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The American Jewish community of just over 6 million is like an enterprise with two roughly equal divisions. One division consists of people who are vibrant, healthy, engaged and determined to assert their Judaism and pass it along to their children, with more than 750 full-time Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish day schools educating 200,000 Jewish youth a year. The other is near bankruptcy and is threatening the health of the entire community. Half of all new Jewish marriages are intermarriages and only a small percentage of those non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism. Membership in Jewish institutions and philanthropy to them is dropping. Birth rates are below replacement levels. European Jews face even more daunting demographic realities, with declining Jewish and soaring Muslim populations. Diaspora Jews have a smorgasbord of lifestyle options; every young Jew will be a Jew by choice, if a Jew at all.
This demands an urgent call to arms. Non-Orthodox rabbis should perform intermarriages if the couple pledges to raise their kids as Jews; community institutions should openly welcome intermarried couples. Jewish education must be given top priority and made more affordable by creating a massive Jewish education endowment fund. The philanthropic effort known as Birthright Israel, which has taken more than 250,000 young Jewish adults to Israel, creating deeper Jewish identification, should be given more support by the Israeli government.
Israel faces its own internal challenges. While the Jewish population of Israel has a healthy birth rate, it is still lower than those of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. It is unsustainable for a nation of 5.8 million Jews to control the lives of more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank against their will. A separation into two states, with strong security guarantees for Israel, is not a gift to the Palestinians; it is an imperative to maintain a democratic, majority Jewish state. And if there is no Palestinian peace partner, Israel should adopt the political version of the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm,” by avoiding the expansion of settlements deeper into the West Bank. The Israeli government should make bold proposals for peace, even if they continue to be rejected, so that the onus for any impasse rests on the Palestinians, not on Israel.
A grave internal threat to the rule of law comes from a small, radical, messianic group of settlers who openly defy the authority of the government, building outposts illegal under Israel’s own laws, torching mosques, burning Qurans, poisoning Palestinian olive trees and even attacking Israeli soldiers.
Today, about 50% of Israeli first-graders are either Israeli Arabs or children of Haredi families. Haredim are now about 8% of the population, but this percentage will double over the next several decades because of extraordinarily high birthrates. Since few serve in the military, and the majority is not in the workforce, there is an urgent need to incorporate them into the mainstream of Israeli life, or they will be a great drag on the Israeli economy and cohesion, particularly on Israel’s prized equality for women.
Israel faces another profound internal challenge: the need to be at peace with itself. It is also long past time for Israelis to reach a consensus on basic issues: where they want their ultimate borders to be, and what their relationship should be with their Israeli Arab citizens and the Palestinians over which they rule.
But when we consider the shattered state of world Jewry after World War II and think about how far we have come, there is reason for optimism. The empires that sought to destroy the Jewish people have vanished, but the indestructible, indomitable Jewish people have survived and still thrive, and will continue to make contributions to the world far out of proportion to our small numbers.
Stuart E. Eizenstat was chief domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and served various senior positions in the Clinton Administration from 1993-2001. His new book discussing these challenges is “The Future of the Jews: How Global Forces are Impacting on the Jewish People, Israel and its Relationship with the United States” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) .