Commentary Magazine

Do the Jews Have a Future?

Over the past 50 years, the Jewish world has experienced a number of unprecedented and momentous changes which have transformed its structure, its internal composition, and its future prospects.

First and foremost, of course, has been the creation of an independent sovereign state in the ancient Jewish homeland, reconstituted for the first time in nearly 2,000 years. At the same time, the far-flung and extremely diverse Jewish Diaspora has enjoyed, in its Western branches, a sustained period of affluence, empowerment, influence, and social acceptance rare in the scarred annals of Jewish history.

Tremendous shifts of population have also taken place, with far-reaching consequences. In 1939, although the largest single Jewish community in the world already resided in the United States, the core of world Jewry (9.5 million or 57 percent) still lived in Europe. Most of these Jews were concentrated in the eastern half of the continent (Poland, the USSR, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, etc.); their communities would soon be dealt the most devastating blow by Hitler’s premeditated, cold-blooded effort to annihilate the Jewish people. By contrast, the British-mandated territory of Palestine held no more than 3 percent of the world Jewish population.

The Nazi terror that descended on Europe between 1939 and 1945 reduced the world Jewish population by almost six million, or one-third of its total numbers. Ever since that time, Europe has ceased to be the center of Jewish life and culture. Western Europe, it is true, has been less affected than Central Europe. Thus, there are over a million Jews in the European Union today, mainly concentrated in France, where the community has actually increased in size and vitality since 1945, and in Great Britain (where the opposite is the case). As for the East, estimates for European Russia fluctuate wildly between a low of 400,000 and a high of 1.5 million, and there is still a substantial Jewish community in Ukraine and a smaller one in Hungary (between 80,000 and 100,000 people).

But in general the global Jewish map has been much simplified. Today it is essentially split in a bipolar fashion between North America, mainly the U.S., and Israel (where nearly twice as many Jews reside as on the whole European continent). Outside these areas, and outside the centers of Western Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Jewish Diasporas of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania are mostly either static or dwindling, peripheral to the mainstream of contemporary Jewish history. (Still, it is worth noting that the Jewish communities of Brazil and Australia have increased in size, and now rank with Argentina, Canada, and South Africa.)

As the Israeli demographer Sergio Delia Pergola points out, Jews today are concentrated in a smaller number of countries and constitute an even smaller part of an exploding world population (0.25 percent) than in 1939. On the other hand, DellaPergola also observes, they have largely become a middle-class people, inhabiting the core areas of the world’s economic and political systems. To a much greater degree than in 1939, they are generally to be found in advanced-industrial countries that have high per-capita incomes, health standards, literacy rates, and cultural achievements. No less importantly, they can reap the fruits of full civic liberties and a democratic way of life.

All these positive benefits apply as well to Israel, despite the state of siege in which the country has had to live and the difficulties engendered by the absorption of less favored communities who often arrive penniless—whether from Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or Ethiopia. Israel, as a developed country with some military and diplomatic influence in the world, also provides a shield of security for Jews worldwide that manifestly did not exist before the Holocaust. When the case of Israel is added to the case of American Jewry, with its extraordinary economic and cultural influence and its intense involvement in the decision-making process of the world’s most powerful country, then the contrast with the Jewish condition in 1945 becomes forceful indeed.

Jews, in short, are no longer a people of homeless refugees, beggars vainly importuning the world’s conscience, or passive objects of international charity. They are, especially in Israel and the United States, independent actors in the historical dramas of the postwar world, and their influence on the events of our time has been far from negligible. This dramatic recovery from the nadir of the Holocaust and its devastation—even today, world Jewry is still three million short of its numbers in 1939—is a stunning achievement and a genuine triumph over adversity.



The existence of Israel has clearly served in the past 45 years as a catalyst of Jewish identification and an undeniable core of Jewish cohesion and continuity. In an increasingly centrifugal world, it is the main centripetal force working for Jewish unity. This is so not only because of the security and freedom which it symbolizes, but also because it has developed a self-sustaining economy, culture, and a collective identity of a new kind.

As the old Diaspora languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, etc.) inevitably wither, replaced by English as the dominant tongue of the worldwide Diaspora, the modernized Hebrew of Israel has become the main guardian of a distinctive, autonomous Jewish culture. Moreover, Israel alone contains 40 percent of the school-age Jewish population of the world, and about two-thirds of those enrolled in Jewish schools. Clearly, in the future, it will play the key role in maintaining and transmitting Jewish ethnic and religious identity. This greatly strengthens its claims to be considered the core of Jewish peoplehood, especially when its situation is contrasted with that of the fissiparous, acculturated Jewries of the Western Diaspora.

Nowhere is the distinction between Israel and the Diaspora clearer than in the area of intermarriage, the single most powerful centrifugal force in world Jewry today. Seventy years ago, in the United States, the intermarriage rate was below 5 percent; by 1970 it had leaped to 32 percent, and in 1990 it stood at an all-time high of 57 percent. By way of contrast, in pre-Holocaust Poland (then the largest Jewish community of Europe) intermarriage was still below 1 percent and in nearly half of world Jewry it did not exceed 5 percent before 1939. Only in highly assimilated Jewish communities like Germany, Austria, Italy, Holland, or Australia did it remotely approach what it has commonly become in the contemporary Diaspora. And today, the American pattern is duplicated in France, Britain, Hungary, Italy, the ex-USSR, and elsewhere.

Great Britain is a good illustration of the trend. Between 1960 and 1990, the intermarriage rate rose almost tenfold. When one adds the high Jewish divorce rate (30 percent, close to general British levels), it is clear that the British Jewish family is beginning to fail. Thus, a highly educated, successful, and upwardly mobile Jewish community has found its numbers depleted by one-third over the course of 30 years.

The problem is not exclusively British or American, but part of a general pattern in open societies. It is the downside of the affluence, the range of opportunity, the social mobility, and the cultural integration which postwar modernity has offered to the Jews. In pre-1939 Europe and America, low intermarriage rates reflected a very different set of circumstances: societies which still discriminated against or even persecuted Jews; a more cohesive way of life internally; the greater influence of Orthodoxy; and a deeper knowledge of Jewish history and culture.

In contemporary society, except for the enclaves of Orthodoxy, these factors no longer operate. Jewish distinctiveness has diminished, while assimilation has increased; and there is far less opposition among either Jews or non-Jews to intermarriage. So it is that economic and political freedom, tolerance, pluralism, and social acceptance threaten to accomplish by peaceful, tranquil, and gradual means what Nazi barbarism could not complete in the terror of the Holocaust: the disappearance of the Jewish people.



This is surely the greatest paradox of the postwar Diaspora. Never has it enjoyed such optimal conditions, and never has it seemed, in the longer term, more like an endangered species. Its continuity and distinctiveness as an ethnic group are seriously in doubt. This internal hemorrhaging of both body and spirit raises fundamental questions about the raison d’être of Diaspora Jewry. Can a people which miraculously recovered from the black hole of the Holocaust, which survived two millennia of exile, expulsions, pogroms, and genocide, be reconciling itself to fading quietly from the scene? And if not, how are the continuity and survival of the Jewish people to be assured in conditions of freedom and affluence? These are “Jewish questions,” more perplexing and difficult in some ways than the shadow of anti-Semitism that has accompanied the Jews through their long march in exile.

At first glance, traditional and Orthodox Jews stand secure in splendid isolation amid the confusing signals of modernity. Though decimated in the Holocaust, they have disproved all the predictions of their demise. The most extreme among them, the ultra-Orthodox, are the fastest-growing segment in contemporary Jewry. With their rabbis and yeshivas, their arranged marriages and extremely high birth rates, these communities have not only recovered, they are flourishing. In Israel (where they number about 350,000), they have made their influence felt in public life, eclipsing the traditional religious parties despite their reluctance to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In the Diaspora, where their numerical strength is similar, they have had a growing impact on mainstream Orthodox institutions.

True, Jewish fundamentalism involves such a thorough rejection of secular modernity that it is difficult to imagine its achieving a long-term impact on contemporary Jewry. But as a symptom, it points to a general malaise.

The name of the malaise is secularism. The majority of contemporary Jews, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, remain and are likely to remain secularists. But they are secularists who now know that the Jewish identity of their children and grandchildren can no longer be taken for granted. Nor, despite the existence of a Jewish state, can they assume the collective survival of a unified Jewish people.

Israel offers the model of a cohesive Jewish ethnicity; it is a bulwark against the forces of Diaspora assimilation and a haven of safety in times of persecution. In Israel, there is no problem of intermarriage or of a low Jewish birth rate, no crisis of Jewish education as such, and no dilemma in transmitting Jewish values to the next generation. But Israel is also a distinctive national entity with its own dynamics, interests, and mental horizons, often very different from those of the Diaspora. Moreover, despite the strength of the existing ties between the two communities, Israel is founded on a Zionist outlook which ultimately denies the viability of the Diaspora. In the Zionist perception, the Diaspora is a transitory condition, and a secure existence is possible only through a return to the sources of Jewish life, to the land of one’s ancestors, and above all to the Hebrew language.

This is where the difference strikes deepest. For although Diaspora Jews cannot compete with Zionism’s territorial rootedness, they, too, have begun to put down roots of their own in the postwar world—especially in the enlightened, emancipated, secular West. In the new multicultural, multiethnic mosaic of our Western democracies, Jews no longer appear quite so distinctive. Other ethnic minorities currently bear the brunt of racism, xenophobia, and intolerance, while Jews often seem like insiders or even well-integrated parts of the Gentile establishment. Jewish “otherness” is still there, but it is less offensive to the Gentile eye, and since the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has been significantly muted. All this would seem to render the classic Zionist case against the Diaspora less and less credible on purely political grounds.



Still, things are not so simple.

Take anti-Semitism. While lacking the lethal vitality of the Nazi paradigm, it has nevertheless been a tenacious presence on the international postwar scene. It acquired a new lease on life through the cold war and the emergence of Israel, especially in the Soviet bloc and the Arab-Muslim world. In the form of anti-Zionism, it proved to be one of the most persistent weapons in the hands of those seeking to delegitimize and put an end to the existence of an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. In Communist-controlled countries it was exploited for domestic and foreign-policy purposes alike. And in conjunction with rising Arab nationalism and an aggressive, militant Muslim fundamentalism, it seriously infected the Arab world.

In the Middle East, one effect of the rise of Arab anti-Semitism was to accelerate the departure of long-established Jewish communities from their Arab and Muslim host societies. The bulk of this “Oriental” or “Sephardi” Jewry ended up in Israel, thereby paradoxically fortifying the Jewish state, helping to ensure its viability—and strengthening the case for Zionism.

Another paradoxical result of this extraordinary migration was the revival of Sephardi Jewry itself, today the majority segment in Israeli society. Despite a period of initial deprivation, and despite the discrimination they encountered at various levels in a society that had been fashioned by Ashkenazi settlers from Eastern Europe, the Sephardim have now come into their own. Zionism, originally a European solution to Europe’s “Jewish Question,” has thus acted as the modernizing vehicle for the ascent of non-Europeans and for their encounter with the West within a Jewish national framework.

Many Sephardim were, and remain, deeply distrustful of Arab intentions, and generally more traditionalist in outlook—two factors that helped to fuel the previously dormant nationalist reflexes of Israel in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. This pattern may change with time, and it is even conceivable that the Sephardim may yet help to ease Israel’s integration into the Middle East as an accepted and equal partner in the development of the region.

But that, of course, depends on the prospects for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such a settlement would remove one of the darkest shadows over postwar Jewish existence—the physical danger to an Israel surrounded by bellicose enemies bent on its destruction. Whether or not this danger is beginning to ebb, however, it remains the fact that what has successfully kept it at bay for the past 45 years is the military determination and prowess of Israel.

By transforming the image of the Jew into that of an efficient warrior heroically defending his homeland, Zionism also gave new confidence, backbone, and pride to the Jewish Diaspora. The Six-Day War of 1967 was the great benchmark here, mobilizing the Jewish world first in anguished fear and then in a resurgence of ethnic pride. For communities like Soviet Jewry (termed “the Jews of Silence” by Elie Wiesel only a year earlier), the Israeli triumph in June 1967 provided a new lease on life and the courage to fight oppression. The struggle for Soviet Jewry—one of the great causes of the postwar Jewish world—helped to salvage a community which had been cut off for decades from its brothers and sisters by Communist totalitarianism. The exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel and the West was one of the first breaches in the Communist fortress, and for two decades it served to unify the Jewish world in a common fight for freedom, dignity, and national identity.

The end of the cold war and the demise of Communism—which reinforced the exodus from the former Soviet Union—have once again underscored the elemental necessity of the Jewish state as a Noah’s ark in a world where Jews may at any time find themselves victimized. Indeed, the basic Zionist case has been vindicated repeatedly over the past century, whenever economic, political, and international crises have threatened Jewish existence and exposed Jewish vulnerability.

Even from the perspective of the late 20th-century West, this is a reality that only the most self-deluded utopians can afford to dismiss. The Western world, despite its underlying prosperity and stability, is beset by high unemployment, recession, racial problems, and uncertainty about the future. In Europe, ethnic conflicts are rampant and have already produced a genocidal war in ex-Yugoslavia. Fascism and neo-Nazism are on the rise, and semi-respectable neopopulist parties spouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans are increasing their vote across Europe.

Beyond the borders of Europe, there stands the enigma of the former Soviet Union: despite the new freedoms and opportunities there, it would be foolhardy to vouch for the prospects of Russian Jewry. The future of Boris Yeltsin and his “democratic” revolution appears extremely shaky, faced as it is with a brown-red opposition of real strength. Anti-Semitism has played an important political role in cementing this anti-Yeltsin opposition, and also in the rise of a popular neofascist movement whose chances increase as Russia’s economic Chernobyl spreads.

The politics of survival, then, will continue to be relevant in the Jewish world of the future and to act as a cementing force across the fissures, the divisions, and the centrifugal trends that will continue to afflict it. But survival is also only the beginning. With or without a stable peace in the Middle East, with or without open conflict elsewhere, the issues of Jewish education, the Jewish family, and the continuity of the Jewish people will assume a greater centrality—they will have to, if the forces of decomposition and disarray are to be confronted and checked.

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