Dwindling diaspora fails to keep the faith

Introducing a series of articles on Jews around the world, Eric Silver considers the impact of a declining population
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Jerusalem - The historian Jacob Talmon called the Jews "a community of fate"; the philosopher Martin Buber called them "a people with a memory". As their traumatic 20th century nears its end, the memory is fading, and the community outside Israel is withering away.

The demographic debate is no longer between optimists and pessimists, but between the less pessimistic and the more pessimistic. European Jews, already decimated by the Holocaust, have slumped from more than 3 million to barely 2 million in 30 years. In Britain the total has eroded from 400,000 to 300,000. The only countries where Jewish births exceed deaths are Israel and the 700 proud Jews of Gibraltar.

Where there has been any growth in recent years, it was a product of inward migration: North African Jews to France and Quebec; Russians to Germany; Russians and Israelis to the United States. In the opposite direction, Israel exerts a steady pull on the more committed. The ultra-Orthodox are the only Jewish group still having large families.

"We are fighting a losing battle," David Harman, director of Jewish education in the Jewish Agency, which links Israel and world Jewry, told the Independent. "There will not be significant Jewish communities in Europe in the early part of the next century. In the US, they will meander a little longer because of the sheer bulk involved. In the former Soviet Union, they have one Jewish birth for every 11 Jewish deaths. Latin America may hold out for a while."

In Vanishing Diaspora, a new history of European Jewry since 1945, Bernard Wasserstein concludes: "We are witnessing the disappearance of the European diaspora as a population group, as a cultural entity and as a significant force in European society."

Daniel Elazar, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, accuses them of exaggeration. Just. "It's a bad situation, but it's not quite as bad as the scare headlines indicate." He speculated that within the next century Jews in North America would decline from 6 million to 4 million; in Europe from 2-3 million to 1-1.5 million; and Latin America from 500,000 to 250,000.

But Professor Elazar had little to go on, save a scholarly scepticism about "linear projections" (the assumption that trends continue in a straight line) and a faith in Jewish bloody-mindedness. "People in general, and Jews in particular," he suggested, "are full of surprises."

Maybe, but the evidence is discouraging. Jews are condemned less and less to be outsiders. The barriers are coming down, and the Jews are scrambling over. Taboos against "mixed" marriages are wilting - on both sides. And Jews, like their peers in the professional and commercial middle class, are breeding less.

According to Jewish Agency estimates quoted by David Harman, there are only 1.55 million Jewish children of school age (5-18) in all the countries of the diaspora. Of these, 1,150,000 are in North America, 400,000 in the rest of the world. The total diaspora is about 10 million. "This is a population," he said," that is not being replenished."

In the US, studies suggest that 52 per cent of marriages involving Jews are mixed. In Britain, rabbis and lay leaders acknowledge that the rate is at least 30 per cent. Some put it nearer 50 per cent. In 83 per cent of US mixed marriages, neither partner converts to the religion of the other. Only 6 per cent of the non-Jews now convert to Judaism, while 11 per cent of the Jews "convert out".

Diaspora leaders, like the British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, have tried to shock their constituents with the question: "Will we have Jewish grandchildren?" Spurred on by Israel, they are launching ambitious "Jewish continuity" programmes. But they are starting from a narrow base; there is not enough money, and much of their appeal falls on deaf ears.

In the whole of the diaspora, only 45-50 per cent of Jewish children receive any Jewish education. Less than half go to Jewish day schools, few of which take them into the formative years after barmitzvah at 13. At the same time, educational tours of Israel, designed to sow Jewish identity, are failing to attract enough teenagers. In the peak summer of 1987, about 12,000 attended these subsidised courses. This year enrolment is down to 5,000.

"One cannot attribute such a drop only to the security situation," Mr Harman admitted. "There's a weakening of interest among both kids and parents."

In the worst case, the only viable Jewish communities will soon be found in Israel and pockets of extreme Orthodoxy. But the politicians and teachers, rabbis and ideologues will not let the diaspora march quietly into the void.

"You need major resources to deal with it," insisted David Harman. "Even then, it's a gamble. The pull in the opposite direction is so strong. But if you don't take the gamble, you don't have a chance."