Worldwide Jewry nowhere near pre-WWII numbers, says foremost Jewish demographer
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Worldwide Jewry nowhere near pre-WWII numbers, says foremost Jewish demographer

Contrary to reports that the Jewish population is approaching, and may even have passed, pre-Holocaust numbers, it actually falls more than two million short, says Prof. Sergio DellaPergola. Maybe try again in 35 years

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

New immigrants from USA and Canada arrive on a special 'Aliyah Flight 2014' on behalf of the Jewish Agency and the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization, at Ben-Gurion airport in central Israel, August 12, 2014. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)
New immigrants from USA and Canada arrive on a special 'Aliyah Flight 2014' on behalf of the Jewish Agency and the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization, at Ben-Gurion airport in central Israel, August 12, 2014. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

Despite headline-grabbing claims to the contrary this weekend, worldwide Jewry is not closing in on the pre-Holocaust population number of 16.5 million, said foremost Jewish demographer Prof. Sergio DellaPergola. That may happen eventually, he told The Times of Israel on Sunday, but it is not likely before 2050.

Late last week, international media, including this news site, was flooded by optimistic claims, based on a report by the Jewish People Policy Institute report, that the Jewish population had regained losses suffered during the Nazis’ systematic genocide.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement from Sunday’s cabinet meeting got on the bandwagon with the “encouraging data” — while giving it a signature Iran-flavored spin.

“According to the Jewish People Policy Institute, the number of Jews in the world has passed 16 million and is approaching – and maybe has already passed — the number of Jews who lived before the Holocaust…

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2015. (Photo by Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Prime Minister Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting on June 28, 2015. (Photo by Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

“There is still a certain symbolic value in that the Jewish People has re-attained the number that it had before the awful destruction,” said Netanyahu.

“Seventy years after the destruction of one-third of our people, we will not allow a regime that denies the Holocaust and openly declares its intention to destroy our state have the ability to do so,” he added.

‘We are approaching the number of Jews in the world on the eve of WWII’

— JPPI report summary

The JPPI report, formally released at the cabinet meeting on Sunday, was accompanied by a summary which reads: “The worldwide Jewish population has been steadily expanding and now numbers 14.2 million people. If we include those who identify as partially Jewish and immigrants to the State of Israel who are not halachically [i.e., according to Jewish law] Jewish but have qualified under the Law of Return (and do not profess any religion) we are approaching the number of Jews in the world on the eve of WWII.”

In conversation with The Times of Israel Sunday, JPPI President Avinoam Bar-Yosef said the report is not stating that there are now 16.5 million Jews, the pre-WWII figure. Rather that for “policy purposes,” there are several million more who should be considered in order “to tailor for them special policies that will enhance their Jewish identity.”

While creating “euphoric headlines,” this way of computing is patently false, said demographer DellaPergola in a lengthy conversation with The Times of Israel Sunday.

The JPPI report, it seems, is mixing proverbial population apples and oranges into its claim that “we are approaching the number of Jews in the world on the eve of WWII.” But as in many conversations surrounding Israel and the Diaspora, at the base of this controversy is the endlessly unanswerable question, “Who is a Jew?”

‘The headline does not match the news’

DellaPergola, as the world’s preeminent expert in Jewish demography, has been beleaguered by phone calls since Friday’s article.

The professor emeritus from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had just finished updating his decades-long study on worldwide Jewish populations — which now stands at 14.3 million — when the article was published. In looking at a Ynet news article, he saw that his 2014 figure of 14.2 million was the basis for the JPPI’s extrapolations and resulting media reports.

He explained how this apparent numbers game stems from “a mixture of misunderstanding — and also journalistic counterfeit. The headline does not match the news. It is a canard.”

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola (photo credit: courtesy/Sergio DellaPergola)
Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola (Courtesy Sergio DellaPergola)

Since 1975, DellaPergola has generated and analysed data based on working definitions of different segments of the Jewish people. Primarily, there is the “core” group, those who self-identify as Jews by religion and non-religious Jews who see themselves as culturally Jewish.

JPPI demographer Uzi Rebhun told The Times of Israel that in creating his report, he used DellaPergola’s 2014 figure and added the 350,000 people who immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel and their offspring, “who are not Jewish according to halacha” but have undergone what he called a “sociological conversion.”

‘We don’t say they are Jews, we say that if someone wants to add to them the Jewish population, it is a subjective decision’

These 350,000 are Israelis and speak Hebrew, said Rebhun. They live their lives according to the Jewish calendar and send their children to Jewish schools.

Another group, which accounts for approximately one million not found in DellaPergola’s reckoning, reside in the United States, and according to the recent 2013 Pew survey “have no religion” but consider themselves “partially Jewish.” The majority, some 60%, have a Jewish mother, said Rebhun.

Then, the JPPI report adds another several hundred thousand of these “partial Jews” from all across the Diaspora to reach close to the pre-WWII 16.5m figure.

“We assume that there are also partial Jews in other Diaspora countries — we don’t know how many,” said Rebhun.

“We don’t say they are Jews. We say that if someone wants to add to them the Jewish population, it is a subjective decision,” qualified Rebhun. “What we are saying is that there are 14.2 million Jews. The others are a subjective decision for the researcher and ordinary people to decide whether they are Jewish.”

It’s complicated

It gets complex in post-WWII modernity, when identity is more fluid and intermarriage rampant. Prior to the Holocaust, said DellaPergola, while there was definitely secularism, especially in Poland, Germany and Italy, the “sophisticated distinctions of identity were not there.”

A tool DellaPergola uses when discussing data from descendants of Jews is the “extended global aggregate.” According to his 2014 report, “if we add persons who state they are partly Jewish and non-Jews who have Jewish parents, an extended global aggregate population estimate of 17,236,850 is obtained.”

Then there is the “enlarged” Jewish population, which includes the sum of the core Jewish population, plus the people who report they are “partially Jewish,” such as in the 2013 Pew survey. Add to that those who may have been born to Jewish parents but are not currently Jewish, or who consider themselves as having a Jewish background, and non-Jewish household members, such as spouses and children. The enlarged world Jewish population for 2014, for example, was 20,109,400.

Participants at an Aliyah Mega Event in New York on March 15, 2015. (photo credit: Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Participants at an Aliyah Mega Event in New York on March 15, 2015. (Courtesy Nefesh B’Nefesh)

And a final measure is the Israeli Law of Return. In his 2014 report, DellaPergola writes, “under the comprehensive three-generation and lateral provisions of Israel’s Law of Return, the total Jewish and non-Jewish eligible population can be roughly estimated at 22,921,500.”

Another way of conceptualizing the population figures is as quantified per 1,000. Prior to the Holocaust, for example, Jews were about eight per 1,000 people worldwide. After WWII, Jews dropped to four per 1,000. Today, it’s slightly below two per 1,000.

“You’d first have to shake 500 hands before you find another Jew,” laughed DellaPergola.

But the researcher is optimistic, especially regarding the role of Israel, of recovering pre-WWII population rates.

‘Israel has had an increase of 100,000 Jews every year in the past years, which is significant number’

According to Pew, Jewish population may recover its losses from the Holocaust by 2050 — although its relative per 1,000 rate will be even lower than today.

“Israel has had an increase of 100,000 Jews every year in the past years, which is a significant number,” said DellaPergola. He called Israel “the driver of the Jewish people in its entirety.”

The scholar mused, “Why do Israelis want to have children when Europeans do not?” A lot has to do with the inherent optimism of the Israeli people, he answered himself.

“There is a nexus between satisfaction and family,” said DellaPergola. He audibly smiled and said, however, that it could be circular, with each element driving the other and the more satisfied you are, the more children you have, and vice versa.

For Israel to keep up its momentum, however, the country needs both “a good psychology and good economy.” Said DellaPergola, we need “the willingess to have babies — and the ability to pay for them.”

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