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Israel’s immigration ministry stopped running television ads exhorting Israelis living in America to come home after American Jewish organizations complained, the New York Times reported December 2:
One video advertisement shows a Jewish elderly couple distraught that their Israeli granddaughter in the United States thinks Hanukkah is Christmas. Another shows a clueless American boyfriend who does not get why his Israeli expatriate girlfriend is saddened on Israel’s memorial day. A third shows a toddler calling “Daddy! Daddy!” to his napping Israeli expatriate father, who finally awakens when the child switches to Hebrew: “Abba!”
“While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign,” the Jewish Federations remonstrated in a December 1 statement, “we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel. We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.” The Jewish organizations complained after a liberal blogger, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly, denounced the ads.
The message that Jewish life in America is deficient is “outrageous” and “insulting,” to be sure, but it has a single redeeming quality, namely truth. The vehemence of the official Jewish response to the Israeli advertisements betrays a guilty conscience: Jewish life in America is dying, as the same Jewish organizations warn in ever-gloomier studies of Jewish demographics. It seems inconsistent of the Jewish organizations to bewail the inexorable decline of American Jewish life on one hand, and condemn the Israelis for pointing to their manifest achievements in sustaining Jewish life.
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.
Sadly, American Jews stand out as a horrible example of demographic failure. In the United States, secular and loosely affiliated American Jews, that is, the vast majority, have the lowest fertility rate of any identifiable segment of the American population.
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.”
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.
Jewish Fertility by Religious Current
Average Number of Children per Woman
Modern Orthodox 3.39
Source: Anthony Gordon and Richard Horowitz, National Jewish Population Survey (2000)
Israel’s Jews identify with Jewish nationality more than American Jews, but they also observe the Jewish religion more than their American cousins. Daniel J Elazar of the Jerusalem Institute for Public Affairs observes:
Israel’s Jews are not divided into two groups but into four: ultra-orthodox, religious Zionists, traditional Jews, and secular. Some 8 percent are ultra-Orthodox. These are the strangely (to Western eyes) garbed, black hatted Jews who are featured in all the pictures, despite the fact that they represent only 8 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Another 17 percent are religious Zionists… similar to the modern or centrist Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, partaking of most or all aspects of modern civilization, except that they maintain Orthodox observance of Jewish religious law and tradition. The third group consists of the vast majority of Israeli Jews, some 55 percent, who define themselves as “traditional.” … They cover the whole range of belief and observance from people of fundamentalist belief and looser practice to people who have interpreted Judaism in the most modern manner but retain some of its customs and ceremonies.
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.
If present trends continue, Orthodox Jews will form the majority of a much-diminished American Jewish presence within a generation or two. And it is the Orthodox who identify most with the State of Israel; their children often spend a year at an Israeli yeshiva before college, and many serve in the Israeli army. None of the Orthodox organizations seem to have objected to the expat-come-home videos, and for good reason: living in the land of Israel is one of the most important commandments, and the Orthodox respect those who observe it.
On reflection, American Jews should reconsider their umbrage at Israel’s Immigration Ministry. Their own organizations are painfully aware that loosely affiliated Jews of all shadings are falling away from the Jewish community, failing to bring enough children in the world to replace their existing numbers, and failing to raise them as Jews.
The controversial videos, in short, did nothing to insult American Jews. But the fact is that the Israelis run circles around their American co-religionists. One sees this in their accomplishments in a number of fields, for example, classical music, about which I know a bit.
Last year, I spent some time in Israel for The Tablet, a Jewish webzine where I write music criticism, to investigate the improbable success of Israelis in the classical music world. At New York’s Mannes Conservatory, where I taught music theory a generation ago, there always seem to be one or two Israelis among the top 10 pianists – but rarely an American. The others are mostly Asian or Eastern European. Considering that China alone has more than 30 million piano students, five times’ Israel’s Jewish population, the Israelis punch 10 times above their weight.
Two generations ago, half of American music students, perhaps, were Jewish. Americans today, Jews included, lack the drive and discipline to practice eight hours a day. Not so the Israelis. The head of the piano department at the Tel Aviv Conservatory, Tomer Lev, explained why:
This country, its existence, its continuity cannot be measured by realistic and rational gauges. Everything that happens here has a component of a miracle. The way people think here is not completely rational. It’s a very interesting blend of rational modern thinking and quasi-religious mystical thinking. People here take the risk of trying a musical career even if they know on a rational basis that there’s little money and security. Taking risks in Israel is part of life. You are taking a risk simply to live here.
Life in Israel is perhaps too intense. Art creates an outlet to this intensity. For sensitive people, the artistic outlet is a necessity; you need it or you go crazy. And we are a society of individualists, perhaps the most individualistic in the world, perhaps to an extreme. In such an atmosphere, the individual spirit has a great deal of freedom to be unique, to be special, not to be suppressed.
After interviewing a cross-section of Israel’s top musicians, I concluded, “The sense of a future in Western classical music evokes the basic emotions with which human beings regard the future, namely hope and fear. When Israeli musicians speak of performing with a sense of risk, they mean the capacity to sustain hope in the presence of fear. It takes a certain kind of personality to do this on the concert stage, with all the attendant artistic and technical demands. Israel, whose existential premise is the triumph of hope over fear, incubates a disproportionately large number of musicians with this sort of personality.”
Of course, music is only a small corner of Israeli life. As I wrote earlier in this space, Israel today occupies the position of the Dutch Republic during the Thirty Years War. It is the most entrepreneurial economy in the world. The 2009 bestseller Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer asked, “How is it that Israel – a country of 7.1 million, only 60 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources – produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada and the UK?”
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.