December 10th, 2002

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] The Future of the Jewish Diaspora

I've got more than a passing interest in the sociology of the Jewish diaspora. I'm interested in all sorts of transnational communities: Jews, French Canadians, Indians, Chinese, Armenians, Russians, Poles. The Jewish diaspora happens to be the prototypical diaspora, and the longest-lasting at that, along with one of the most influential population groupings in world history.

The West--indeed, the broader developed world--appears to be more concerned about the spectacle of the completed demographic transition and eventual population decline than it has been since the 1930's. Women in developed countries, socially emancipated and economically enterprising, tend to have fewer children than needed to maintain a stable population in the long run, while restrictions on immigration and a general suspicion of immigrants as untrustworthy agents of cultural and political suspicion limits the potential for maintaining a stable population through replacement migration. Large nation-states like Germany, Italy, and Japan are quite concerned at the prospect of future sharp population declines; similarly, so are smaller diasporae, which by definition lack even a coherent territory where they form the majority population and can be assured of maintaining a thriving culture there come what may.

The Jewish diaspora is not excluded from this impending population decline. This Haaretzarticle goes into more detail on the Jewish diaspora's demographic situation, as does this JTA. Suffice it to say that outside Israel, the world's Jewish populations are declining fairly quickly. The record decline is in the former Soviet Union, where since 1989 the Jewish population has declined by something like three-quarters to a mere half-million; apparently most of Israel's immigrants from the former Soviet Union who identify themselves as Jewish aren't culturally Jewish, or aren't even Jewish at all but only Christian relatives of Jews who'd like to benefit from Israeli (or German, or Austrian, or American) prosperity. The former Soviet Union is hardly the exception to this apparent rule, though--the Jerusalem Post among other newspapers has announced that the American segment of the Jewish diaspora has declined from almost six million in the early 1980's to 5.2 million now. Elsewhere, declining Jewish populations have been the rule in the major communities of the diaspora, in Argentina, France, Australia, the United Kingdom--the only exceptions are Germany and Canada, and of course Israel.


Interesting link, from the American Jewish Yearbook:

A detailed global breakdown of the world's Jewish population for interested non-specialists.


Most of the world's Jews have gone through the demographic transition; indeed, by and large, with exceptions like Israel's Sephardic and Arab Jewish populations, most of the world's Jews have completed the demographic transition ahead of Western and world trends. This in itself would suggest incipient population decline, but at the same time the effective disappearance of anti-Semitism in most countries where Jews form large (or at least visible) communities makes intermarriage far more practical than ever before, and (too rarely, according to many Jewish community leaders) the children produced in these mixed marriages do not identify themselves as Jews. Moreover, with the possible exceptions of the Argentine and South African Jewish communities, there are no more sources of Jewish immigrants--the former Soviet Union has been largely tapped out, and Israel is doing a far better job of retaining its population than ever before.

I can't say that I'm surprised by these statistics, or that I'm not skeptical that the efforts of Jewish communtiy leaders in the diaspora will significantly hinder assimilation. Put simply, ethnoreligious diasporae assimilate most easily in those countries where they are treated well. In Southeast Asia, for instance, Chinese in Muslim Indonesia and Mahayana Buddhist Vietnam have traditionally been viciously persecuted, whereas in Thailand and the Philippines earlier generations of Chinese immigrants have been mostly assimilated. (Malaysia appears to be an intermediate case, with no small degree of anti-Chinese hostility, but a Chinese population that remains culturally distinct because of its absolutely and relatively large size and its intimate links with Chinese-majority Singapore.)

It is possible for ethnic minorities to remain distinctive entities within a tolerant society. The Canadian example of French Canada--numbering some seven million people--is the preeminent example. It's often overlooked, though, that outside of Québec (81% Francophone and officially unilingual) and New Brunswick (34% Francophone overall but majority Francophone in the northeastern half of the province and officially if not yet actually bilingual) French Canadian minorities are assimilated at a record base. West of the Ottawa River, and southeast of the Petitcodiac River, outside of a few isolated rural districts French Canadians merely form another ethnic group to be eventually incorporated into English Canada's mosaic. Without Québec (and to a lesser extent, Acadian New Brunswick) to serve as a population reservoir, French Canada would have disappeared.

Outside of Israel, Jews are very widely and broadly dispersed. There are certain cities where Jews are highly concentrated--New York City comes particularly to mind. These, however, are exceptions to the rule, and will become increasingly rare as Jews become more geographically mobile. Given a low birth rate, a high rate of intermarriage, and low rates of Jewish immigration from abroad, I suspect that most of the Jewish communities of the diaspora will have disappeared within a century's time.

What effect will this have on the Jewish diaspora? I expect that in the Diaspora, we'll see a growing concentration of Jews in particular countries: the United States above all, with secondary concentrations in France, the United Kingdom, and Canada, and smaller communities in a select few other countries. Self-sustaining Jewish communities in these countries, maintained whether by a high birth rate or by immigration from less prosperous communities elsewhere in the world, will further be concentrated in a few particular metropolitan districts in these countries--New York City, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Paris, London. And in Israel, we'll finally see the interesting situation where a majority of the world's Jews live in that country, not through massive aliyah but simply because the Jewish populations outside Israel have evaporated.

The Jewish diaspora will be far more concentrated than it is now; and hence, worryingly, potentially more vulnerable than now.
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