Friday, August 15, 2008

The Jewish tipping-point

This is based on a talk given at Cong. Beth Emek, Livermore CA, August 14, 2008

My talk today will not be mainly about the usual subjects of politics or the security situation in Israel, but instead I will focus on the relationship of Israel and the disapora. The title I have given is "the tipping point," and it reflects the fact that we Jews are approaching a significant and unique event in modern Jewish history when for the first time the population of Jews in Israel will exceed that of all other Jews living in the rest of the world.
Before the Holocaust it is estimated that the there were ca. 17-18 million Jews in the world, but of course after the Holocaust this was reduced to 11-12 million. At the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 there were only ca. 650,000 Jews there, but this increased rapidly as over 1 million Jewish survivors of the Holcaust and nearly 1 million Jewish refugees from Arab countries fled to Israel. Then there was the influx of ca. 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union as well as aliyah from Argentina, France and Ethiopia. So now the population of Israel is ca. 6.7 million, but this includes ca. 1 million Israeli Arabs, so the Jewish population of Israel is now 5,313,800 (source, Israeli census) an 8-fold increase since 1948. This could be considered a success of the Zionist ideal, the ingathering of the exiles, a haven for Jews. The total Jewish world population is now estimated to be 12.75 million, so the Jewish population of Israel is 40.6% of that. (Unfortunately, given the low Jewish renewal rate and assimilation is it anticipated that the word Jewish population will never reach its pre-WWII level.)
When the State was founded, the attitude and policy of the new Israeli Government was that the diaspora was no longer necessary, it was a remnant of the terrible past, it was illegitimate, and doomed to disappear. PM Ben Gurion started an aggressive campaign to attract Jews to make aliyah, particularly American Jews. But, this led to a strong negative reaction in some parts of the diaspora. In England, the Jews saw this as an assault on their carefully crafted policy of rejecting "dual loyalty." In the US the reaction was somewhat different. In 1950, Jacob Blaustein of the AJC, wrote an influential letter to Ben Gurion, arguing that American Jews were equal citizens by right in the US and could practice their religion unrestricted and it was unlikely that many of them would choose to make aliyah. He also pointed out that the Jewish minority in the US represented an influential lobby to support Israel and that it might be better for Israel's future to have them there than in Israel. This letter caused Ben Gurion to re-think his policy, and in his response he accepted the Blaustein proposal as a policy for the State of Israel, namely that aggressive proselytizing for aliyah would be eschewed for a more subtle persuasion, and that Israel would treat the diaspora as a legitimate, essential and equal Jewish entity.
But, the current Israeli Jewish demographic represents a plurality of the world Jewish population. Many American Jews will be surprised by this conclusion, since it has always been accepted that there are ca. 6 million Jews living in the US, but that was based on old census statistics, and reached a maximum sometime in the 1970s. It is commonly known that with an inter-marriage rate of ca. 50% and with a lower than replacement birth rate (< 2 children per couple) the current US Jewish population is in decline and now estimated to be 5.275 million (source, American Jewish Year Book, 2006), less than that of Israel! This would be 40.3% of the total Jewish world population. But we must be careful of statistics and demographics, they are only estimates.
Recently there was a study done by American academics based on searching for Jewish names and using memberhsip of Jewish organizations and estimated the number of non-affiliated Jews statistically, that came to the conclusion that there are more than 6 million Jews in the US. But, this is difficult to accept, for example, take the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, both her parents were Jewish, but she was brought up as an assimilated Czech, and her father was a Czech nationalist politician. He and his family fled to Britain during WWII and he was a member of the Czech Government in exile. Although they rejected their Jewish idenetity, they stayed in the home of their Orthodox Jewish family in London. But, later when questioned about her background, Albright denied that she was Jewish and had completely forgotten, or repressed, her stay with her Orthodox cousins in London. Although Albright is halachically Jewish, does that mean she should be classified as a Jew? I think not!
So if we accept the latest published figures we are rapidly approaching the tipping point, a watershed in Jewish history. Extending the water analogy further, I want to use the Dead Sea as a metaphor for this change. In 1975 a unique hydrological event occurred in the Dead Sea. Until, then the water was stratified according to density, in fact the lowest level was less dense than the top layers due to increased evaporation at the top. But then as the water input from the Jordan River was decreased for irrigation, and the southern Dead Sea was divided into salt evaporation pans, the increasingly dense water on top began to sink and was replaced with less dense water from below and suddenly a tipping-point was reached and the water mixed, and the Dead Sea was changed completely forever.
If the Jewish tipping point has not yet been reached this year maybe it will be next year, but it will happen soon. Not only is the US Jewish population declining, but those of other countries are also, such as the UK that used to have ca. 500,000 Jews, but is now down to ca. 350,000, and the same with France and Holland, where increasing anti-Semitism is evident, and of course the fomer Soviet Union. With the Jewish population of Israel increasing, and the Jewish population of the diaspora decreasing, the two graphics will soon inevitably cross.
What are the consequences of this change-over for Jewish destiny and policy. Here are some examples, the Jewish Agency was given the responsibility to organize aliyah from North America. But, as they became increasingly bureaucratic, and as they applied a uniform policy throughout the world, including areas of poverty and enforced emigration of Jews with the affluent US, they failed in their mission. Then a few years ago an organization was founded in Florida, called Nefesh b'nefesh, that moved in to fill this vacuum. More and more Jews who wanted to make aliyah were finding it difficult or impossible to do so due to the financial burden and the unsympathetic bureaucracy. Nefesh b'nefesh sought to overcome these obstacles, by providing funds, grants and streamlined processing that is attractive to many American Jews. In fact, the processing is now done largely in the US and the immigrants are provided their Israeli papers while on the plane. Seeing the success of this venture, the Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption is now supporting this program with direct funding at a time when many other programs are being cut. Last year Nefesh b'nefesh brought ca. 3,000 Americans and Canadians, as well as ca. 2,000 Brits and French, on aliyah. This is a significant increase on previous numbers, and while it is still a drop in the ocean, is a definite improvement.
That Israel is now an attractive lifestyle alternative to American Jews is becoming clear. Increasing numbers of Americans are buying apartments in Israel as summer retreats or as occasional vacationers. In Netanya, there is a signficant number of such buyers, also from Russia, France and Britain. Many of the so-called oligarchs from Russia who are very wealthy are living in Israel, such as Guydamak, Nevztlin, and Ambramovich, who owns the Chelsea football club, and is building a mansion in Modi'in. Increasing numers of American Jews are being attracted to the new towns of Modi'in and Beth Shemesh Illit. And there are many places in Israel where Americans can build and/or live in American-style houses in largely English-speaking communities. Terrorism is way down, due to the Security Barrier and the effective use of intelligence on the West Bank. It's much moe dangerous to drive on Israeli roads.
Israel is no longer the poor, dependent cousin that it was. The per capita GDP is around $26,000 per annum, similar to many EU countries, and while the US average is ca. $46,000, not everyone lives at that level. In relation to food and health payments, Israel is a lot cheaper than the US. Israel is now a technologically advanced country, most payments for utilities are made automatically thru the bank and everything is computerized. There are more start-up companies in Israel than in the whole of Europe and than in Japan, it is second after the US. As such it is attractive to Americans who can perform their work via computer from their home anywhere in the world, and many choose to do so from Israel.
It is common to say that Israel is such a small country, but this is only in comparison to the USA. Actually, of the ca. 200 countries in the world Israel is around 100 for population, bigger than many other countries such as Denmark, Jordna, Kuwait, New Zealand, Lithuania, etc. And in size it is around 150, with many smaller countries than it, such as Kuwait, Lebanon.Cyprus, Singapore.
That there are differences in Israeli and American Jewish opinion is well-known, as an example, while ca. 75% of American Jews support Democratic candidate Barack Obama for the presidency, American Jews living in Israel support Republican candidate McCain by an equal majority. This is not unexpected given the difference in the reality of American and Israeli life and the threats that face Israel. One aspect of American life that is not often commented on is the presence of extreme right-wing groups in the West that occasionally attack Jewish sites, such as the attack in San Franciso that killed a woman, and the attack on the Jewish kindergarten in CA. While these groups have no power and are marginal, they still have the capability to expand under adverse conditions. And of course there are attacks by Muslim extremists that have killed Jews in America, not to mention also Black-Jewish tensions that have occasionally erupted into violence.
In a recent speech that received little attention given his current political situation, PM Olmert described the change in relationship of Israel to the diaspora, and commented that in future Israel would have to support Jewish education in the US and elsewhere if it wanted to retain a viable and vibrant Jewish presence. This portends a complete break with previous Israeli policy towards the diaspora. Maybe those who sought to establish a Jewish day school in this area, should think in the future of requesting a matching grant from the Israeli Ministry of Education, who should put their money where their mouth is.
While Israel faces significant challenges, especially from Iran and its proxies, the economy is strong, seemingly resistant to recession, tourism has increased 50% this year and apartment prices are rising. Although many Jews can find objections to living in Israel, the language, the heat, the bureaucracy, there are answers to all of these problems. In many areas one can get along without speaking a word of Hebrew (although a free Ulpan is one of the rights of immigrants), there are organizations such as the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) that has counsellors that assist English-speaking immigrants (my daughter is one of them) and a/c takes care of the heat. Israel is a happening place and the time is now!


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