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What's With Israel's Obsession With Counting Jews?

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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A man wearing a kippah (illustrative)
A man wearing a kippah (illustrative)Credit: Emil Salman
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

How many Jews are there in the world? Who counts them and how? Why does it matter so much? Or Kashti reported that Israel will start to do its own calculations of the number of Jews in the world after years of relying on the assessments of Professor Sergio DellaPergola (Haaretz, January 25). Israel’s Jewish obsession strikes again: A census for the Jews, whose hidden meaning is: Who is with us? The Jews are ours. Now all that remains is to wrestle with questions like who is a “partial Jew” and what “expanded Judaism” is.

Israel is convinced it has to know how many people in the world are Jews. Zionist logic says that this is the reserve of possible immigration to Israel and the potential for blind support for it. The more Jews there are, the better it is for Israel. The more new immigrants there are to Israel, it’s even better for Israel.

But it’s time to do away with these clichés. They have lost all connection to reality.

Israel does not need to count how many Jews are in the world because it is not the “state of the Jewish people.” Less than half of the Jewish people have chosen to immigrate here, even when aliyah has been available to every Jew, and it is not a state of those who are not its citizens. Israel is the state of the Israelis, most of whom are Jews. Counting and labeling the citizens of foreign countries is not Israel’s business, and could be considered crude intervention in the internal affairs of those countries and in the rights of their citizens. In most countries, it is not legitimate to label citizens based on their religion or origin. That’s considered an invasion of privacy. This is all the more true when there is no clear definition of Judaism, and it’s also not entirely clear if it is a nationality or a religion.

And how will Israel define them and label them? Its intervention will also bring up the question of dual loyalty in full force. If Israel is busy counting Jewish heads, it is because it presumes they will support it, perhaps also against the national interest of their own countries. But the Jews of Canada are citizens of Canada alone, and are thoroughly Canadian. The same goes for the Jews of France, and so on. Framing it any other way will only hurt them.

Israel has no role to play among world Jewry aside from leaving its gates open to them, based on the role it took on at the time of its establishment. It is no longer a safe shelter though – today it is the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to live. And promoting immigration to Israel is no longer relevant either; better if people stop coming, it’s already overcrowded here.

Most American Jews have lost interest in Israel. That’s not a bad thing. Why should Israel count them? What’s the justification? This kind of counting is compulsive. Just like the counting of the number of Jewish Nobel Prize laureates. They all won the Nobel Prize first and foremost because of the countries and societies in which they were born and raised, not because of their Jewishness. In fact, they all come from the same places where most Nobel laureates come from, America and Europe.

Equally pathetic is the obsession with the past of every international celebrity – Did they have a Jewish grandmother? A Jewish aunt? Or neighbor? Anything? As if this amounts to a seal of approval that they are one of us, and must surely love us too. When the Jews were a persecuted minority, this would have been understandable. But now even assimilation is not the great calamity that we were taught it was. What is so bad about it? What’s so terrible if a large portion of the world’s Jews choose not to identify as Jews, just like a growing portion of Israelis. A secular and civic identity in the global world is gradually replacing Yiddishkeit, and it’s become ridiculous to go on doing a Jewish head-count.

Equally ridiculous is to keep talking about Jewish ethics. How are they any different from universal ethics? Are they somehow loftier? Do they serve as the moral compass for this famously moral country?

With seven million Jews in Israel, some who feel Jewish and some who feel less and less so, the state should acknowledge that it is the state of the Israelis, just as Sweden is the state of the Swedes. Take a good look at Sweden and you’ll see that this is not a bad arrangement by any means.

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