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Counting Jews

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.     

Relevant Links
The Politics of Palestinian Demography  Yakov Faitelson, Middle East Quarterly. Many Israelis have so thoroughly absorbed the claims of a diminishing Jewish majority that they do not consider whether the conventional wisdom is false.
Judaism is Not a Race  Saul Singer, Jerusalem Post. The number of Jews is undeniably shrinking in proportion to the global population, but “quality” should be defined by the thickness of Jewish identity and practice, not by birth or observance.  

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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Independent Patriot on December 1, 2010 at 7:08 am (Reply)
Let's deal with the reality...there is no reason that Israel truly needs to control Gaza (Yes, the withdrawal did not go well, but it was not handled properly either and Israel waited too long for Cast Lead) and large parts of the West Bank. They need to make security arrangements, but Israel really does not need to rule over a hostile population. Birthrates have nothing to do with it. Why would you want those that hate you to be part of your country? The Palestinians are not going anywhere so dealing with that reality, no matter what the numbers say, is the issue.

This "Who is a Jew"issue, as with the conversion issue in Israel, causes consternation and feelings of rejection within the worldwide Jewish community. Most of the Jews in the US are Reform and follow the new idea that Judaism can flow from either parent. To disenfranchise a large part of the US Jewish population is to disenfranchise our children from their future.While many children with gentile mothers are raised Christian, a growing portion of those children are raised as Jews. It is short=sighted to ignore their existence and in reality to reject them.

To also say that the only true form of Judaism is Orthodoxy is also insulting to the majority of Jews world wide. While I know the Orthodox think that they are the ones who understand God's meaning of the Torah, who told them that? Did an angel of God come down from heaven and tell them what they are doing is correct to the point that they disrespect the rest of us? Just because you have been doing something for thousands of years does not mean you are doing it right.Remember those that hate the Jews hate all of us, not just those that think they are the holiest among us.

I happen to also find it terribly insulting to those from the Soviet Union whose Judaism is in question. They can die for the State of Israel, defending the Jewish State, but they are not good enough to be buried in the Jewish military cemetery; there is a special area set aside for those heroes. Now how is that righteous and how does that follow Torah's rule of compassion. Maybe the Rabbis in Israel need to study Hillel more than Shammai. For shame.
Independent Patriot on December 1, 2010 at 8:17 am (Reply)
Additional comment on the issue of orthodoxy and Israel:

REMEMBER that the push for Jewish freedom came not from the orthodox but from the secular Jewish community and the socialist Jewish community, yet somehow the orthodox in Israel seek to determine everyday aspects of life for every Jew worldwide. (Yes,when you tell people around the globe who they should count as a Jew and whether you are worthy to be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem then you choose to control world Jewry). REMEMBER Zionism was resoundingly rejected by religious Jews at its inception because people took it upon themselves to redeem the Land of Israel instead of waiting for the time of the Messiah.It is these orthodox leaders that taught our people over millenniums to not fight back and that it is God's will that we be slaughtered for some esoteric misdeed or errant sin. While religious Zionism is a mainstay today, it is a relative new phenomenon born out of the Holocaust at the direction of one man- the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson.It is not the Zionism that shaped, created nor saved people from Hitler's ovens nor found a home for those that survived. It is also not the Zionism that fought and died to create Israel. That was the secular Zionists that saved Jewish freedom and peoplehood.

Just because Ben-Gurion made a deal with the religious community does not mean that everyone is beholden to that deal. The shame of it is that the Israeli politicians lack the backbone needed to extricate themselves from the minuscule, demanding and self-important religious parties. A choice will have to be made by Israel within the next generation...orthodox rule vs the majority of the world's Jews.

While the orthodox have the right to follow God's law as they see fit, they have no right to tell any other Jew how to do it, nor do they have a right to take from anyone who is "crazy enough to say they are a Jew,"(hat tip Ben Gurion) the right to be counted among their people.
meir on December 1, 2010 at 9:54 am (Reply)
DellaPergola's figures have long been questioned, and anyone who accepts them is at risk to his political agenda. DP works for Left wing institutes and "think-tanks" which seek to promote a withdrawal from Yesha; his skewed statistics are intended to support that position. DP's figures are unreliable --e.g. he double-counts Palestinian populations in Jerusalem, and relies on highly inaccurate (PCBS) Palestinian "estimates."
Read: BESA's pamphlet by Bennett Zimmerman, et al, "The Million Person Gap," Yoram Ettinger, and Yaakov Faitelson for a different opinion.
DP refuses to debate his opponents.
Ira Sheskin on December 2, 2010 at 9:47 am (Reply)
I am one of two authors of the first report in this report series. Sergio writes about the World Jewish Population and Arnie Dashefsky and I (Ira Sheskin) about the US Jewish population. The two reports disagree about the number of Jews in the US, but "Indpendent Patriot" completely misunderstands how we derive who is a Jew in the US as social scientists. In ALL the surveys that we use to estimate the number of Jews in the US, the criteria for being Jewish is that the survey respondents says they are Jewish. Thus, we make no distinction between matrilineal and patrilineal descent.

I also am one of three editors of the Report series and read Sergio's Report in great detail. No where does he say that the only true form of Judaism is Orthodoxy. Quite the oppposite. While I can make no claim to being an expert on the number of Jews or Palestinians in Israel, I believe that Sergio does a great job (in Table 15) of laying out the facts.

I know Sergio for at least two decades and while we do not always agree on everything, he is a great academic: he assesses the quality of data and presents it without having a political agenda.

Ira Sheskin

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