Opinion

How the Other Six Million Were Lost

Education Minister Rafi Peretz.
Ofer Vaknin

At a recent cabinet meeting devoted to the situation of Diaspora Jews, the Jewish People Policy Institute presented a demographic survey and additional figures. When Education Minister Rafi Peretz heard about the dramatic assimilation rates among North American Jews, he was moved to exclaim: “We’ve lost 6 million Jews, it’s like a second Holocaust.”

Peretz is no great orator. His language, that of a guidance counselor in a religious premilitary academy, is quite basic. But in this instance, his unrestrained outcry over the loss of 6 million Jews since the Holocaust was an expression of profound existential pain. Several cabinet ministers, as well as people from the institute such as Dennis Ross, pounced on Peretz. People from Judaism’s “progressive” movements also attacked. Yes, the word “Holocaust” is extreme. But the facts — the desertion of 6 million (some claim the number is much higher) from the ranks of the Jewish people – are hard to dispute.

>> Israel's education minister just said most American Jews are dead to him | Opinion

Some of Peretz’s detractors, including members of the Reform and Conservative movements, deny their own part in the assimilation. (Peretz didn’t accuse them.) They claim Israel’s government – which discriminates against these movements, as seen in the Western Wall worship controversy — is also to blame. Really? The Kotel is indeed a national site that must be open to all and removed from ultra-Orthodox control, but anyone trying to link this discrimination — or “the occupation” — to the rampant assimilation is fleeing from the truth and from responsibility.

By most estimates, around 6 million Jews (some of whose Jewishness is doubtful) now live in the United States, around the same number as in the early 1960s (with no doubts as to their Judaism). The institute includes in its count 350,000 to 400,000 former Israelis (whose number some claim, quite persuasively, is actually double) and a similar number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Only 6 million Americans self-identify as Jews: mass assimilation, in other words. Assimilation has also taken hold, in significant numbers, among the former Israelis and, to an even greater extent, the Soviet immigrants and their descendants. Sooner or later, secular life in the Diaspora – in fact, galut, or exile – results in assimilation. This is the clear conclusion to be drawn from what is happening in the United States, and certainly in Europe. Only in the homeland, in Israel, is it possible to maintain a secular and Jewish way of life.

Had there been even minor natural increase among the unassimilated Jews, their number would have at least doubled since the 1960s. But even this group’s natural increase is negative. The Diaspora is therefore not only a place where Jews are persecuted, it is also one in which the Jewish people is committing demographic suicide. In the United States, only the Haredi and Modern Orthodox communities have positive natural increase (more than two children per family). Only in Israel is there a positive fertility rate (2.2 children) among secular families, says Prof. Uzi Rebhun, a senior fellow at the institute.

Many are Israeli Jews’ sins against the Diaspora. The worst is doing almost nothing to prevent assimilation. The government pays lip service to our shared destiny, but does little to save what remains of Diaspora Jewry. As a result of the state’s indifference, much of this activity is left to nonprofit organizations. It’s not enough. The Israeli government’s responsibility for guaranteeing the continuity of Diaspora Jewry is just as great as its responsibility for guaranteeing the physical security of Israel’s residents. The state must enlist its best people for this mission. Our future as a nation depends on it.