It all depends on what Israel has to offer
By Hava Pinchas-Cohen | 24/09/2009
Hava Pinchas-Cohen interviewed Sergio Della Pergola, a demographer who specializes in the condition of the Jewish people, about future directions indicated by the data. “In the future, the majority of Jews will live in Israel. This will happen not because of Israel's Sergio Della Pergola: there are fewer Jews
attractiveness, but because than we thought. Photo: Gur Solomon
of the weakened state of the Jews of the Diaspora”
“The man who counts the Jewish people”, I decided to call him while we were both in Yarnton, Oxford, where I was living while writing a research paper. I had heard Sergio Della Pergola referred to as the most important demographer of the Jewish people, reporting on the addition or subtraction of members to our tribe. It turns out that the dry numbers can be meaningful as life and death, as stagnation and continuity. I found myself wandering the green fields of Yarnton, walking around the lakes and the canal with its punts drifting by, its placid swans and wild ducks, all the while carrying on an enthusiastic discussion with the demographer of the Jewish people about the connection, if any, between his own life story and how he chooses to explain the reality that is revealed to him by the literature and the numbers.
Sergio Della Pergola was born in Trieste, Italy, in 1942, at a time when Italy was under Fascist anti-Semitic rule and the Russians and Germans were facing off against each other in the Battle of Stalingrad. It was then that another Jewish child was born. “My father said that if the Russians could hold up against the Germans, then there was still hope, but if the Germans won, then we were done for. That is why he chose a name common in Russia that started with the letter S, like Stalin. In retrospect, this might seem unusual, but it became a defining factor for me.”
The Della Pergola family managed to survive the Holocaust and after the war settled in Milan, where the young Sergio grew up in an open atmosphere, with a deep sense of belonging to the Jewish community, and at the same time, a very intense connection to non-Jews.
The Statistical Annual of Milan
Young Sergio was active in Jewish youth movements and in the Jewish student unions. As part of his activities in a youth movement that was affiliated with an Italian political party, the young people were asked to clean a church. In the course of moving and dusting off some books, his eye fell on a statistical annual of the city of Milan that contained data on marriages and the religious affiliation of each spouse.
“I was fascinated by the subject, and I sat down and calculated the future possibilities for marriages between Jews and non-Jews. So it happened that at age 19, I wrote an article of a statistical nature about demography for the youth movement journal, Hatikvah. A knowledgeable professor read the article and expressed a desire to meet the erudite author whom he assumed - based on the style - must be a colleague. To his surprise, he found that the author was actually a 19-year-old youth. He suggested that I complete my schooling and come to Hebrew University to specialize in demography, and even offered a small scholarship. From then on, I felt myself becoming increasingly more interested in the demography of the Jews. That was also the year that the Six-Day War broke out. After that, it was clear to me that I was here to stay.”
A search of the New York Times web site turns up hundreds of hits for “Della Pergola”. I asked how it is that demographic and statistical data made him into a cultural hero of the Jewish people.
“In recent years, there have been quite a few attempts to shed light on the demographic situation of Jews in the Diaspora. Several large-scale surveys have been held in the United States, France and other Western countries and the results of several official censuses have been released in countries where the Jews' religious or ethnic affiliation was studied. These surveys enable us to provide a full and up-to-date picture of the major trends and changes that have affected the Jewish people over the past decade.”
And what are your conclusions?
The first conclusion is that there are fewer Jews than we thought. This is the case almost everywhere, except for Israel, Germany and Australia, where there is growth that is spurred by immigration.
What is the essence of Jewish demography?
There are three approaches to the study of the Jewish population. The first is viewing Jewish society as an entity whose boundaries and main values may be defined, as may the rules for entering or leaving it. As a corollary of this approach, it can be argued that the Jewish population is unique, has continuity, and can be quantified.
The second approach maintains that it is not possible to define the Jewish people, because Jewish society and the Jewish population are a function of the variable circumstances of the environment in which Jewish society lives. This makes it impossible to make any claim to quantification or continuity.
The third approach is post-modernist. It posits that the Jewish people are an invention of the last hundred years. This is, of course, a political rather than a scientific view.
In my research approach, I am an ardent advocate of the first approach, although I am conscious of a certain degree of relevance in the arguments of the second approach. The second approach was explicated by the French scholar Dominique Schnapper. She presents an argument similar to that of Sartre, who condemned anti-Semitism, but believed that the Jew only existed as a product of his environment. Sartre does not see Jewish culture as a rich system of laws and values that exists in and of itself.
Advocates of the third approach, who maintain that the Jewish people are an invention of the past hundred years, do so in disregard of the historical, religious and cultural reality that led to Zionism. These people are driven not by scientific naiveté, but by a political agenda. The issue was used to fuel the debate between the Zionist “narrative” and the Palestinian “narrative”.
Why have so many large-scale, important polls been conducted in recent years in the United States?
Over the last decade, the American Jewish community has been joined by at least 200,000 Jews from the Soviet Union, Israel, South Africa, Iran and elsewhere. Since there were 5,500,000 Jews in the United States in 1990, we might have expected to find 5,700,000 in 2000. But in actuality, only 5,300,000 were found. The obvious question is, where did half a million Jews disappear to.
Part of the explanation may be found in low birth rates, which are not offsetting mortality rates; another part concerns the growing percentage of families in which one spouse is not Jewish; and the last part is the utter refusal of people, especially those under age 40, to admit to their Jewish origin.
So where is the weak point?
One possible conclusion is that in the future, most Jews will live in Israel, but the reason for this process is not Israel's attractiveness, but rather the weakening of Diaspora Jews. One of the factors contributing to the deterioration in the self-image of some Diaspora Jews and their unwillingness to be identified as Jews is the dramatic erosion of Israel's image around the world.
The connection between Israel and the Diaspora is reflected in several ways, the best-known of which is aliya, or immigration to Israel. However, it is no less important to understand, that in order to exist, Diaspora Jews require a strong Jewish core, with obvious Jewish values, which would be a source of a sense of pride and identification.
The crisis in Israeli society contributes to the weakening of Diaspora Jews. “My conclusion”, Della Pergola says, adding a comment that is neither academic nor drawn from the field of demography, “is that we must end the conflict with the Arabs and restore the State of Israel to a situation where it can be accepted as a positive entity; a country about which there is consensus, not an entity in conflict that is situated along the margins of the global political community. True, Israel is not to blame for finding itself in this situation, but for the moment this is the state of affairs.”
“We live in a world in which reciprocal relationships and mutual dependence are stronger than ever before. We founded the state of the Jews as a means of achieving supreme objectives in the cultural and moral sense, and our success is dependent not only on ourselves. It is also dependent on Israel's ability to belong to the international community, without becoming a pariah.”
Lest there be any doubts, Della Pergola adds: “Given the aftermath and ramifications of the Holocaust, if the State of Israel did not exist, the Jewish people would not exist today. Because the Holocaust destroyed the strong infrastructures of the Jewish people. The State of Israel provided Diaspora Jewry with a central focus with which it could identify, a feeling of security, in the ideological and cultural sense, and often a source of pride, as well. In a way, the State of Israel is the raison d'etre of Diaspora Jewry.”
In other words, the demographic research and study of the dry numbers demonstrates the interdependence of Israel and the Diaspora. Diaspora Jews are the reserve, they are the “to and fro” of the flow of Jews from Israel to the Diaspora and back. Conversely, the existence of Diaspora Jewry as a community with an identity of its own is dependent on the will of its individual members to identify as Jews. The desire to identify as a Jew in the Western world in the present century, is not necessarily the product of religious understanding or faith, but of identification and solidarity. The State of Israel bears a large degree of responsibility for the desire of young people to identify themselves as proud Jews and to maintain a connection with it. It is a question of interdependence.
Hava Pinchas-Cohen is a poet and the editor of “Dimui” magazine