Diaspora Death Threat

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A specter is haunting the leaders of American Jewry – and therefore haunts us all. It is a specter which has little to do with the Clinton administration’s policies toward Israel, the growth of antisemitism, or Black-Jewish relations.

What troubles those American Jews who look soberly ahead toward the future is both a personal and collective apprehension. Put bluntly, the question they ask themselves is: Will their grandchildren be Jewish? And will those grandchildren reach maturity within a productive and viable Jewish community?

In short, will the Diaspora survive the end of the millennium?

Put this way, the propositions may seem unduly alarmist and widely exaggerated. After all, there are many positive signs pointing to a strong and vibrant Jewish Diaspora in the US:

–It is, outside of Israel, the most powerful, influential, affluent and vigorous Jewish community in the world.

–Orthodox Judaism is flourishing as never before and its members are growing.

–There is a dramatic expansion of Jewish students and Jewish studies at American universities.

–There is even a renewal of Judaism and Jewish affiliation amongst elite groups in all religious denominations, and it could be said that the “best and the brightest” are showing something of a “return” to Jewish tradition.

But what appears to be a revival is in fact quite limited in scope. Barely seven or eight percent of American Jewry – the very tip of the pyramid – are involved in the most active dimensions of the trend toward revival. For the overwhelming 90 percent, the reality is a combination of snowballing assimilation, a rate of intermarriage on a scale without precedence in our history and (apart from Orthodox families) an appallingly low birth rate that flirts with levels below the replacement rate.

The unity of Jews in the Diaspora, and particularly in the United States, is threatened on another front as well. The Orthodox could emerge within the next half-century as the dominant surviving element within organized Jewish life due to two demographic trends: The Orthodox community’s high birth rate and the shrinking base of the Jewish community as a whole. Regrettably, the Orthodox have increasingly displayed tendencies which polarize themselves from the rest of the Jewish community.

What we need then is a new Zionism, one which sheds the cliches of the classical ideology as the answer to the “Jewish problem.”

This includes the current movement towards intolerance and extremism by many Orthodox groups at the expense of a more moderate and centrist brand of Orthodoxy.

Paradoxically, Reform Jews, just as they have become more open to traditional observance than at any time since their movement began in the 19th century, are also moving further away from tradition in matters of personal status. The most notable example of this trend is the acceptance of patrilineal descent as a criterion for Jewish identity.

The result of these dynamics is that we are weaker, not stronger.

There is, however, one strong “counter-cultural” indicator which points to Jewish survival. It is significant that the vast majority of young people who spend a year in Israel on educational programs, either religious or secular, return with a dramatically enhanced attitude toward their Jewish identity.

A high proportion return to live in Israel permanently and now represent a significant element of the younger Western aliya component. In the Diaspora, most “graduates” of such programs adhere to a strong Jewish identity and way of life.

This suggests that community planners seeking to create a more positive attitude towards Jewish identity should be concentrating more heavily on getting young people to Israel – before they make permanent choices about their lives.

But these efforts, however commendable, only deal with paltry numbers which are overwhelmed by the sheer size of the drift that continues unabated.

If we accept that Israel must guarantee the continuity of the Jewish people by becoming its true center of gravity – literally and figuratively – then the urgent task is to consider how best to maintain this Jewish continuity.

IF we are honest with ourselves we must review Zionism as possibly representing the only realistic solution to a disintegrating Diaspora. In this context, Zionism would have to mean more than an ideology which philosophically identifies Israel as the center of the Jewish people. It would go beyond that to see Israel as the only domain that can guarantee Jewish continuity.

What we need then is a new Zionism, one which sheds the cliches of the classical ideology as the answer to the “Jewish problem.” The “Jewish problem” has been stood on its head. Israel exists, but Jewish continuity is in grave danger.

Accordingly, new Zionism today would acknowledge Israel’s critical role in maintaining Jewish continuity – whether it be for the children of Soviet immigrants denied their culture and religion for almost a century, or for the grandchildren of those in the West who have had every opportunity for an unfettered embrace of Judaism.

What would a new Zionism demand of us? First, a new concept of aliya. Life in Israel has to become the goal for the most promising and committed young generation of Diaspora Jews.

Second, a revitalized and restructured relationship must emerge between Israel and the Diaspora. It is an old refrain, but one way to refresh itwould be the establishment of a “Commission of Renewal for the Year 2000.” A number of outstanding intellectual leaders – in Israel and the Diaspora – have already indicated their enthusiastic willingness to participate in such a project.

To succeed, this initiative would require the authoritative cooperation of the current Jewish establishment, but would also have to be independent of it and go far beyond it – literally into “the street” of the Jewish community.

But above all, what is imperative is an intelligent review of the current Jewish condition, based on realities rather than aspirations, and one that has an impact on the leadership of world Jewry.

We really have no choice but to find out the answers before it is too late – precisely because it is our overriding interest to see our children and grandchildren survive as Jews over the next century.

The writer is co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.


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