Both Israel, US Jewish community must implement population growth methods
by Lawrence J. Epstein
The two major centers of the world’s Jewish population, Israel and the United States, both have demographic challenges, though for different reasons and of different kinds. Both need to implement methods for demographic growth.
Israel’s demographic problem comes from two sources. Zionist theorists didn’t grasp that the Arab world around Israel viewed itself, even if more in theory than practice, as a nation of Arab and Muslim nations and Israel as a foreign and unwelcome minority nation in that nation of nations.
That is, the Jewish population in Israel is demographically comparable to earlier Jewish minority groups. Their regional minority status currently prevents them from assuming the attributes of a normal sovereign nation. No one questions whether Argentina should exist or whether Austria will still be around in 50 years.
The second source of the problem emerges from a demographic competition between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Demography is destiny in a democracy. As a democracy, Israel will have its political, economic, religious, and cultural soul determined by who votes in elections and therefore control the nation’s institutions.
For Israelis, more Jews also means more personnel for the various organizations devoted to communal self-defense and more workers to contribute to Israel’s already impressive economic growth. A larger Jewish population would be of immense symbolic value by illustrating to the world Israel’s determination to defend its land. A larger Jewish population would help create a larger Israel through such efforts as expanding artificial islands into the Mediterranean Sea. The excitement of growth will itself spur solutions to problems such as an adequate water supply.
Declining political clout
American Jewish declining numbers will have serious political and social effects. To some extent, this reality has been blunted for American Jews primarily because the majority of American gentiles support Israel and Jewish rights. Additionally, Jews are perceived by some to be influential beyond their numbers. American Jews continue to reside in large states with significant electoral votes and can be a swing vote, have had no genuine opposition politically for more than half a century, and, perhaps most importantly, donate extensively to political candidates, parties, and efforts.
But as their numbers decline, their political clout will decrease, especially if younger Jews don’t donate for specifically Jewish reasons, or if anti-Israel Muslim Americans rise to challenge pro-Israel American Jews in number and economic impact, or if there is public financing of elections, rendering the Jewish economic clout much weaker.
With declining numbers, American Jews will have trouble meeting basic communal needs. There will be too few young people taking care of too many adults. Demographic decline means fewer Jewish students from day schools to graduate schools, synagogue members, Jewish organizational supporters and members, potential marriage partners, consumers of kosher food, subscribers and readers of Jewish media, and supporters of Jewish institutions.
There will also be fewer patrons of Jewish cultural events, political activists, for example, on behalf of Israel and against prejudice as well as a wide range of social actions, people producing Jewish books, films, music, and other artistic works. Even if, as demographic optimists claim, American Jewry is not declining in absolute numbers, it is declining as a proportion of the population, a phenomenon sure to be aggravated by the fact that American Jews are statistically seven years older than the general population.
There is a limited number of ways to increase the Jewish population. In Israel those have been primarily through Jewish births and immigration. But pronatalism, that is, birth encouragement, has its limits. There is, for example, the famous case of David Ben-Gurion proposing that the Israeli government provide a cash bonus to every Israeli woman who gave birth to a 10th child. The plan was discontinued when too many Arab women collected the bonus; as a democracy, the government was obligated to give equal treatment to Jews and Arabs.
Israel has made heroic efforts to attract and keep Jewish immigrants, but it has failed to attract American Jews in large numbers and available populations elsewhere remain both limited and uncertain in their desire to make Aliyah.
Meanwhile, American Jews have a negative population growth and high assimilation rates. And American Jews don’t control and so can’t when necessary or at will increase Jewish immigration to the US.
But if encouraging births and immigration both in Israel and the US are insufficient efforts, what will work? Efforts most likely to succeed include welcoming back to Judaism those with Jewish ancestors and warmly embracing all those who wish to join the Jewish people on its historic spiritual journey by converting to Judaism. It is time to organize, staff, and fund large and practical efforts to increase our numbers.
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