"It all depends on the inner content of Israel"
By Hava Pinchas-Cohen | 29/10/2009
Hava Pinchas-Cohen interviewed Sergio DellaPergola, the leading specialist in the demography Jewish people, about numbers and the trends these indicate. "In the future, most Jews will live in Israel. This process, however, does not derive from Israel's draw or attraction but from the weakening of Diaspora Jews. This diminished self-perception among world Jews and their reluctance to identify as Jews derives from the dramatic erosion in Israel's image in the world."
"The man who counts the Jewish people," I had decided to call him during my stay I in Yarnton, Oxford, where I had been writing my research. I had often heard Sergio DellaPergola's name cited as the Jewish people's single-most important demographer, tracking additions and subtractions to or from our people. The dry figures have life and death significance, it turns out, and meanings of continuity and end. I found myself strolling through Yarnton's green meadows, circling lakes and walking the length of a canal channeling narrow boats, graceful swans and wild ducks- and passionately discussing with the Demographer of the Jews the connection between his personal biography and the way he interprets his findings.
Sergio DellaPergola was born in Trieste in 1942. That year, Italy was under German occupation; Germany and the Soviet Union were fighting the battle of Stalingrad- and a Jewish boy was born. "My father said if the Russians held on, there was still hope. But if Germany won, he said, our fate would be sealed. So he chose a name that was common in Russia and began with an 'S', like Stalin's name." Today, reflects DellaPergola, "this may seem odd in hindsight. But for me, this was formative."
The DellaPergola family survived the Holocaust. After the war, they settled in Milan, where the young Sergio was raised in an open atmosphere and a deep sense of belonging to the Jewish community, while engaging intensely with non-Jews as well.
The statistical yearbook of Milan:
As a youth, Sergio was an active member of Jewish youth-movements and the Jewish student organizations. On one occasion, the members of a youth-movement affiliated with an Italian party were sent to clean a church. While moving and cleaning dusty volumes, his eyes came to rest on a statistical yearbook of Milan that included marriage records according to religious affiliation.
"I was fascinated by the topic and sat down to calculate the future possibilities of marriage between Jews and non-Jews. And so it happens that at the age of 19, I published in the youth bulletin 'Hatikvah' a statistical essay about demographics. A professor in the field read the article and asked to meet the writer, whom he assumed was a colleague scholar. Surprised to learn it was penned by a 19 year old, he suggested I complete my studies and continue to specialize in this field at the Hebrew University, on a small scholarship. From then on, I grew increasingly interested in Jewish demography. Later that year the Six Day War broke out- and I knew I would stay here."
Browsing the Internet, I would learn that searching for 'DellaPergola' on the New York Times' website returns hundreds of results. I asked how it came to be that demographic and statistical figures had rendered him a cultural hero of the Jewish people.
"Many attempts have been made in recent years to illuminate the state of Jewish demographics in the Diaspora, including comprehensive surveys conducted in the U.S., France and other western countries. Additional information has been published, such as official population censuses that also examined the religious or ethnic affiliation of their countries' Jewish residents. These studies provide a complete and current picture of the main shifts and trends in Jewish demography over the past decade."
And what are your conclusions?
"The first conclusion is that there are fewer Jews than we thought. And this is true nearly everywhere- except for Israel and Germany, where growth is the outcome of immigration."
What is the essence of Jewish demography?
"There are three approaches to studying the Jewish population. The first approach views Jewish society as an entity with definable boundaries and key-components, and definable terms of inclusion and exclusion. This in turn enables statistical claims of uniqueness, continuity and quantifiability. The second approach maintains it is impossible to define the Jewish people, since Jewish society -and therefore its population- derives from changing circumstances of the environment within which Jewish society exists. It follows, then, that neither continuity nor quantifiability can exist. And the third approach is the post-modern argument that the Jewish people are an invention of the last one hundred years. Obviously, this is not a scientific argument but a political one.
As a scientist, I am categorically a representative of the first approach- although I am aware that some claims of the second approach are relevant to a certain degree. The second approach is represented by Dominique Schnapper, a French researcher. Schnapper draws on Sartre, who condemned anti-Semitism but believed Jews existed solely as a product of their environment. He did not perceive Jewish culture as a rich system of laws and values with its own independent existence.
Proponents of the third approach advocate the theory that the Jewish people are a recent invention, ignoring the historic, religious and cultural reality that ultimately led towards Zionism. This stream has a political agenda, these are not innocent scientists. Indeed, the topic has become part of the dispute between the Zionist narrative and the Palestinian one. This division serves political ends rather than the pursuit of historic justice; this is how the Zionist narrative is de-legitimized."
Why have such comprehensive surveys been carried out in the US, France and England recently?
"Over the past decade, American Jewry has grown by at least 200,000 Jews that arrived from the former Soviet Union, Israel, South-Africa, Iran and other countries. In 1990, there were 5.5 million Jews living in the US; one would have expected the number to reach 5.7 million in 2000 but in reality, there were only 5.3 million. So the question begs: where did half a million Jews disappear to?"
So where is the weakness?
"In the future, most Jews will live in Israel. This process, however, does not derive from Israel's draw or attraction but from the weakening of Diaspora Jews. This diminished self-perception among world Jews and their reluctance to identify as Jews derives from the dramatic erosion in Israel's image in the world. The ties between Israel and the Diaspora have many different expressions, the most well-known of which is aliyah. But no less important is the understanding that in order to exist, Diaspora Jews need a strong Jewish center with expressly Jewish content to serve as a basis for feelings of pride and identification. The crisis gripping Israeli society contributes to the continued weakening of Diaspora Jewry."
At this point in the interview, DellaPergola offers an observation that is neither academic nor related to the field of demographics. "My conclusion is that it is necessary to end the conflict with the Arabs and find ways to create a reality in which Israel may once again be perceived as a positive entity, as a country in consensus rather than a controversial entity on the margins of the international political community." And while Israel is not to blame for its present predicament, says DellaPergola, its situation, for now, is a fact. "The world we live in entails more interaction and mutual dependence than ever before. We founded the Jewish state as a means of attaining supreme objectives of culture and values- and our success depends on more than ourselves alone. Among other things, it also depends on Israel's ability to belong to the international community, without becoming a pariah state."
To make things clear, DellaPergola adds: "considering the outcome of the Holocaust and its implications, the Jewish people would have no existence had Israel not been founded. The Holocaust destroyed the strong infrastructure of the Jewish people and the state of Israel provided world Jewry with a solid anchor, a center for identification and solidarity, a secure cultural back-rest and often a source of pride. In certain respects, Israel is the raison d'eter of world Jewry."
In other words, demographic research and the study of dry numbers reveal the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews as a balance of connected vessels. The world's Jews are the reserve of the back-and-forth movement of Jews from Israel to the Diaspora and back. At the same time, the existence of Diaspora Jews as an independent community in terms of its identity depends on the willingness of its individual components to identify themselves as Jews. In the present century, one's desire to identify as a Jew in today's western world derives not from religious insight or faith but rather of identity and sense of identification. Israel, to a large degree, is responsible for the desire of young adults to identify themselves as proud Jews and maintain relations and ties with Israel. Connected vessels.
Hava Pinhas-Cohen is a poet, editor and lecturer on Israeli and Jewish culture.