SPENGLER Are Jews better off in Israel?
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
"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
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:
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
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
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
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
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman, the author of How
Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too), published in September by
Regnery. His collection of essays from First Things magazine and Asia Times
Online, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You (Van
Praag) also appeared in September.
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