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Israeli Cabinet Members Hurl Insults Over Demographic Study

A newly released report on the state of world Jewry has revealed dramatic demographic trends — and prompted a vicious shouting match in the Israeli Cabinet, with government ministers calling each other antisemitic and racist.

The abstract is a summary of a larger, 600-page study due out in the fall. It was issued last week by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank set up by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The study found the world Jewish community overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of wealthy nations and enjoying a high standard of living. However, community numbers are stagnating: The world Jewish population has grown a mere 2% since 1970, compared with a 70% increase in global population in the same period.

The study examined intermarriage rates, educational patterns, and the role Israel plays for Jews in the Diaspora. Researchers found an inverse relationship between intermarriage and Jewish day school attendance. Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine had the highest rates of intermarriage in the study: 80%. The report stated that Jews in the United States intermarry at a rate of 54%, followed by Jews from Britain and Argentina at 45%. Rates were lower in Canada (35%), Australia (22%), South Africa (20%) and Mexico (10%). In Israel, the rate of intermarriage was only 5%, with most intermarried families coming from the former Soviet Union.

Rates of children’s enrollment in Jewish day schools were higher where rates of intermarriage were lower. In Israel, 97% of Jewish children were enrolled in Jewish schools, the study found. In South Africa and Mexico, the total was 85%; in Britain, 67%; in Australia, 65%; in Argentina, 60%; in Canada, 55%; and in America, 29%. In Russia and Ukraine, where intermarriage rates were highest, only 15% attend Jewish schools.

The study relied for its U.S. statistics on figures published in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 but later withdrawn or adjusted. Current U.S. intermarriage rates are estimated to be below 45%, while day school attendance is believed to be about 23%.

The research director of the new study, Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, has been a strong defender of the initial NJPS figures. It could not be learned what sources were used for other countries.

In addition to analyzing statistics, the study’s authors made broad recommendations, including the creation of an “academy of Jewish leadership” to train heads of communal organizations. It also called for increased involvement of Jews in broader human rights issues to fulfill the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or healing the world. To strengthen Israel’s Jewish character, the report recommended “upgrading Jewish identity” in the Israeli educational system and recognizing non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The authors of the report — including the institute’s director, Yehezkel Dror, and chairman, American diplomat Dennis Ross, in addition to DellaPergola — presented its highlights to the Israeli Cabinet last week. During a Cabinet discussion on the findings this week, a shouting match erupted between Justice Minister Yosef Lapid and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Lapid said: “It is unacceptable that in Israel’s religious establishment, there is no equality between the Orthodox and the Reform and Conservative movements…. The younger generation of the Jewish intelligentsia in the United States, 85% of which belongs to the Reform and Conservative movements, is distancing itself from Israel because here, their rabbis aren’t recognized.”

Shalom, a Likud member, cut Lapid off, lashing out at him and his fellow Shinui minister, Avraham Poraz. “I’ve had it with listening to you two,” he said. “Every time we discuss Jewish issues, you come with your attacks on Judaism. For a year-and-a-half already, I’ve been sitting in the Cabinet and hearing the contemptuous way in which you speak of values that are important to many people in the Cabinet and in the country as a whole. We’re lucky that we have a religious party in the government. I was raised and educated on [religion].”

Lapid told Shalom: “You’re an antisemite.” Shalom replied: “You’re an antisemite, a racist and a clown. You founded your entire party on racism. How does one minister dare to call another an antisemite?”

Later, both ministers apologized and retracted their insults, but the substantive debate continued. Poraz said the government “must” recognize Reform and Conservative conversions, both because these movements do important work in preserving the Americaj Jewish community, and because they are the only hope for converting some 200,000 non-Jewish immigrants to Israel who entered under the Law of Return.

Prime Minister Sharon said that while the Cabinet usually deals with day-to-day issues, it is also important at times to discuss a vision of what the Jewish people and the state should look like in another 30 or 300 years.

The institute was founded by the Jewish Agency two years ago with the goal of creating policy to address the needs of the Jewish people worldwide. “The institute’s basic approach, reflected in the report, is to view Israel and the Diaspora as one body, and not to separate Israel from the Diaspora, as was done in the past,” said DellaPergola.

DellaPergola added that all decisions made by Israel’s government “must take into account their implications for the Jews of the Diaspora. This includes questions of immediate security, like the decision to assassinate Sheikh Yassin. This does not mean that considerations regarding the Diaspora should take precedence over Israel’s needs, but that the implications, at least, should be taken into account and that preparations should be made accordingly.”

The report concludes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most critical issue facing Jews today: “The conflict threatens Israel’s welfare; it is used in the international arena to de-legitimize the very concept of Jewish sovereignty; and it is used as a tool to attack Israel’s Jewish supporters.”

DellaPergola concludes that the importance of the conflict throughout world Jewry indicates a practical need: “Involve representatives of the entire Jewish community in deliberation on this issue, even if the final decisions are Israel’s right to make alone.”

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