November 10, 2006
The Diaspora may be moving, but it isn’t going away any time soon
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The Shrinking Diaspora
The result of these disparate forces is that, right now, Jews are more concentrated in fewer global locations than at any time since antiquity. Where once the Diaspora consisted of a far-flung archipelago of significant scattered communities that spanned the globe, today there are only two great Jewish centers: Israel, which continues to grow, and the United States, with fellow English-speaking Canada and Australia.
According to demographer Sergio Della Pergola, North America is now home to more than 45 percent of the world's roughly 13 million Jews, while Israel contains 37.8 percent.
These communities, while not rapidly expanding, are at least are not suffering from warp-speed declines in their populations. Each has been the recipient of migrants from waning Diaspora communities. And Israel's population, in particular, has also benefited from the high birth rate among Orthodox Jews.
Yes, there are signs of small resurgences of the Jewish population in Germany, Poland and other countries. But the overwhelming trend is toward a continued concentration of Jews in an ever-smaller number of countries. During the last century, the number of countries with Jewish populations greater than 1 percent has shrunk from roughly a dozen to barely four.
In places such as Great Britain, this reflects neither persecution nor economic hardship, but low birth rates and growing rates of intermarriage. The current British Jewish population has dropped to about 266,000, compared to roughly half a million 50 years ago. Some believe that this process will eventually lead to a long-term decline of the Jewish population worldwide, as those in the few Diaspora countries assimilate.
Or, as the French sociologist Georges Friedman has theorized, the notion of a Jewish people that lives among gentiles could fade, to be replaced by an essentially Israeli identity. "The Jewish people, " he has predicted, "is disappearing and giving way to the Israeli nation."
The Diaspora at Home
And, to be sure, there are symptoms of a disappearing Jewish people, not only in Europe and the Near East but also in parts of the United States.
If you travel across America, you will see the decline in once-thriving communities like Wilkes-Barre. It's evident in North Dakota, the Mississippi Valley, and smaller towns in the intermountain West, where Jews once played prominent roles as the pioneering merchant class. Now, many of these places have few Jews. In some cases, the local municipalities need to care for the graveyards and other artifacts of bygone Jewish societies.
But elsewhere in North America new Jewish institutions have been growing. The migration trend of the late 20th century was a movement to the suburbs of major cities, even as many older congregations in the inner core declined. The Jewish Diaspora within 21st century America will be an outward spread from more established states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, and into states like Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina and Colorado. Jews are going to Las Vegas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte. As is the case with other Americans, the migration is flowing most often to places where new jobs are being created and the cost of living, especially housing, is less exorbitant.
The Future of the Diaspora
Of course, New York and Los Angeles together are still home to more than 40 percent of America's 6 million Jews. And in these North American megacities we may be witnessing a new phenomenon, where the diversity of the old Diaspora is recreated in a few compressed locations.
In New York, for example, Russian immigrants may constitute as many as one in every four Jews. Substantial Syrian and Persian communities have also risen. Similar growth has occurred in Los Angeles, which appears to be adding new Jews, and has become a center not only for Russians and Persians, but for South Africans, Spanish-speaking Jews, Iraqis, Moroccans, and Tunisians. Perhaps less openly celebrated, but clearly evident, is the large number of Israelis who are also relocating to both cities, as well as to Miami and Boston.
In addition to immigration, other cultural factors come into play in strengthening American Jewish diversity. There appears to be a trend for intermarried couples to raise their children in the tradition of Diaspora Jewry, retaining some traditions and at the same time assimilating others from the dominant culture. Adoption is also making American Judaism more ethnically diverse.
Howard Grossman and others in Wilkes-Barre have not given up their vision of a vibrant Jewish community. As they actively recruit young Jewish families, they stress the low housing prices and the semi-rural setting. Grossman finds hope in the growing mobility of society and the new realities of telecommuting.
Wilkes-Barre, along with places like it, is clearly a hard sell today. And yet, those raised there will surely carry the memory of its vital institutions and committed members with them. What has been nurtured in one old homeland feeds the rise of a new one. For two millennia, the Diaspora has survived all the challenges thrown down by history: religious fanaticism, homicidal regimes, plagues, and even the sweet seductions of secular affluence. It could still be wagered that the odds against its survival are insurmountable. But if history is any guide, this is not a bet that a wise gambler would take.
Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow with the New America Foundation and author of "The City: A Global History," just out in paperback from Modern Library. Zina Klapper is a writer and editor and a partner in Pop Twist Entertainment.
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