Jewish Congress Says World Jewish Population Shrinking

By H, Richard | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1998 | Go to article overview
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Jewish Congress Says World Jewish Population Shrinking

H, Richard, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Jewish Congress Says World Jewish Population Shrinking

The story goes that the wife of a circus owner asked her husband to provide work for her two twin brothers, who aside from their inability to find and hold jobs were unremarkable in every way. In desperation, the circus owner put them into two separate tents. Outside one tent he put a sign that read, "See the world's tallest midget." Outside the other tent he hung a sign saying, "See the world's shortest giant."

This year's survey by the World Jewish Congress, which is prepared annually for release in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, revealed that the world's Jewish population, which attracts so much attention in literary circles, the media and Hollywood, might qualify for either title.

According to the survey, released in September, there are a total of 13.5 million Jews in the world, which is less than the total population of Madagascar or Cameroon. Of these, the largest community is 5.6 million Jews living in the United States. The second largest group is 4.9 Jews living in Israel. The third largest Jewish community is 600,000 Jews living in France.

Other Jewish populations include Russia, 400,000; Canada, 360,000; Great Britain and Ukraine, 280,000 each; Argentina, 220,000; Germany, 71,000; Iran, 25,000; Panama, 7,000; Hong Kong, 2,500; Gibraltar, 650; Yemen, 400; Syria, 100.

The most startling claim made in the survey is that because of low birthrates and high intermarriage, the Jewish population of 8.6 million living outside Israel may decline by 50 percent within a generation. This, according to the study released in Jerusalem, is partly because, except for the Orthodox Jewish community, Jewish birthrates outside Israel are not at replacement levels.

The overriding reason for the decline in numbers of Jews outside Israel, however, is intermarriage. Fifty percent of diaspora Jews marry outside their faith, and in some American cities the intermarriage rate reaches 80 percent. Other surveys indicate that of intermarried couples in the U.S. where one partner is Jewish, only about 20 to 25 percent raise their children as Jews.

"Right now assimilation is something that worries Jewish communities around the world, and the concept of Jewish continuity is the motto in many of them," Dr. Avi Becker, director of the Institute of the World Jewish Congress which released the study, told the Jerusalem Post. He called the present situation "good for the Jews but bad for Judaism."

"This is part of the success story of world Jewry today," Becker explained. "It is so popular to be Jewish in so many communities, particularly in North America, that we are being hugged by the society around us. They accept us and we enjoy equal opportunity, sometimes even more than that, so we are not looking anymore for our separate identities...For us as Jews, the biggest challenge today is how to maintain a Jewish life in a post-emancipated society in the West."

"Assimilation is something that worries Jewish communities around the world."

Jews are found today in more than 100 countries, the report said. But outside Israel there has been no natural growth in any Jewish community, and in some the number of births is below the number of deaths.

"In Western societies today, Jews are known to be more modern than the society around them," Becker said. "Jews today in Western societies are among the least married, with fewer children than the people around them. The growing rate of divorce and the growing number of singles in Jewish communities contributes to negative growth, in addition to growing assimilation."

The report showed that Jewish communities have grown in a few countries due to immigration. These include Canada, Brazil and Germany. In Germany the rapid growth results from arrival of Jews from countries of the former Soviet Union.

Immigration and emigration information traditionally has been kept secret in Israel, but the report says some 500,000 Israelis have left the country since its establishment.

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