A rabbinic dictum has it that when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, the gift of prophecy was given to fools and children. There’s much to suggest that, despite their best intentions, contemporary demographers are either fools or children, when they try to predict the future of the Jewish people.
In a recent blog post, Gary Schiff, who’s described as a U.S.-Israel resource consultant, reflected on the unpredictability of demographic predictions: “A study of the Jewish population in 1875 would have shown 10 million Jews worldwide, the majority, perhaps three-fourths, in eastern Europe and Russia and the rest around the Middle East and Persia.”
He asked rhetorically: “Who would have predicted the impact of Lenin or Stalin, or the rise of Hitler? Conversely, who would have predicted the impact of a newspaper reporter named Theodor Herzl?”
Pointing to events in our lifetime, Schiff continues: “Did anyone foresee a Hollywood actor becoming a U.S. president and successfully challenging the Soviet communist empire, which ultimately brought some one million Russian Jews to Israel?”
Yet, despite his apparent reservations about accurately predicting events, Schiff devotes much of his blog post to contemporary theories about our future. His conclusion: “If trends continue, in 20 years the majority of the world’s Jews will be living in Israel. The United States will see a continuing decline in overall numbers with a growing observant Jewish population based in larger communities.”
The decline of the Jewish population in the United States may be in part due to assimilation and intermarriage, but above all, it’s the result of the low birthrate among non-Orthodox Jews: 1.7 per married couple. By contrast, the birth rate in strictly Orthodox families, though decreasing, is still 6.7 per couple, some four times higher than in non-Orthodox families.
This suggests that in a couple of generations, Orthodox Jews may be in the majority, particularly in Israel. In view of existing restrictions imposed on non-Orthodox Jews and projections about further efforts by the rabbinate to control Jewish lives in Israel, they may come to feel less and less comfortable there. Despite growing anti-Semitism in many countries, including the United States, Jews may nevertheless choose to stay in, or emigrate to, the Diaspora.
Likewise, more Israelis may seek to establish themselves abroad, where life isn’t controlled by a religious establishment, even though they’re more likely to be lost to the Jewish people. There are already indications of a brain-drain of liberal academics from Israel.
Jewish immigration to Israel is slowing down, as well. Last year, only 30,000 Jews made aliyah. In view of the increasingly inhospitable climate for liberal Jews in Israel – which is reflected, for example, in denying them equal prayer space at the Western Wall – the number of non-Orthodox Jewish immigrants is likely to decrease in the years to come. Though they may feel vulnerable in the countries of their birth, they may argue that they aren’t made to feel very much at home in Israel, either.
The Jewish Agency for Israel was an essential force in the creation of the Jewish state. It brought Jews from around the world and built bridges between Israel and the Diaspora. Its mission has been to “inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with the people, heritage and land, and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel.”
Today, this may mean not only helping individuals and groups feel at home in Israel, but also putting pressure on those in power to achieve this goal. The Jewish Agency has the experience and the resources to help bring it about. The question is whether it also has the will and the imagination to adapt its mission to the needs of today.
Canadian Jews have played an important part in this organization. Dare we hope that they’ll also rise to this new challenge?