A Jew Is Not a Number

The demographic obsession, which in Israel is one of the most destructive factors in local politics, often seems like a fruitless and incomprehensible attempt to repair the 'demographic damage' of the Holocaust.

In recent weeks, several articles in Haaretz have been devoted to the debate between Israel-centric demography, which claims that the number of Jews in Israel is larger than in any other place in the world, and American-centric demography, which claims that the Jewish community in the United States is the world's largest.

To be precise, the debate surrounds the question of the number of Jews living in the U.S., where, as opposed to the practice in Israel, the authorities are not permitted to register the religious affiliation of the citizens. Therefore the question of "Who is a Jew" is not one that interests the government, and it has a wide variety of answers.

A study conducted recently by two American Jewish demographers found one million "additional" Jews, as compared to the number counted previously, and thus increased the number of Jews living in the U.S. from 5.2 million to over 6 million. A response by Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola (Haaretz, January 2, 2007) defended, in the wake of the findings of the American study, the accuracy of the earlier estimate, arguing that there are indeed no more than 5.2 million Jews living in the U.S. today.

The common denominator of all those participating in the debate is their loyalty to the basic assumption that assimilation is a "national problem." It is clear that the desire of many parents to see their children preserve the tradition they practice lies in the fundamentally conservative nature of the human family. Therefore we can understand and identify with the pain of parents who may see how their children adopt an identity that differs from that into which they were educated.

But all that does not turn assimilation into a "national problem," just as cancer or heart disease are not defined as "national problems." These diseases may be difficult and painful, but they are difficult mainly for the people who experience them in the closest family and social circles.

The Jewish nation is not in danger of extinction, and its existence does not depend on the number of Jews living today in the U.S., and certainly not on that additional one million who do or do not exist; even those demographers who insist that it does, admit that we are talking about Jews who have opted for a very tenuous connection with their religious identity. Otherwise there would have been no problem counting them in the first place.

Assimilation among Jews is a phenomenon that existed in the past and will continue to be part of Jewish existence as long as Jews continue to live among non-Jews as well. In the historical context, assimilation to the extent we are seeing at present is an unavoidable outcome of the breaking down of the walls of social, political and legal isolation, in which a substantial percentage of European Jews lived in the Middle Ages and the early modern period.

The time has come to reconsider whether the ethical and legal significance borne by the concept "assimilation" is justified. It pertains to people who have chosen, more or less deliberately, to live as non-Jews. This choice is no less legitimate than the choice of others to preserve and pass on Jewish identity in all its complexity.

The demographic obsession, which in Israel is one of the most destructive factors in local politics, often seems like a fruitless and incomprehensible attempt to repair the "demographic damage" of the Holocaust. The shallowness of the attempt to sum up or understand the Holocaust in terms of numbers blurs the fact that the Holocaust was first and foremost a destruction of human worlds and cultures that no longer exist and will never again exist.

The debate about the precise number of American Jews, which is being waged between the "optimists," who count 6 million, and the "pessimists," who count only 5 million, not only lacks any practical significance, but also diverts attention from the truly significant discussion taking place in our generation. The main aspect of the discussion is not the question of how many Jews there are, but what meaning - or perhaps meanings - is attributed to this identity by those who define themselves as Jews.

The writer is director of the Settlement Watch project of the Peace Now movement. The views in the article are his own and do not represent Peace Now.