World Jewish population drops by 300,000 to 12.9 million
By Yair Sheleg
[Ha'aretz, 3 Dec 2002]
The number of Jews in the world is declining with a net loss of 300,000 American Jews in the last decade, according to a new study following a preliminary examination of the recent census of American Jewry, according to the Jewish Agency's Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning.
According to the institute, which convened an emergency session to deal with what it called the "demographic crisis," there are now some 12.9 million Jews in the world. Earlier this year, estimates put the number at 13.2 million. The main reason for the decline appears in the data from the census of Jewish communities in the U.S., which showed that there has been a decline of 300,000 in American Jewry, from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million in 2002. Experts say that some 300,000 Jews emigrated to the U.S. during the 1990s, but nonetheless, the community lost some 50,000 Jews a year, mostly to natural attrition.
The institute, jointly headed by former U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross and Prof. Yehezkel Dror, a specialist in strategic government policy planning, is supposed to form general and long-term strategic plans for the Jewish people.
Studies published at the conference, which opened Saturday night and ends today, said the decline is apparent in other major Jewish communities around the world. The French Jewish community has declined from 535,000 in 1980 to some 500,000 now, while the number of Jews in the former Soviet Union has fallen from 1.45 million in 1989, to some 437,000 now. Most of those Jews moved to Israel during the 1990s.
But according to Prof. Sergio della Pergola, an expert on demographics, "last year alone in Russia there were 8,000 deaths of elderly Jews, and only 600 births recorded to Jewish mothers. This is the end of a long process of assimilation and aging."
The only Jewish community in the world that is growing is Israel, which is home to most of the world's Jewish children under the age of 15.
Sallai Meridor, the Likud-appointed chairman of the agency, said at the conference that "one of the biggest problems is the high cost of Jewish education in the West, and ways must be found to help more people pay for Jewish education for their children."
Hinting that he may be shifting his views on the greater Land of Israel, Meridor said that demographic threat inside Israel, because of the increase of non-Jews in the population and the Israeli control over the territories, "must certainly influence our borders policy."
But he added "it also means that we cannot concede on the Palestinian right of return issue. And particularly, we must increase immigration. That is a vital need for Israel, like water in the faucet."
He called for a more lenient rabbinical attitude toward the issue of converting non-Jewish immigrants. "I hope that conversion continues to be the only gateway to the Jewish people, because I believe the people of Israel and the religion of Israel go together. But that's as long as religious values do not endanger national needs ... There will be no significant immigration in the future that does not include non-Jewish members of the family, and those who are ready to forgo those people should already give up the demographic effort."
Ross said that "we have to examine which methods worked in the past and which didn't." He noted that Jewish schooling, summer camps and organized trips to Israel were the best way to keep young Jews interested in the fate of the Jewish people. Furthermore, he said, "if Israel wants to remain the center of the Jewish people, it must certainly remain a Jewish and democratic state."