ON THE PROBLEM OF ASSIMILATION AND ISRAEL-DIASPORA RELATIONS
FEBRUARY 22, 1994
The rate of intermarriage among Diaspora Jewry in recent years has reached worrying dimensions. Recent studies show that the rate of intermarriage among American Jewry is over 50 percent, and in some communities even higher this in comparison to 9 percent a quarter of a century ago. This phenomenon is decimating the ranks of the Jewish people, which is already a very small nation. The following figures underline the seriousness of the problem:
After World War II, the number of Jews living in the Diaspora was estimated at 10-11 million. By the end of 1990, this number had declined to 8-9 million a loss of about two million Jews in less than 50 years. Because of the high level of assimilation and low birthrate, it is estimated that of the 12.8 million Jews in the world today, living in Israel and the Diaspora, only 11-12 million will remain by the second decade of the next century.
The decline in the number of American Jews began in 1980. Then there were 5.9 million Jews living in the United States. In 1992, the estimate was 5.5 million. Of the children born from mixed marriages, only 28 percent remain Jews; 31 percent are raised with no religion, and 42 percent adopt other religions. Only 10 percent of these children marry Jews. According to the present rate of assimilation, within a few years Israel will become the largest Jewish community in the world not as the result of immigration to Israel, but as a result of a decline in the size of the Jewish people.
In Western Europe, the rate of intermarriage is similar, and in Eastern Europe and the CIS countries it is even higher. In contrast, the rate of intermarriage in South America, Australia, South Africa and Canada is lower, largely because of the Jewish school systems in these countries.
Another grave statistic is that 75 percent of American Jews are not affiliated with any synagogue or Jewish organization. In other words, the large majority are not connected to any Jewish communal framework and are organizationally separated from Israel. This situation is even more evident among students. About 90 percent of Jewish youth in the U.S. attend university, where Jewish identification is still lower. It should therefore come as no surprise that less than 20 percent of all American Jews have ever visited Israel.
The root of the problem, in the opinion of experts, lies in the weakening of Jewish identity, accompanied by the accelerated process of integration characteristic of Western society in general and American society in particular. The success of a Jew today is measured by his economic standing and by the degree of his integration into the society in which he lives. The process of integration in American society is very intensive, and the rate of assimilation is consequently the highest. Diaspora Jewry today is characterized primarily by material success, and less by its historic heritage.
The growing acceptance of Jews in all strata of society and in the socio-economic hierarchies, and the prevalence of Jews in the liberal professions and academic life, are accompanied by a process of secularization characteristic of American society as a whole.
Jewish youth, like non-Jewish youth, are moving away from religion. In this, they are moving away both from their religion and their history, believing as they do that many of the conflicts which fill the pages of history were generated by religious differences.
The extent of assimilation is a source of concern to us all: the government of Israel, the Jewish community leaders, and the world Jewish organizations. But the very recognition of the seriousness of the problem, of the need to deal with it in earnest and urgently, may be the first step in the complex struggle to to ensure our survival as a people. In this struggle, we are all partners. There is a shared feeling on both sides of the ocean of the need to deepen Jewish identity by broadening Jewish education, and to strengthen the ties of the Jewish people to Israel.
The concept ‘Jewish continuity’ is today a central theme in broad Jewish circles. Israel shares this concern. Many Jewish leaders in the Diaspora are increasingly aware that Israel can serve as an anchor and a focal point in the effort to strengthen Jewish identity and to maintain Jewish continuity. A new agenda on Israel-Diaspora relations is clearly needed.
I do not know if there is a miraculous cure that will halt assimilation, but we dare not remain indifferent, and we cannot stand idly by. This is one of the difficult and important challenges before us. I am sure that all members of the Knesset, across the entire political spectrum, agree with me that the time has come to ensure our survival as a people.
Today, we need a new and larger partnership between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel. The crux of this partnership must be the strengthening of Israel, side by side with the spiritual not merely the physical survival of the Jewish people.
This partnership will rest on four basic premises:
First, that the chief means to ensure the survival of the Jewish people is by concentrating as many Jews as possible in the Jewish state. Is there anyone among us who is not concerned for the future of the million and a half Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union? The Knesset must issue a call, loud and strong, to the Jews still living in Russia and in the CIS, to pack their bags and come home, as quickly as possible. Aliya and immigrant absorption are the common, major responsibility in Israel-Diaspora relations.
Second, we must cultivate with renewed vigor the unique values of the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Israel is not only a country. It is also a faith, a culture, a language. Never were there as many Hebrew-speakers in the world as today, but neither has Hebrew culture been so threatened as it is today. The modern mass media bring a medley of cultures into the home of every person, without educational preparation or cultural distinction. The modern media constitute both a threat of cultural assimilation and an opportunity for cultural uniqueness. The result depends on both the viewers and those responsible for the programs we see.
Our duty as a state is to protect not only our territorial borders, but also our historic heritage. I see the struggle for the survival of our heritage as perhaps the central challenge of the next century, for which we must prepare ourselves today. We must disseminate Hebrew literature and Israeli art. We plan to establish Israeli centers in the Diaspora that will help propagate Jewish culture.
We must support Jewish education in the Diaspora, and also call on Diaspora Jewry to help maintain our common culture. We call upon every Jewish family to see to it that its children can speak and write Hebrew.
Third, the Jewish people must be a partner in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East. The wars were imposed upon us by others. Peace we chose ourselves, as a vision cherished by the prophets of Israel and the pioneers in the settlement of the land.
We built a Jewish state in a hostile region. Now we must build good neighborly relations that will enable every state in the region to live in peace. I am convinced that every Jew, in the world and in Israel, will feel that, in being given the opportunity to contribute to real peace, to good neighborliness, and to the economic prosperity of all the peoples of the area, he will be expressing his faith in the loftiest possible manner.
Fourth, a renewed effort must be made to draw the young generation closer to Israel and to Judaism. We must see to it that a maximum number of young Jews visit Israel, bind them to Israel, help them foster a young Jewish leadership which, while looking to the future, will not be cut off from its historic origins.
Anti-semitism and assimilation are two central problems of the Jewish people today. Anti-semitism is a non-Jewish disease. Assimilation, on the other hand, is a Jewish weakness which must not be viewed as a lost cause. Our destiny today, as yesterday, to a great extent depends on our partnership with the Jewish people, as it is also related to our relations with the Arab world.
Members of the Knesset, what is happening in the world, as well as what is happening here at home, requires reexamination. We must take the time to do so, considering both the state and the people, and I am confident that we will find that we are more united than we think.