Jewish Journal


November 10, 2006

The Diaspora may be moving, but it isn’t going away any time soon


When Howard Grossman moved to the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre 35 years ago, it was a thriving industrial city with a substantial, long-established Jewish community. Today, anyone who visits Wilkes-Barre cannot help but come away with the impression that this town of 43,000 has seen better days, and will perhaps see not too grand a future.

Along with the decline of the city's industry, there's been another loss: a massive reduction in its Jewish population. The community that numbered some 8,000 Jews in the 1920s has now shrunk to barely 2,100, a far more precipitous drop than the 40 percent decline experienced by the city at large.

Wilkes-Barre Jews, Grossman recalls, were prominent among the store owners of its bright and busy shops. But hard times for everyone had an even greater effect on the Jewish community. Today many Wilkes-Barre stores are empty while others have been replaced by low-end retail chains. The children of the original store owners, and of local garment manufacturers, teachers and professionals have, for the most part, decamped.

"It's a shame," Grossman says. "This is a town where they had a strong commitment."

That commitment, Grossman insists, is still there. He estimates that 80 percent of Wilkes-Barre's Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, a percentage far higher than in most places. Yet the depth of commitment doesn't reduce the prospect that the community could eventually fade away.

The Protean Diaspora

The trajectory of this Pennsylvania city is nothing new -- not in today's United States, and not throughout the two-millennium-long history of the Diaspora. Jewish communities like the one in Wilkes-Barre have grown to prominence, only to decline over time into insignificance or even oblivion.

"The reality of Jewish life remains complex and protean," Israeli historian David Vital suggests. "Jewry has no formal boundaries; its informal boundaries are subject to constant movement, change and debate."

This has also been the history of the Jewish homeland itself: a bright period of ascendancy, followed by a stretch of desolation, and finally, today's emerging reality, where Israel stands at the brink of becoming, for the first time since the heyday of the ancient state, the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.

Yet through history it has been the Diaspora, for all the contempt felt for it by some in Israel, that has dominated the "protean" history of our people, and marked what Martin Buber once called our "vocation of uniqueness." Even when the old kingdom still existed in Palestine, Jews thrived mostly in "exile." As early as 500 B.C.E., Jews established communities from Persia to North Africa. By the time of Jesus, when Hebrews accounted for roughly one in 11 residents of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, nearly two-thirds lived outside Palestine, with roughly 1 million in Egypt alone.

Over the ensuing centuries these populations were constantly in flux, waxing and waning as economic, political and theocratic fashions forced migrations. Communities rose and then fell. At various times, Jews gathered in Antioch, Alexandria, Trier and, of course, the Eternal City itself. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Jewish fortunes shifted towards the Eastern Empire; later, to Islamic-dominated lands from Spain to Persia.

The Diaspora reached in all directions. Intolerant rulers spurred Jewish colonies to spread northward to The Netherlands and westward to England.

A different movement led eastward, this one from Germany and Central Europe to the vast, under-populated and economically backward lands of Poland and Russia. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, it was there that the largest concentration of Jews, more than 5 million, came to live.

Meanwhile, as Britain, Holland and other European powers stretched their influence around the world, Jews followed. The Diaspora spread as far as India and China, to the "new world" of Australia, and, most portentously, to the Americas.

The Reshuffled Diaspora

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poverty and growing anti-Semitic pogroms led to the movement of 1.8 million predominately Eastern European Jews to the United States, transforming America into the leading center of Diaspora life.

Then, two inextricably related events further shattered the archipelago of historic Jewish communities: the rise of Nazism and the establishment of the State of Israel.

The first event all but wiped out the great Jewish communities of continental Europe.

The second event, the establishment of the State of Israel, was, of course, a blessing to the notion of global Jewish survival. But it also signaled the end of many of the world's oldest Jewish enclaves. Muslim reaction against the state led to the virtual elimination of long-thriving Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa. Most of their members sought safety either in Israel, or in the United States, Canada, Australia or France.

This process of consolidation has now accelerated. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a large population -- roughly 1 million at least -- out of a traditional center of Jewish life, and in to Israel, the United States and the remaining handful of countries willing to receive it, including, ironically, post-war democratic Germany.

The trend is continuing under the current Russian regime, which, although not openly anti-Semitic, follows an authoritarian, nationalistic bent uncomfortable for many Jews. Perhaps slightly more than 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States since the collapse of the communist regime.

Most recently, new developments have enhanced the global concentration of Jews. Rising anti-Semitism and hard economic times, for example, brought many Mexican, Argentine and other South American Jews to Israel and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. And the rise of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- a man deeply influenced by the Argentine anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole -- seems likely to accelerate the diminution of yet another small (roughly 15,000) but well-established Latin American community.

Also significant has been the rise of Islamist Iran, a country closely allied to its fellow oil producer Venezuela, and arguably the leading center of anti-Jewish agitation in the world today. Since the 1979 revolution, about 80 percent of Persian Jewry have left. More than half -- at least 50,000 -- have relocated to the United States, mostly to Los Angeles and to Long Island, N.Y. 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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