May is both Jewish American Heritage Month and the month during which Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. Each year, just before Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics releases census data for the Jewish state.
This year’s report indicated a continuation of a trend that has been evident for years: Israel, which already has the largest Jewish community in the world, will soon be home to a majority of the world’s Jews.
Israel’s population surpassed 8.5 million this year, of whom 6,484,000 are Jews. Israel’s Jewish population represents 74.4 percent of the country and 43 percent of Jews worldwide.
This remarkable population growth in just under 70 years is impressive, especially when one considers that at the country’s inception, it represented less than 6 percent of the global Jewish population. Mostly through aliyah, Israel’s Jewish population and share of world Jewry have increased, while the number of Jews who live outside Israel and the United States has declined precipitously.
Demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem predicts that this trend will both continue and accelerate.
In his 2015 report on world Jewish populations, DellaPergola writes, “But significantly, according to all scenarios, the Jewish population is expected to diminish somewhat in the US, to increase substantially in Israel, and to diminish at variable rates in the countries in the rest of the world. From initial near equality between Jewish populations in the US and in Israel, each assessed at 5.6-5.8 million or 41-42% of world Jewry in 2010, in 2050 Israel is projected to become the absolute majority (56-57% in our scenarios, 51% according to Pew), while, by all scenarios, the US is expected to comprise one-third of the world total. The rest of world Jewry will be between 1.5 and 2.5 million in 2050, or 11-16% of the total.”
Digesting the data presented above, readers may wonder why I led this article with a comment about Jewish American Heritage Month. This May, as we reflect on the rich and diverse history of American Jewry, we should also take note of American Jews’ role in the birth and growth of the state of Israel.
From Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who stated in 1915 that “loyalty to America demands … that each American Jew become a Zionist,” to the record amount of money raised in the aftermath of the June 1967 war, American Jews have made many important financial and political contributions to Israel’s development.
As demographics continue to shift toward a Jewish state that is home to the majority of the global Jewish population, what will define the relationship of the two largest communities into the future?
How will the differing attitudes of what it means to be Jewish in Israel and the United States affect the relationship? What role will global anti-Semitism and political efforts to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state have on each community?
The demographics are clear. Understanding how best to work within that framework will be crucial moving forward.
Rich Walter is the associate director for Israel education at the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).