish population is counted, the Jewish percentage climbs to 53.6; if Gaza is subtracted from the Arab total, the Jewish percentage rises to 58.5 percent; but if neither is done, and if the over 200,000 foreign workers within the country are factored into the equation, the Jewish percentage slips to 49.8 percent.  

Challenged in the past for accepting census numbers from the Palestinian Authority at face value, DellaPergola has strongly defended the integrity of his data. In this report, though, he appears to acknowledge that Palestinian figures were once "overestimated," and also that the Arab birthrate inside Israel and in the West Bank is slowly decreasing. Nevertheless, and no matter how the data are juggled, he insists that "The Jewish majority is constantly decreasing—if extant at all—over the whole territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and more particularly within the state of Israel."

Population surveys are intrinsically political documents. Experts with agendas will clash over methodology, data collection, definitions, and interpretation. Some Diaspora leaders will lobby for more "inclusive" criteria in defining Jews and a rosier interpretation of the Jewish predicament.  (If the non-halakhic criteria under Israel's Law of Return were applied in the American setting, DellaPergola concedes that the U.S. Jewish population would jump to at least 6.7 million.) Some Israeli critics and their American allies will argue that talk of Arabs outnumbering Jews is alarmist or that, in any case, Israel's political system can be tweaked so that even an outsized Arab minority would be neither disenfranchised nor dominant.  

But on one point there is no dispute:  the figures generate such visceral reactions because at stake in the Diaspora is nothing less than Jewish continuity, and in Israel nothing less than Jewish sovereignty.

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