1881 is a key date in modern Jewish history: in the wake of the events of that year, enormous changes – both demographic and ideological – began to develop that would alter the Jewish world forever. Strong tremors began to ripple through the Eastern European Jewish community centered in the ‘Pale of Settlement’, the immense area in the west of Russia to which the vast majority of its Jewish population was restricted.
The reason most commonly given for these changes is the 1881 pogroms that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Alexander the Second, which was largely blamed on the Jews. While it is true that the pogroms provided the immediate catalyst for the intense soul-searching that underlay the new winds beginning to blow through the Jewish community, it is often not understood that these events also stemmed from a significant demographic cause.
The pogroms were aimed against a Jewish community that was in the process of starving to death. Eastern Europe in general, and the Pale of Settlement specifically, were among the most economically -undeveloped regions of Europe, and the Jews were particularly hard-hit. Restricted as they were by their inability to own land in almost the entire area; forced into a number of marginal occupations in which they were supposed to make a living, and generally discriminated against by the regime, they would have been in trouble in any circumstances. In addition to all these circumstances, however, the 19th century witnessed a population explosion among the Eastern European Jews that has never been completely explained.
The Jewish population had been expanding for many generations, but the first eighty years of the century saw an extraordinary increase in population. In these two generations their numbers rose by over 500%: from around one million at the beginning of the period to over five million in 1880. Their position had been very difficult to start with. Predictably, in these new circumstances, the material circumstances of the Jewish population drastically deteriorated, resulting in widespread poverty and starvation. The community and its institutions collapsed.
It was against this background that the pogroms struck the community. Is it any wonder that the two expressions of the crisis in which the community now found themselves were ideological and demographic? The response was ideological, on the one hand, because it was obvious to many of the youth, in particular, that there was no future for them in Eastern Europe unless they started to take fate into their own hands in some way. They had to change their situation by their own efforts, rather than wait passively in the blind hope that their situation would improve by itself. Increased numbers started to enter the ranks of the socialist and revolutionary camps, while others began to turn to what would soon become fully-fledged Zionism. These responses were not long in coming. The demographic response, however, was immediate.
The Eastern European Jews reacted to the new situation created by the pogroms by deciding to leave Russia and Eastern Europe altogether. Starting in the immediate wake of the pogroms, thousands, then tens of thousands and, finally, hundreds of thousands and millions of Jews left the region. They struck out for lands of more promise in the modern world. Most of them wanted to settle in America.
The Jews considered America to hold the greatest potential. This was the ‘Goldene Medina,’ the golden state where the very streets were said to be paved with gold, and where immigrants would be able to improve their economic situation and work their way upwards within a short time. It was this myth of America, rather than the concrete reality, that attracted such a stampede.
Although America was the goal of the majority of Jews leaving Eastern Europe, many emigrants ended up in many entirely different parts of the world. For a variety of reasons, including the unscrupulous practices of ship agents, shortage of funds and the efforts of certain philanthropists who had other plan for these Jews, some never got to their desired destination. Many went to Western Europe, especially to Britain; others went to South America. The vast majority, however, did emigrate to the United States, where they soon formed the numerically dominant stratum of local Jewish communities there.
They were the third stratum of the American Jewish community, a situation not dissimilar in many of the other communities in which the new immigrants found themselves. The veterans were almost all Sephardi (Spanish) Jews whose ancestors had escaped Spain and Portugal in centuries past and had struck out for the New World in the hope of escaping religious persecution. An additional layer of Jewish immigrants had come mostly from Central Europe in the mid-19th century, propelled by a host of economic, religious and political motives. In the 1870s several thousands of East European immigrants had made their way to the United States, but this was only a prelude to the floods that came in the decades following 1881. Altogether, over two million Jews made their way to the new ‘Promised Land’ in subsequent years.
Most of the immigrants encountered a very difficult – and sometimes horrific – reality on their arrival there, startlingly different from the dreams they had envisioned while still in Russia. Brutal proletarianization was the lot of many in the sweatshops of the big American cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Large Jewish ghettos, centers of sordid poverty and social ills, developed in these and other cities (paralleled by similar developments in cities in other countries. The Lower East Side was in many ways only a larger version of London’s East End).
It is important to remember that, despite the vast exodus from Eastern Europe, the net effect was merely to drain off the ‘surplus’ population. The Jewish population of the Pale stayed fairly stable, remaining at around five million on the eve of World War I, despite the exit of some two-and-a-half million Jews in the preceding thirty years. In these years, many of the remaining Jews were pulled to the big cities that were developing as a result of industrial investment and other economic forces. Cities such as Odessa, Bialystok, Lodz, and particularly Warsaw, now developed large Jewish proletariats. Warsaw became a giant – the largest Jewish community in the world – before it was finally overtaken by New York. The experience of urbanization and proletarianization was thus not restricted in these years to the Jews who left Eastern Europe for the cities of the New World: many of those who stayed behind underwent the same experiences.
In the Jewish world it can generally be stated that – at least among the Ashkenazi Jews (the vast majority of the total Jewish population at this time) – these were years of great difficulty but also of strong dynamism and change. In the cities of the New World, the often brutal conditions encountered by the immigrant generation would largely give way, within less than a generation, to a much better economic and social reality. These Jews were generally upwardly-mobile. In the large Jewish cities of Eastern Europe, on the other hand, upward mobility was the experience of only the minority. The vast majority stayed down in the working classes, due to the limited economic growth of the entire area and the equally limited opportunities for Jews, in particular, to progress economically.
For all the horror associated with the Holocaust, it is relatively simple to sum up its demographic effects. The most obvious effect was plainly the destruction of almost all of Central and Eastern European Jewry. The two exceptions were Hungary – where some 100,000 Jews are estimated to have survived because of specific circumstances – and the interior of Russia – never conquered by the Nazis, and thus a haven to hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled to the east during the war years. The heart of European Jewry was utterly destroyed and the map of the Jewish world altered forever. The global Jewish population fell from around 16.6 million in 1939 to around 11 million after the war.
The number of Jewish survivors who wished to leave their land of birth forever far exceeded the number of those who wanted to return to their pre-war homes in Central and Eastern Europe. Another factor influencing the potential emigrants was the pogroms that broke out in the immediate post-war period in those areas to which the Jews did return. It is difficult to quote precise numbers, but hundreds of thousands now followed in the wake of previous generations, turning either to Palestine/Israel on the one hand or to the new centers of western Jewry in America (including South America), Western Europe, Australia and South Africa. Some 150,000 are estimated to have arrived in Palestine/Israel in the post-war years. The effect of the Holocaust survivors on all of the communities in which they arrived was enormous, especially in the middle-to-long term, as certain communities emerged with consciousness of the Holocaust at the center of their Jewish identity.
The rise of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel have had an enormous impact on most aspects of Jewish life. Among these, the demographic revolution wrought by Zionism is especially noteworthy.
The emergence of an influential new Jewish center in the old/new land of Palestine is far more than a significant demographic change for the Jews: the demography itself is striking in a number of different ways. In 1800, the total Jewish population of Palestine was only a few thousand. This number had risen to just over 25,000 before the beginning of the ‘Zionist’ Aliyah that followed the 1881 pogroms.
In contrast to the mass immigrations of millions to the west – and especially to the United States – in the decades after 1881, the Zionist Aliyot (waves of immigration to the Land of Israel) were small. By 1914, at the end of the second Aliyah, a mere 65,000 are estimated to have joined the Jewish community of Palestine and to have stayed. Numbers increased considerably from the mid-1920s: at the end of the 1930s the Jewish population was estimated at over 425,000. The next decade brought slightly fewer than 200,000 Jews so that, on the eve of independence, the Jewish population stood at over 600,000.
Equally important in the developing picture was the ethnic background of the Jewish population. Before the waves of Zionist Aliyah started to change the country, a large proportion of the Jewish population consisted of Sephardim, many of whom traced their families back for generations in the Land. With the exception of some significant groups of Yemenite immigrants, however, the pre-State immigrants were predominantly of European background.
This comes as no surprise as, ideologically, Zionism came out of a Europe in the grip of fierce nationalist excitement throughout the 19th century. The eastern world was less touched by these factors, having fallen on fairly sleepy times centuries earlier; it would only wake up to new ideas in the 20th century. As a result, the new State of Israel was a creation, almost exclusively, of Zionist Ashkenazi Jews who had largely revolted against their native European way of life.
One of the first decisions of the new state was to reverse the policy of the British, who had seriously restricted Jewish immigration in the pre-war years. Consequently, new immigrants poured into the country. In those years, immigration came mainly from two sources: Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom had been interned by the British in camps on Cyprus, and the masses of Eastern Jews who – until that point – had played only a marginal role in the Zionist narrative. These communities were now on the move due to a mixture of Zionist propaganda, Messianic enthusiasm and the anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish feelings that had recently flared up in many Arab countries.
In the years following independence, the character of the Jewish State as a European creation of ideological Zionism began to be challenged with the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Asia and Africa. The three largest migrations at that time came from Iraq (by far the largest), Yemen and Morocco. They joined the Jews arriving simultaneously from post-Holocaust Europe, spearheaded by large groups from Rumania and Poland. As Israel began to fill up, absorbing some 680,000 immigrants between 1948 and 1952, once-large Jewish centers in Eastern and East Central Europe were being emptied of their Jews after centuries – in some cases, millennia – of Jewish communal existence. For example, the roots of the Iraqi (Babylonian) community and the Yemenite community were some 2,500 years deep. These years saw the beginning of the end for those communities, and their relocation on their original soil, the Land of Israel.
The Jewish population of the young state more than doubled in the years following its establishment, causing intense social tensions and problems which continue to influence the country today. After that, however, immigration settled down to more manageable proportions for the next thirty years. Many Jews continued to arrive in the 1950s, especially from countries like Poland, Rumania and Morocco. In the aftermath of the 1967 war, there was substantial immigration from western countries, especially the English-speaking world and Western Europe.
Soviet immigrants began to appear in the early 1970s as Russia, under intense pressure from the western world, allowed Jews to leave for Israel. By the end of the decade, some 140,000 had arrived in Israel. This Aliyah, hailed as a triumph by Jews throughout the world, included many prominent figures such as former ‘Prisoners of Zion’ who had become famous in the years of their struggle. Yet it caused much social tension in Israel, as resentment towards the newcomers developed among many of the more disadvantaged population. This was a prelude to the far larger Russian immigration that occurred in the late 1980s in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet state. Peaking in 1990and 1991, immigration from the former Soviet Union reached 375,000 by the end of the century.
Other noteworthy waves of Aliyah included those from Ethiopia, principally in1984 (Operation Moses) and 1991 (Operation Solomon). These brought an almost unknown new element into the State of Israel and, indeed, to the consciousness of world Jewry. It was simultaneously a source of great pride to Israel and a cause of great frustration and difficulty due to the difficulties in absorption that are still being felt in large parts of the community today. Most recently the number of immigrants from the troubled communities of Argentina and France increased significantly. Altogether, millions of immigrants have come to Palestine/Israel, reinforcing the perception of the last century as one of Jewish migration, by far the greatest in Jewish history.
The founding fathers of the Zionist state tried to establish a melting pot into which each citizen would jettison their separate group identity, subsuming it in the common one of the new Jewish nation. However, the diverse aims of members of different groups, and the antagonism aroused by the troubled interaction between them, had the opposite result. This was particularly true for those groups who felt that the establishment disparaged their identity in some way. Their response was often to preserve their group identity along with an aggressive resentment against those in the mainstream whom they perceived as purveyors of the idea of a uniform culture.
Thus, while the fascinating phenomenon of a Jewish Diaspora has largely vanished in many regions, the specific identities of many members of those cultures have been preserved to some extent – albeit in much altered form – in Israel. Unquestionably, one of the most important questions that Israel is dealing with internally is to what extent these separate cultural identities will be meaningful in another generation. It is too early to tell.
As mentioned earlier, the Holocaust all but wiped out Jewish life in Central, East-Central and Eastern Europe. Substantial communities continued to exist potentially only in Hungary (essentially Budapest) and in the central and more easterly parts of the Soviet Union. The word “potentially” is used to stress the problematic nature of Jewish existence in the lands that remained under Communist control until the late 1980s.
Communism made any kind of meaningful Jewish life untenable. Jewish culture was recognized only in the most limited way. Furthermore, members of the Jewish communities of Communist Europe always felt themselves under suspicion by the various regimes and society in general. For all but the hardiest and most determined of Jews, survival as human beings in these countries was felt to be threatened by openly living a Jewish life.
This feeling was certainly reinforced by the awareness that millions of Jews had died recently because regimes had viewed them as inimical. In such circumstances, hiding one’s Jewish origins was less an act of paranoia than of prudence. Consequently, in many places, Jewish life either went underground or simply ceased to exist, as parents found themselves unable or unwilling to pass on to their children anything positive about Jewish life. For many, Jewish identity became a stigma. Many consciously worked to dissociated themselves from any suspicion of being Jewish.
The results were inevitable: an almost complete attrition of Jewish life in the communities living under Communist regimes. A few older people, too old to change, kept up some vestigial connection. Regimes saw them as essentially harmless and, in some cases, actually co-opted and used them. These people could not provide any model for the younger generations, however. As a result, Jewish life essentially came to a standstill all over Central and Eastern Europe, as much in places where there was still a Jewish population as in those where the population had been wiped out by the Holocaust.
There were some exceptions to this trend, however. This was particularly true in areas of the Soviet Union where – in the late 1960s – Jewish and Zionist identity became connected in some aspects with dissident opposition to the current regime. Some young, brave Jews set up underground circles in which Jewish culture and language were studied. These were noteworthy but, by their very nature, minority creations: there was no way in which they could surface as large-scale manifestations of Jewish identity.
When the Iron Curtain finally fell, it was unclear what would happen with the Jewish population in that region. No-one knew how many people would be prepared to define themselves as Jews. Even after the fall of the various Communist regimes, people were unsure whether it would be either wise or beneficial to reveal their identity in a society where Jews would not necessarily be much more accepted than before.
One thing that did change, however, was the ability of western organizations to operate in the new vacuum that had been created. Some – such as the American Joint Distribution Committee – had quietly been operating underground for many years. They were now able to emerge and start working more openly and efficiently. Other organizations that had not been active in the communities could now publicly set to work as well.
It is difficult to know what exactly would have happened had there been no attempt by world Jewish organizations to galvanize dormant communities. The result – largely through the these organizations’ activities – was clear, however: with the use of hefty sums to stimulate Jewish life by the provision of welfare activities and cultural/religious services, communities began to revive.
With time, increasing numbers of people – including many who had never acknowledged their roots before – began to emerge and connect themselves in some way with the Jewish community. Predictably, the main arenas of activity were in Hungary and the former Soviet Union. Other smaller communities, however – including Poland, the Baltic states and the new states that came out of the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia – also showed stalwart renewal of activity for their size.
Estimates of the size of the Jewish communities today are still very speculative. No-one is sure, even now, how many Jews there are in these countries because some are still emerging. There is also a serious dilemma regarding the definition of Jewish identity. Nevertheless, informed people offer the following rounded statistics:
There is the distinct possibility that – in the next generation at least – these regions are going to provide unique examples of an expanding Diaspora population. This is because schools and informal educational/ cultural networks are working to change the negative image of Jewish identity that became so entrenched in people’s minds just a few decades ago. Large amounts of money will continue to be spent in these places in the foreseeable future, which could well cause increasing numbers to reveal their identity. However, these populations may decide to migrate at some time in the future.
As mentioned earlier, hundreds of thousands of those who identify themselves as Jews, or who can prove some marginal connection with Jewish blood, have made Aliyah to Israel. Equal numbers have moved to the West, a phenomenon that will now be examined here. It remains to be seen whether the demography of these communities will stabilize as their community life develops. Perhaps the main issue here is the economic prospects of each community.
In analyzing the reasons for migration throughout Jewish history, two main reasons for community spread and the movement of Jews to different areas in the world can be noted: the desires to escape persecution and improve one’s economic prospects. These factors have both operated constantly to re-arrange the Jewish map of the world, often with considerable interdependence.
Where Jews were needed for economic reasons, there was less likelihood of their being actively persecuted. Jews inevitably gravitated to such places. Examples of this trend can be seen in their migration into Ashkenaz (the German lands) around the early 9th century, the eastwards push of that community into the Polish lands from the 13th century onwards, and then into the Ukrainian lands in the late 16th century.
This does not mean, however, that safety and prosperity at any given period can be defined by looking at a map of Jewish communities. Some communities lived in marginal economic situations and remained very vulnerable; few, however, had alternatives. Fifty years after the terrible mid-17th-century pogroms in the Ukraine – which decimated the Jewish community of the area, causing tens of thousands of deaths and causing most of the community to flee – the Ukraine was full of Jews once again.
Nevertheless, economic factors have been among the main causes of many large-scale Jewish migrations, including those that have occurred in modern times. Sometimes these factors are the sole motive for a move; more usually, however, they combine with other causes to dictate both the timing and the new destination. Some examples of this have already been mentioned here. A significant factor in the stampede at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to the United States – and to a lesser extent to Western Europe and South America – was the concept of the ‘Goldene Medina’ whose streets were said to be paved with gold. Similarly, groups have been noted among the new immigrants to Palestine/Israel whose motivation was primarily economic. For instance, immigrants from Poland in the 1920s and those from the former Soviet Union in more recent years moved because of a combination of economic troubles and the necessity of leaving a harsh social and political reality.
In other cases, however, economic considerations have been central. This phenomenon can be demonstrated through the stories of four different communities. These are meant to be representative rather than exhaustive. When discussing the North African’s move to France, the Russians’ move to Germany, or the South Africans’ move to Australia, the fact that many Jews moved to Canada, the United States or England is not being ignored. However, each of these stories is meaningful because it is indicative of general trends.
A. The North African migration to France.
When most North African Jews moved to Israel in the 1950s, an estimated 200,000 moved to France instead. They had identical reasons for leaving North Africa, but had drawn different conclusions. Being familiar with the French language and culture from the colonial dominance of France in their region, they elected to move to a place where they could better their standard of living. These pragmatic, rather than ideological, considerations certainly proved themselves. An tremendous influx of energy transformed the tired post-war Jewish community in France; the new immigrants themselves demonstrated the classic immigrant model of rising fortunes through the generations.
This contrasted starkly with the North African immigrants to Israel. Bereft of the community leadership that had mainly moved to France, and at a disadvantage in the Hebrew-speaking, spartan environment of the early Zionist state, they continued to struggle through most of the second and third generations.
B. The Russian Jewish migration to Germany.
A similar phenomenon has occurred with regard to the tens of thousands of former Soviet Jews who have moved to Germany in the last decade or so. In this case, also, practical economic considerations were the first priority. This narrative is a little different, however, because those who moved to Israel generally did not do so for ideological reasons: most were searching for a new start in a different land. For many, Israel was simply the easiest place in which to be accepted. Nevertheless, there is still a considerable stigma attached to the idea of Jews’ living in Germany. Only those determined to ignore all but purely practical considerations could settle there so soon after the Holocaust. Of the 60,000-odd Jews living in Germany today, the vast majority are former Russians whose presence, in recent years, has begun to transform the community.
C. The Israeli move to Germany.
Here a stratum of the German Jewish population needs to be discussed that represents another side of the same phenomenon: many thousands of Israelis left Israel for Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. In those decades large numbers of Jews left Israel, seeking a better economic and social reality in the western world. Most moved to the main cities of the English-speaking world, but the presence of a considerable community in Germany highlights the Jews’ motives precisely because of the stigma associated with living in Germany.
Those who moved to Germany, then, were doubly stigmatized. Many of them were clearly sufficiently highly motivated personally, and prepared to ignore all ideological considerations. On a symbolic level, therefore, their move to Germany represents the wider act of Israeli Yerida in its starkest and most problematic form.
D. The South African move to Australia.
A fourth group of Jews who have left their native country largely, although not completely, for pragmatic economic and socio-political reasons are the Jews of South Africa. For the last twenty years, they have mainly been settling into the English speaking world, and Australia in particular.
Socially and politically, they felt increasingly uneasy in a society being revolutionized by the native Africans’ accession to power. Many Jews were uncertain about the future of both the country and their own families. Furthermore, the rising wave of crime that swept through most of South Africa, victimizing the middle class – of which the Jews are a prominent part – left them feeling particularly vulnerable. Additional economic considerations connected with the devaluation of the South African rand caused many to decide to get out before it became financially impossible.
These Jews are totally different from the smaller group of South African Jews who left the country in the previous generation because of their unwillingness to live under apartheid. Many of the latter made their way to Israel, backing one ideological decision with another.
Largely because of the difficulties of submerging themselves in the Afrikaners’ world, South African Jews have tended to develop a very strong Jewish and Zionist identity. Many have been prepared to work to improve and influence whichever community in which they have found themselves. The recent emigrants from South Africa have thus made a strong impact on the Australian community, transforming its institutions and injecting considerable talent and energy into its leadership.
These four examples indicate an important factor in modern Jewish demography: in an increasingly mobile world, there is a growing awareness of the potential for transforming one’s economic and social circumstances by changing domicile. This idea has not been lost on the Jews. As a direct result, entire new communities are being formed on the basis of migration, and old communities are being transformed.
Contrary to popular belief, neither assimilation nor intermarriage are new phenomena among the Jewish people. 2,500 years ago, returning to Jerusalem to lead the community of Jewish returnees to Eretz Yisrael, Ezra was shocked by the amount of intermarriage among the local Jews and forced them to divorce their non-Jewish partners. Nevertheless, we have comparatively little information concerning the phenomenon in the pre-modern period. It is clear that it occurred in some places and times, although we can only assume that religious taboos and social isolation would have restricted its frequency.
The situation changed, however, with the modern age, one in which the traditional boundaries that had separated Jews and non-Jews started to crumble in the Christian lands of the west. At this time, there was a perceptible weakening of traditional religious belief among many Jews, who were encountering the ideas and realities of the outside world. The temptation to convert to another religion grew strong. In the 19th century, in particular, hundreds of thousands of Jews converted and married ‘out’.
In earlier generations, there was a small number of Jews who married ‘out’ but wished to maintain a Jewish life. However, Jews were increasingly being accepted outside their communities, and laws limiting their participation in general society were slowly being eliminated. The temptation to convert weakened, as a result, while the number of intermarriages started to increase. Already by the mid-19th century, some of the leaders of Reform Judaism were rethinking the traditional ban on intermarriage and beginning to accept the idea of marriage to non-Jews as long as any children were raised as Jews. The early decades of the 20th century saw intermarriage soaring in most parts of Western and Central Europe, causing it to become a very serious global issue for Jews and their leaders.
It is possible that the decimation of European Jewry amid the massive rise of anti-Jewish hatred throughout the western world (including the situation in England in the 1930s and in America in the 1940s) slowed down the rate of intermarriage. Many moralists have tried to draw the following lesson from the Holocaust: that Jews who assimilate and intermarry can never avoid being considered and judged as Jews.
Despite this, many believe that the current situation is different. The last generation has seen a return to the pre-war situation of widespread, continually increasing rates of intermarriage. The main reasons for this phenomenon are easily identifiable: a relaxation of communal prohibitions and sanctions; the irrelevance of Jewish religious theology to many contemporary Jews; ignorance of tradition and history, and a belief in romance, which upholds emotional connection as the sole criterion for a relationship.
The Conservative movement has followed Reform in consciously deciding to accept non-Jewish spouses into their congregations. Their main argument is that it is preferable to try to win new adherents for Judaism and the Jewish people from among the circle of the intermarried. Encouraging them to re-enter the community and to find their place there is likely to create for some the basis for a strong, meaningful Jewish life. They contend that this is a productive way of dealing with the problem. Pushing such people out of the community will eventually weaken world Jewry.
It needs to be stated clearly that there no Jewish movement actually encourages intermarriage. The question that they are all being forced to deal with, however, is how to respond to the present reality. Thus in the non-Orthodox world, this stance – with its important practical implications – has tended to replace the response of outrage and collective shunning that was usual until fairly recently in the more traditional circles. One could state that outrage has given way to outreach. The Orthodox world, on the other hand, has generally maintained traditional attitudes and sanctions in this regard. The issue remains controversial for most of the Jewish world.
Intermarriage and assimilation are clearly of great significance to Jewish demographers. Apart from the theological considerations of their effect on Judaism and the sociological considerations of their consequences within the Jewish community, demographers need to define the criteria for counting Jews in places where these phenomena are rife.
At one time, it could be safely assumed that there was – more or less – a complete overlap between the number of Jews living in a particular area, and the number of those actually involved in the community. This is no longer the case. Only a certain percentage of Jews actively participate in some way in the community, however the community’s institutional lines are drawn. This raises a series of new – and very contentious – questions that have no really ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers:
Despite the development of increasingly sophisticated survey techniques, the demographers’ job is becoming ever more difficult due to serious difficulties in making ‘correct’ decisions on such complex issues. Statistics are important mainly insofar as they support the evidence for trends within the specific community being examined.
For example, a debate has developed around the recently published figures for American Jewry. According to the National Jewish Population survey, taken once a decade as the main official study of this demographic sector, the current size of the Jewish population of the United States is 5.2 million. However, the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research has published recent estimates that reach 6.7 million. The difference results less from differences in surveying techniques and more from the criteria that have been used to determine “Who is a Jew?”. Furthermore, the latter study reported that there are another 2.5 million Americans who are ‘socially or psychologically’ connected with Judaism. This includes people who practice Judaism together with another religion; who were raised Jewish but who now practice another religion, or who have a Jewish partner or spouse.
This issue is by no means restricted to the west, however: it is just as pertinent in the communities of East Central and Eastern Europe, discussed earlier in this paper. For example, the Jewish community in Hungary is generally estimated at 80,000. However, a number of contemporary surveys of Hungarian Jewry reveal astonishing discrepancies: the numbers quoted vary between 50,000 and 200,000. Some of the difference can be explained by the specific reality of the community in which people have hidden their identity and are not necessarily hurrying to reclaim it through open connection with the community. A significant part of the discrepancy, however, is due to the question of defining a Jew. The question is relevant for almost every Jewish community around the world.
A recent magazine article (Jerusalem Report 21.10.2002) quoted the demographer responsible for the above-mentioned San Francisco report as saying that “Jews are not disappearing, they are transforming… The kinds of language we used to describe populations in the past are useless and self defeating… We have to be more open to the idea that the Jewish community is broader and probably disconnected from Jewish life. I think that the potential for a larger and even more vibrant Jewish community, is huge”.
This opinion has been quoted here because of its far-reaching implications for the way in which see the Jewish community is perceived today. Among other things, it raises the question of the meaning behind the raw figures:
When demographers and statisticians begin to speak of large numbers of Jews disconnected from any community as being a meaningful part of world Jewry, it is time to go back to the beginning again, and to ask basic questions about the meaning of being a Jew today. It is not enough to talk about numbers: demography must also be able to discuss the meaning of those numbers for a living Jewish community. This paper has surveyed the forces that have created the present Jewish world; analyzed the meaning of the main demographic trends, and attempted to define the contours of the Jewish world today.
The official statistic for the global Jewish population stands at a little over 13,000,000. Some say that, in providing these figures, the demographers have completed their task. In effect, however, their work has only just begun: assessing the meaning of the figures for the Jewish present and, thus, for its future.