Why did the mainstream American Jewish organizations react so angrily to Israeli government advertisements urging expatriates in America to come home? In a “Spengler” essay at Asia Times Online today, I observe that the same Jewish organizations who denounced the Immigration Ministry’s videos as “offensive” and “insulting” regularly publish Jeremiads about the decline of American Jewish life. Outside of the small but fast-growing Orthodox community, Jewish demographics are imploding.
As I wrote in my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too):
Nowhere is the fertility gap between religious and non-religious more extreme than among American Jews. As a group, American Jews show the lowest fertility of any ethnic group in the country. That is a matter of great anguish for Jewish community leaders. According to sociologist Steven Cohen, “We are now in the midst of a non-Orthodox Jewish population meltdown. … Among Jews in their 50s, for every 100 Orthodox adults, we have 192 Orthodox children. And for the non-Orthodox, for every 100 adults, we have merely 55 such children.”
According to the last National Jewish Population Survey in 2000, the ultra-Orthodox in the U.S. have an average of 7 children per family and the Modern Orthodox 3.4, while Reform Jews have only 1.34 and secular Jews only 1.2. Jonathan Sarna observed in the Dec. 2 Wall Street Journal that the Jewish organizations have undertaken no new census of American Jews in more than a decade. One wonders if they are afraid of what they might find today.
Half of the non-Orthodox children, moreover, marry non-Jews, and very few children of mixed marriages will remain Jewish. As Reform Rabbi Lance J. Sussman wrote in 2010, “With the exception of a number of Orthodox communities and a few other bright spots in or just off the mainstream of Jewish religious life, American Judaism is in precipitous decline … the Reform movement has probably contracted by a full third in the last ten years!”
In Israel, by contrast, the Jewish fertility rate stands at around 3 children per female, by far the highest in the industrial world. Aside from the ultra-Orthodox minority, which has seven or eight children, the non-Orthodox Jewish fertility rate is around 2.6 children per female.
From the Asia Times essay:
Most Israeli Jews are not secular, but are partially observant. In a Jewish state where everyone speaks Hebrew, public school students have 12 years of Bible study, and Jewish holidays also are official holidays, it is easy to maintain a loose affiliation to Jewish observance. In the United States, nothing but the comprehensive commitment of Orthodox life sustains the Jewish community over the long term. (SNIP)
Israelis grow up with sense of urgency for excellence; in their neighborhood, First Prize is the chance to compete for First Prize once again, and Second Prize is, you’re dead. American Jews live under no threat whatever; having made good in America, they have all the room in the world for indolence and self-deception.
Whatever the Jews are, they are not stupid, and American Jews knew perfectly well in 2008 that the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, was a more reliable supporter of Israel’s security than Barack Obama. Yet 78% of American Jews voted for Obama, in part because the liberal social agenda mattered more to them, and in part because they continued to believe in the Rabin-Arafat handshake long after the Israelis had written it off. (Audience: If you believe in the Peace Process, clap your hands!)
Liberalism is a self-liquidating proposition, and there are no liberals like Jewish liberals, who are a soon-to-be-endangered species. The sad thing is not that the liberal leadership of American Jewish organizations is complaining about Israel, but that they won’t be around much longer to complain about anything.
Rather than remonstrate with the Israelis, American Jewish leaders should think long and hard about why Jewish life flourishes in Israel but — outside the Orthodox world — declines alarmingly in the United States.
In particular, they should think not only about what it means to be Jewish, but what it means to be American. Liberal American Jews get it wrong on both counts:
The tragedy is that Jews have stopped being Jews because America has stopped being America. The Pilgrim Fathers founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in conscious emulation of the people of Israel, undertaking a new Mission in the Wilderness to found a new Chosen People in a New Promised Land. From this emerged what Abraham Lincoln called an “almost-chosen people”, a secular and democratic nation defined by the biblical concept of covenant.
Mainstream American culture holds in contempt the idea of a divine grantor of rights who has established individual freedom beyond the prerogative of any government to impinge. For the minority who understand the American founding as a continuation of the covenant of Mount Sinai, the survival of the Jewish people is proof that God’s promises never attenuate; for mainstream culture, the Jews are a curious remnant of antique superstition. That is how most American Jews see the matter, and that is why most of them do not much trouble to be Jewish.
In principle, Jewish life should flourish in the United States. As Eric Nelson of Harvard demonstrated in his 2010 book The Hebrew Republic, the political theory by which America was founded drew on post-biblical rabbinic sources. Nowhere (except in the State of Israel) should Jews feel more at home than in America, whose founding drew on their classical sources.