Note: The following piece is from a symposium published in Commentary Magazine‘s November issue. Contributors were asked to respond to the following question: “What will be the condition of the Jewish community fifty years from now?”
Today’s Jewish world has two main centers: America and Israel. But by 2065, if current trends hold, it will have only one—Israel.
One reason is simple demographics. Today, the two communities are of similar size. Israel, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), has 6.3 million Jews. America, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, has between 5.4 to 6.8 million, depending on whether you count only “core Jews” or the “enlarged” population, which includes “persons of Jewish parentage” and “non-Jewish household members.”
But America’s core Jewish population has barely grown over the past half-century. True, in 1960, the “enlarged” population was only 5.4 to 5.5 million. But since intermarriage was much less common then, this population—identical to today’s core Jewish figure—primarily comprised core Jews. Its subsequent increase has thus come mainly from counting non-Jews as Jews.
Israel’s core Jewish population, in contrast, has more than tripled, from 1.9 million in 1960.
This divergence will only increase. According to a Pew Research study released this year, American Jewish fertility is below replacement rate, at 1.9 children per woman. Israel’s Jewish fertility rate, according to the CBS, is a robust 3.05. Thus, while America’s Jewish population is suffering natural decline, Israel’s benefits from strong natural growth. And though European Jewish emigration may bolster both, past experience indicates that any large-scale exodus would disproportionately benefit Israel.
Thus 50 years hence, Israeli Jews will far outnumber their American kin, which alone would ensure Israel’s predominance. But Israel will also probably have the more Jewishly committed community.
American Jews are increasingly opting out. In a 2013 Pew poll, 32 percent of those born after 1980 defined themselves as “Jews of no religion,” compared with only 7 percent born in 1914–27. And compared with Jews “by religion,” Jews “of no religion” were more than twice as likely to intermarry, almost seven times as likely to raise their children non-Jewish, more than five times as likely to deem being Jewish of little or no importance, more than twice as likely to feel no attachment to Israel, and less than a third as likely to care about belonging to a Jewish community. In short, their contribution to American Jewry is almost nil.
Only 28 percent of all American Jews, moreover, deemed “being part of a Jewish community” essential to their Jewish identity. American Jews’ outsized impact on world Jewry has stemmed largely from their capacity for collective action both at home and abroad. But organized communities are important vehicles for mobilizing collective action; as more Jews shun such communities, American Jewry will inevitably be diminished.
In Israel, by contrast, opting out is hard to do; like it or not, you’re part of an enormous Jewish collective—the State of Israel—whose decisions affect everyone. And perhaps partly in consequence, Jewish engagement is booming.
A 2007 Guttman Center study found that while 68 percent of Israeli Jews over 60 years old defined themselves as secular, only 37 percent of adults under 30 did so; the rest placed themselves on the broad spectrum from traditional-but-nonobservant to ultra-Orthodox. And even secular Israelis rarely abandon Judaism entirely. In another Guttman Center survey, from 2009, sweeping majorities of Israeli Jews deemed it important to observe Jewish lifestyle rituals such as circumcision or shivah (over 90 percent), celebrate Jewish holidays “in the traditional manner” (85 percent), keep kosher at home (76 percent), and have a special Sabbath-eve meal (more than two-thirds).
More than two-thirds also attributed importance to studying classical Jewish texts such as the Bible and the Talmud. Study options for secular Jews have mushroomed accordingly, from jam-packed Shavuot learning sessions to full-year pre-army programs.
Thus by dint of both size and commitment, Israel seems set to become the world’s predominant Jewish community, replacing the current American–Israeli parity.
Of course, this assumes Israel’s survival. American Jews increasingly seem to doubt such survival is possible unless the intractable Palestinian conflict is somehow resolved. As one distinguished American Jew warned: “Regardless of what the United States does, Israel’s diplomatic isolation will increase unless there is a general settlement. Without a fundamental change, Israel could wind up in an international diplomatic ghetto, with the United States her only friend. Even in the United States, Israel’s position will not be secure unless she changes her policy.”
Actually, that’s from December 1973; it’s New York Times journalist James Reston’s summary of Henry Kissinger’s views. Since then, Israel’s Jewish population has more than doubled, its GDP has quintupled, and it has opened diplomatic relations with dozens of additional countries.
The future contains no guarantees. But previous rumors of Israel’s impending demise have proved greatly exaggerated.
Originally published in Commentary in November 2015