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January 5, 2007

Scholar Not Only One To Doubt Population Figure

A December 22 article and a related editorial cast Israeli statistician Sergio DellaPergola as standing alone against a consensus of American experts when it comes to the size of the American Jewish population (“New Studies Put U.S. Jewry Over 6 Million Mark”; “Stop Worrying: Details Follow”). However, we — one of us a former chair of the American Statistical Association Advisory Committee to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the other a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 — are among the many American statisticians familiar with the technical problems who agree with DellaPergola on this matter.

As the editorial clearly substantiates, the number of American Jews has become a political issue among Jewish communal organizations. This is unfortunate, because it obscures the really important issues. The controversy is over the difference between 1.9% or 2.1% of the American population, a difference that matters much less for the future of American Jewry than the quality of Jewish life and the coherence of the Jewish community.

The size of American Jewry depends on who is defined as a Jew, and can be manipulated at will by changing the definition. A social scientist has the luxury of choosing whatever definition is most appropriate for the specific problem under investigation. A Jewish communal organization may not have this flexibility, but it still has to decide who is included in its constituency, whom it should serve and to whom it can turn for support. Exaggerating the size of its constituency might increase its importance in the short run, but in the long run this is more than offset by the complacency that arises when an organization distances itself from reality.

Apart from the technical issues surrounding this survey — on which many American statisticians respect the position of DellaPergola — the common sense of his position is overwhelming. For several decades, American Jews have had below-replacement fertility rates, an aging population and little net in-migration of Jews from other countries.

The intermarriage rate has been high, and most children of mixed parentage have little commitment to Judaism and the Jewish community. These uncontroversial facts suggest that a slight decline in population is more plausible than a substantial increase between 1990 and 2000.

We are not doomsayers in repeating these facts, nor by suggesting that if current trends persist, the decline in the number of American Jews probably will accelerate. We are contributing to a reality check that suggests that Jewish communal policies aimed at helping reverse the low-fertility, high-intermarriage trends and increase coherence within the Jewish community deserve more imaginative attention than they have yet received.

Barry Chiswick
Distinguished Professor
Carmel Chiswick
Department of Economics
University of Illinois at ChicagoChicago, Ill.

Capitalistic Sodomy

Contrary to some of the claims made by David Klinghoffer in his December 29 opinion column, classical Judaism could not disagree more with free-market capitalism’s exclusive emphasis on the wants and desires of the individual as the one and only end in and of itself (“Get Rich and Prosper”). Thus, the critique embodied in the Yiddish phrase for hypocrite, tsadik in pelz.

In rabbinic Judaism, the needs of the community come first, not the prosperity of any given person. If Mr. Potter in the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” had been Jewish, he would be seen as a very bad Jew.

As for the impact of the workings of pure free-market capitalism, Jewish tradition actually has a term for it: midat sdom — sodomy.

Stanleigh Cohen
Philadelphia, Pa.

Reexamine Anti-Zionism

Against the background of indignation against a group of anti-Zionist Jews’ visit to Iran, what may be needed is not a defense of Neturei Karta, but some understanding of the underlying phenomenon of Jewish religious opposition to Zionism (“A Failed Search for a Neturei Karta Defender,” December 29).

I attempted to provide such understanding in a book, initially published in French, that came out in English in 2006 under the title “A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism.” While I neither defend the anti-Zionists nor condemn them, the experience of presenting this book in several countries and in several languages has shown that their enduring rejection of Zionism makes many people aware of the pitfalls of confusing Judaism and Jews with what they read and watch in the media about Israel.

Israelis are more prone than their Diaspora brethren to admit that the anti-Zionist rabbis reflect a phenomenon that should not be ignored.

“To recognize the legitimacy of religious anti-Zionism is vital to the debate on Israel and Zionism,” writes Joseph Agassi, a professor at Tel Aviv University. “As an Israeli patriot, I consider it essential to integrate the discourse of Judaic anti-Zionism into the badly needed public debate about our past, present and future.”

We can all gain by listening to this Israeli patriot: Jewish opposition to Zionism draws its strength from classical Judaism and raises questions that demand urgent and serious attention from all of us. The widespread calls for excommunication only show how effective the acts of such a numerically negligible group can be.

Yakov Rabkin
Professor of History
University of Montreal
Montreal, Quebec

Terrorism Is To Blame

Reasonable minds might differ as to why the road map to peace in the Middle East has not met with success (“State Department Weighs Plan for Palestinian State,” December 22). But surely the reason is not, as the Forward reports, “mainly because of the Israeli insistence that the Palestinians curb terrorism as demanded in the plan’s first phase.”

One might attribute the road map’s failure to the actual terrorist acts, or to the Palestinians’ unwillingness or inability to suppress them.

One might identify Israeli actions that contribute to the impasse. But assigning blame to Israel’s insistence that the terrorism cease means that Israel will always be at fault.

Michael Jay Friedman
Fairfax, Va.

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