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Sivak: Diaspora’s relevance to Jewish continuity may diminish

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In their new book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker draw attention to dramatic demographic changes based on changing birthrates, pointing out that worldwide decreases in birthrates suggest that the world’s population will peak somewhere in the middle of the 21st century and then fall back to current levels (about 7.7 billion) by the end of the century.

Birthrates in the industrialized world, including Canada, have been below the replacement value of 2.1 children per family for some time, but Ibbitson and Bricker point out that birthrates are falling everywhere, including parts of Africa as well as countries like China, India and Brazil. They attribute the decrease in fertility to urbanization  – which reduces the need for large families, provides greater autonomy to women and lessens familial and religious pressures to have babies.

In a recent Globe and Mail article the authors focused on how a drop in fertility results in a drop in population (for example, Japan, a country which restricts immigration, lost 450,000 people last year alone). Population losses result in economic challenges since there are fewer young people to prop up an aging population. However, because of Canada’s liberal immigration policy, Canada’s population will continue to increase and the problems that many other countries face may be avoided. 

Ibbittson and Bricker’s article fails to mention one outlier, at least as far as the developed world is concerned – Israel. Writing last year in Mosaic magazine, Ofir Haivry notes that the birthrate in Israel has increased dramatically. In fact, the birthrate for Israeli Jews has soared to a value of 3.16 per family –  higher than for Arabs, both in Israel and the West Bank, as well as in most Arab and Muslim countries. Moreover, the increase is true both for Orthodox and non-Orthodox families. (The statistics are provided by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics and are available online.)

Haivry attributes this increase in fertility to an emphasis on family welfare and continuity, arguing that Israeli society has balanced rising levels of affluence and education with continued adherence to a family-oriented culture. As well, Israeli medical advances in areas such as prenatal care and fertility treatments have contributed to the climbing birthrate. This increase, along with steady and significant levels of aliyah, has removed the worry about an increasingly large Arab minority in Israel. In fact, there have been concerns expressed about the sustainability of such an increase.

READ: SURVEY OF CANADIAN JEWRY TO HAVE ‘REAL IMPLICATIONS’

A second effect of this change in demographics is the upending of the balance between Israel and the Diaspora. It is now clear that a majority of the Jews in the world are or will soon be Israelis. Moreover, the magnitude of the difference between these two Jewish populations will likely increase quickly. Statistics indicate that, with the exception of Orthodox Jews, the Jewish birthrate in the United States is even lower than the non-Jewish one. While the birthrate for Orthodox Jews, who according to the 2013 Pew survey represent about 10 per cent of American Jews (six per cent ultra-Orthodox and four per cent modern Orthodox), is higher, Haivry still estimates that twice as many Jewish babies are born yearly in Israel than in the entire Diaspora.

The art of prophecy is difficult, as these demographic surprises demonstrate. However, if it continues, the higher birthrate for Israeli Jews, in association with rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation in the Diaspora and the potential for greater levels of aliyah from such countries as France, the U.K. and Germany, where anti-Semitism is becoming much more overt (perhaps in the United States as well), indicates that the centre of Jewish life is rapidly shifting to Israel. A Jewish Diaspora will continue to exist, but its relevance to Jewish continuity will be much diminished.