The Magazine

At Last, Zion

May 11, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 34 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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It may seem odd to begin an examination of the meaning of Israel and the future of the Jews by contemplating the end. But it does concentrate the mind. And it underscores the stakes. The stakes could not be higher. It is my contention that on Israel -- on its existence and survival -- hangs the very existence and survival of the Jewish people. Or, to put the thesis in the negative, that the end of Israel means the end of the Jewish people. They survived destruction and exile at the hands of Babylon in 586 B.C. They survived destruction and exile at the hands of Rome in 70 A.D., and finally in 132 A.D. They cannot survive another destruction and exile. The Third Commonwealth -- modern Israel, born just 50 years ago -- is the last.

The return to Zion is now the principal drama of Jewish history. What began as an experiment has become the very heart of the Jewish people -- its cultural, spiritual, and psychological center, soon to become its demographic center as well. Israel is the hinge. Upon it rest the hopes -- the only hope - - for Jewish continuity and survival.

In 1950, there were 5 million Jews in the United States. In 1990, the number was a slightly higher 5.5 million. In the intervening decades, overall U.S. population rose 65 percent. The Jews essentially tread water. In fact, in the last half-century Jews have shrunk from 3 percent to 2 percent of the American population. And now they are headed for not just relative but absolute decline. What sustained the Jewish population at its current level was, first, the postwar baby boom, then the influx of 400,000 Jews, mostly from the Soviet Union.

Well, the baby boom is over. And Russian immigration is drying up. There are only so many Jews where they came from. Take away these historical anomalies, and the American Jewish population would be smaller today than today. In fact, it is now headed for catastrophic decline. Steven Bayme, director of Jewish Communal Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, flatly predicts that in twenty years the Jewish population will be down to four million, a loss of nearly 30 percent. In twenty years! Projecting just a few decades further yields an even more chilling future.

How does a community decimate itself in the benign conditions of the United States? Easy: low fertility and endemic intermarriage.

The fertility rate among American Jews is 1.6 children per woman. The replacement rate (the rate required for the population to remain constant) is 2.1. The current rate is thus 20 percent below what is needed for zero growth. Thus fertility rates alone would cause a 20 percent decline in every generation. In three generations, the population would be cut in half.

The low birth rate does not stem from some peculiar aversion of Jewish women to children. It is merely a striking case of the well-known and universal phenomenon of birth rates declining with rising education and socio- economic class. Educated, successful working women tend to marry late and have fewer babies.

Add now a second factor, intermarriage. In the United States today more Jews marry Christians than marry Jews. The intermarriage rate is 52 percent. (A more conservative calculation yields 47 percent; the demographic effect is basically the same.) In 1970, the rate was 8 percent.

Most important for Jewish continuity, however, is the ultimate identity of the children born to these marriages. Only about one in four is raised Jewish. Thus two-thirds of Jewish marriages are producing children three-quarters of whom are lost to the Jewish people. Intermarriage rates alone would cause a 25 percent decline in population in every generation. (Math available upon request.) In two generations, half the Jews would disappear.

Now combine the effects of fertility and intermarriage and make the overly optimistic assumption that every child raised Jewish will grow up to retain his Jewish identity (i.e., a zero dropout rate). You can start with 100 American Jews; you end up with 60. In one generation, more than a third have disappeared. In just two generations, two out of every three will vanish.

One can reach this same conclusion by a different route (bypassing the intermarriage rates entirely). A Los Angeles Times poll of American Jews conducted in March 1998 asked a simple question: Are you raising your children as Jews? Only 70 percent said yes. A population in which the biological replacement rate is 80 percent and the cultural replacement rate is 70 percent is headed for extinction. By this calculation, every 100 Jews are raising 56 Jewish children. In just two generations, 7 out of every 10 Jews will vanish.