Over more than three millennia, Jewish experience has combined with Jewish faith to create the very palpable feeling of Jewish peoplehood. Evidence of this permeates our liturgy and literature like the ubiquitous points of colour and light that suffuse a Georges Seurat painting.
Perhaps one of the most poignant examples in our liturgy occurs on the Sabbath preceding the start of a new month. In both Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites, the declaration of peoplehood is simple, elegant, straightforward and profoundly inspiring. Whether we chant the words in full voice, or whisper them silently, we cannot help but be moved by the importance of what we are actually saying: “May the Holy one, blessed be He, renew this month for us and for all His people the house of Israel, wherever they are” (emphasis mine).
This openly inclusive statement is not merely descriptive of what we believe. It is also prescriptive of how we should behave. The interconnectedness we feel with our co-religionists is a grand, transnational, sweeping arc of relationships and mutual concern. But in pragmatic terms, it is an ongoing, active obligation to care and to act, whenever necessary.
To be able to move from the theoretical to the practical aspects of shared peoplehood, however, we must first be aware of the conditions of our co-religionists around the globe. There is no better source for such information than the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) annual assessment.
JPPI is an independent, non-profit think tank based in Jerusalem, whose sole mission “is to ensure the thriving of the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization by engaging in professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry.”
The institute’s scholars study Jewish communities worldwide and distribute a variety of related essays and articles each year. In addition, the institute also publishes a broad overview of global Jewish communities according to “selected indicators,” such as demography and economic well-being.
In its latest assessment, JPPI lists the worldwide Jewish population in 2017 at 14.5 million. The largest number of Jews – 6.6 million – live in Israel. North America is home to 6.1 million Jews, 390,000 of whom are in Canada. Thus, of the 14.5 million Jews in the world, fully 12.7 million, or 87.5 per cent, reside in Israel, the U.S. and Canada. That means the rest of the planet is home to a mere 1.8 million Jews. Of this group, the largest community lives in France (456,000). Some 289,500 Jews live in the U.K. Both of these communities have dwindled considerably since 1970, when the population was 530,000 and 390,000 respectively.
In 2017, Jews comprised 0.2 per cent of the world’s population. Given the reality of the actual small number of Jews on earth, how incongruous, surreal, disquieting and infuriating, therefore, is the resilience and now resurgence of anti-Semitism. JPPI made the following observation of the situation of our co-religionists in Europe:
“Jews are concerned about their future and many do not feel safe to express their Jewish identities in public. A third of European Jews are considering emigrating, and many more do not see their children’s future on the continent.”
Likewise, “Members of Britain’s Jewish community, long an integral part of the cultural, social, economic and political fabric of the nation, are now considering emigrating in record numbers. The percentage of British Jews contemplating leaving has jumped from 19 per cent in 2014 to 31 per cent in 2018. This corresponds to Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the Labour party.”
The countless expressions of peoplehood, of shared collective purpose and of destiny in our prayer books, in the celebrations of our holidays and in the performance of our rituals are not, nor have they ever been, hollow slogans or sound-bite sermonizing. They define us.
As JPPI points out, that definition may be tested if we are called upon to help secure the safety and wellbeing of our fellow Jews.