Commentary Magazine


The Jewish Future II: Israel & the Diaspora

The Jewish Future

II. Israel & the Diaspora

To the Editor:

Robert S. Wistrich [“Do the Jews Have a Future?,” July] is concerned about the disappearance of the Jewish people, but he ignores the mathematics apparent in his own article.

If he is right and the Hasidim number 350,000 in Israel, with a similar number in the Diaspora, we have a total of 700,000. If we assume that one-quarter of this population is of childbearing age, we would have 175,000 families in formation. And if each set of parents has 8 children in each generation of 25 years, we would have 700,000 children, who would then produce 2,800,000 children in the following generation, and 11,200,000 in the ensuing 25 years. This totals almost 15 million Hasidim—an incredible number.

Although, currently, the few who leave the hasidic community have been offset by new “conversions” (baalei t’shuva), it could be that with a huge increase in numbers, there will be increased losses. No doubt the economics of employment and finance will lower the compounding number. Nevertheless, the math is overwhelming and leads me to believe that the extinction in question may be that of the assimilationist mainstream, as the character of the Jewish people changes completely during the 21st century.

Stanley M. Bogen
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Robert S. Wistrich outlines reasons for celebration. . . . Jews enjoy religious, intellectual, and political freedom to an unprecedented extent. The Orthodox not only survived the Holocaust but are growing faster than mainstream Jewry. Israel provides a safe haven against persecution and serves as an object of national pride. Overall, Jews are an affluent, active, cultured people who, as much as any ethnic group, enjoy what the modern world has to offer.

Despite the felicity of the current situation, Mr. Wistrich . . . writes that “never has it [the postwar Diaspora] seemed, in the longer term, more like an endangered species.” . . . He is troubled by two phenomena. First, he despairs over the decline in the population of world Jewry with respect to the population of the world as a whole, a demographic trend arising from assimilation and intermarriage. (He recognizes that other religions and cultures in the West face similar circumstances.) The second phenomenon, related to the first, is that among those who retain a Jewish identity, there is a shallower knowledge of Jewish history and culture and a “diminishment” of “Jewish distinctiveness.” Specifics are left to the reader’s imagination.

That the rate of Jewish population growth is slower than it was prior to World War II appears to be true. The Jewish population in certain countries, according to statistics cited by Mr. Wistrich, is actually shrinking. Accepting these statistics arguendo, the question must then be asked: so what? . . .

If Jewish population, overall, were declining so much that an actual vanishing were foreseeable, an argument could be made that we need more Jews. If bodies were needed to defend our national territory—and perhaps this is the case, although Mr. Wistrich does not make the argument—then there would be a moral premium on numbers. But we face neither crisis. Mr. Wistrich and others, myself included, simply take it for granted that more is better. . . . We do not want to assimilate, dissipate, dilute, blur, fade, wither, atrophy, or fizzle. But we should not lose perspective. It is preferable for the decline in Jewish population to occur as a result of intermarriage rather than pogroms.

Finally, I submit that there is no crisis of numbers. There is no crisis of intermarriage or assimilation in Israel, where nearly five million Jews reside. And, as Mr. Wistrich notes, the Orthodox continue to grow. . . . With respect to the remainder of Diaspora Jewry, the future is not clear. Intermarriage and divorce rates may continue to climb, or they may have already peaked.

The second of Mr. Wistrich’s fears—that today’s Jews have lost touch with tradition and have lost their distinctiveness—is the more interesting notion. Here Mr. Wistrich reveals his arrogance: he believes that now, in this day, as opposed to any time in the 4,000-year history of the Jewish people, we are losing the essence of our identity. And he is not alone. Most secular Jews who identify as Jews nurture such a misapprehension. We regard our Orthodox forebears with a mixture of nostalgia and contempt. . . . Perhaps we respect their talmudic erudition and their endurance of persecution. But we reject their theological orthodoxy. We have no patience with beliefs that contradict geological and evolutionary science and demand that we follow 613 rules for everyday living. . . .

On the other hand, we look ahead . . . and we fear . . . (reasonably) that the coming generations will not appreciate what we hold dear. Moreover, we believe (wrongly) that they will reject their identity, that they will not be able to continue the tradition even if they desire to do so—that they will not be Jews. . . .

We want everything to stay the same. But it won’t. Mr. Wistrich is right about that much. Jewish tradition and Jewish values will change. . . . But fear not. We hinterland Jews will not vanish into the mists.

Peter Ellenson
Ann Arbor, Michigan

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To the Editor:

Robert S. Wistrich makes a compelling argument, in familiar Zionist terms, for Israeli triumphal-ism and the withering away of the Diaspora. If, as Mr. Wistrich suggests, Hebrew literacy assures Jewish viability in Israel, while intermarriage portends its demise in the Diaspora, then his conclusion surely follows: Israel is destined to play “the key role in maintaining and transmitting Jewish ethnic and religious identity.”

But if the “name of the malaise” of modern Jewish life is secularism, as Mr. Wistrich asserts, then Hebrew literacy surely will be inadequate to preserve Jewish culture. Among secular Israelis, Volvos and VCR’s, Madonna and Michael Jackson, shopping malls and McDavids, have already become the index of Jewish gratification. Topless Tel Avivians flock to the beach on Yom Kippur. A Minister of Education teaches Israeli youth to forget the Holocaust. Israeli intellectuals incessantly berate their country for its “sinful” birth, which aborted Palestinian nationalism, and for its deranged “syndromes” of imperial conquest and domination. When I last prayed with secular Israelis in our shul, they seemed barely able—despite their Hebrew fluency—to distinguish the prayerbook from the Pentateuch. Pro-choice Judaism, the Judaism of secular Jews worldwide, flourishes quite as destructively in the Jewish state as in the Diaspora.

The current government of Israel, so inordinately attentive to secular-liberal fashion, is itself sufficient to refute Mr. Wistrich’s optimistic claims for Zionism. Never have the leaders of the Jewish state been so bereft of precisely those “Jewish values” that Mr. Wistrich believes inhere in Zionism. Yitzhak Rabin, the first native-born Israeli Prime Minister, is hell-bent on removing Jews from “the land of [our] ancestors” and transforming it into a Palestinian state. Shimon Peres, his collaborator in divesting Israel of its biblical homeland, envisions a “new Middle East” with hardly a reference to Jews, Judaism, or a Jewish state to contaminate his universalistic mirage.

By now, the extraordinary synergy of Zionism and Judaism, dating from 1967, has all but vanished in Israel. It was not stifled by hostile Arabs but by Hebrew-speaking Zionists, who wander in a Jewish wilderness that stretches from Mt. Scopus to Harvard Square. Israel may outlast the Diaspora, although 2,500 years of Jewish history suggest otherwise, but the Jewish state now seems far likelier to fulfill Canaanite than Zionist dreams.

Jerold S. Auerbach
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Massachusetts

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Robert S. Wistrich writes:

It seems to me difficult to deny that, except for some islands of Orthodoxy, the Diaspora as a whole is declining, especially if we take as our measure the loss of Jewish identity and assimilation into the general environment. Numbers may not be everything, but they are important as an index of national vitality. Peter Ellenson claims that there is no crisis, but he offers no evidence for his assertion that intermarriage and divorce rates among Jews may have peaked. Nor can I see any rational basis for Stanley M. Bogen’s speculation that there will be 15 million Hasidim in the 21st century.

Rather than gaze into a crystal ball, I sought instead to draw out some of the implications of current sociodemographic trends for the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. These are not encouraging, even in the most vibrant of all the Diasporas, namely, the American Jewish community, with its unique advantages of prosperity, power, freedom, and acceptance into mainstream society. Indeed, it is precisely these favorable circumstances that make the forces of assimilation so strong and have partly contributed to the erosion of the numbers of identifiable and self-identifying Jews.

It is against this background that the case for Zionism and the Jewish viability of Israel appears more striking. It is hardly “Israeli triumphalism” to point out that in the last 50 years, the Jewish population of Israel has leaped from less than 3 percent of world Jewry to almost 33 percent. If current demographic trends continue in both Israel and the Diaspora, then a majority of the Jewish people will be living in the Jewish state well before the middle of the 21st century.

Certainly, one can raise serious questions about the quality of Jewish life in Israel, as Jerold S. Auerbach is entitled to do. Indeed, some of the symptoms of rampant secularism and materialism which he alludes to—as well as the lack of empathy with “Jewish values” emanating from certain government quarters—are extremely regrettable. But to see the present reality of the Jewish state as moving in a “Canaanite” rather than a Zionist direction, is, I think, seriously to overstate the case.

Israel has scarcely solved all the “Jewish questions,” but no unbiased observer can deny its demographic, social, and cultural vitality. Religion, too, has hardly disappeared from the landscape of the Jewish state, despite the militant secularism of a significant sector of Israeli life. The flaws and deficiencies in Israel’s political culture are another issue altogether, which lay beyond the scope of my article. One of the sources of these problems has undoubtedly been the failure to educate Israeli society in a shared national ethos that incorporates the best Jewish values. It is surely a common challenge for both Israeli and Diaspora Jews to find new and creative ways to reassert the validity and vitality of Jewish civilization in its religious and secular dimensions.

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