Conference Focuses on ‘demographic Crisis’

Israel, which faces serious demographic problems because of the disparity between the Jewish and Arab birth rates, is responsible nevertheless for offsetting demographic losses among diaspora Jews, according to material presented here at a conference on the demography of the Jewish people.

Some 200 scientists and Jewish community leaders from 20 countries are attending the conference, which opened Monday.

Conference participants were told that it is doubtful how long Israel can hold the line in the “demography crisis,” which is aggravated by the high incidence of intermarriage and assimilation in the two largest diaspora communities — the United States and the Soviet Union.

At present, the world Jewish population is about 12,881,000 including 3,521,000 Jews living in Israel. But by the year 2000, the global Jewish population is expected to decline to 12,212,000 and regress to the growth rate of the 1960′s.

If these trends are not reversed, the demographers warned, the limited natural increase of Jews in Israel will not suffice to compensate for losses in the diaspora communities.

Prof. Mordechai Altshuler of the Hebrew University told the conference that close to half of Soviet Jews marry non-Jews and the vast majority of the children of these mixed marriages choose to register as non-Jews.

Altshuler estimated the number of Jews in the USSR as no more than 1.5 to 1.6 million. Higher numbers often cited reflect either wishful thinking or politics, he said. In fact, Soviet Jewry has entered a period of accelerated decline, according to Altshuler. It is now decreasing at an annual rate of 1.5 percent compared to 1 percent in the 1970s.

Jewish emigration from the USSR since the early ’70s has left behind a Jewish population with a low birth rate, a high percentage of old people and a high proportion of mixed couples, Altshuler said.

The situation is not much better in the United States, according to Prof. Sidney Goldstein of Brown University in Providence, R.I. He said that intermarriage has been increasing among American Jews in the past decade, fewer of the non-Jewish partners have converted to Judaism and fewer of their children are being raised as Jews.

Journalists attending the conference were skeptical when one of its organizers, Prof. Roberto Bachi, said its “main purpose was to find out what is happening inside the Jewish people.” Reporters wanted to know how the crisis could be solved by discussions in a conference room.

Goldstein replied, “The first step in developing population policies is to understand what is happening.” He said, “In that respect, we know less about ourselves around the world than many other peoples know about themselves, including developing countries.” One practical measure the conference is proposing is to conduct a census of world Jewry every decade, starting in 1990.

Bachi suggested that Jews “learn from the lessons of other countries that have succeeded in coping with the (demographic) challenge.” He said that France, West Germany and Eastern bloc countries provide examples of how correct government policies caused positive change.

He noted that whereas fertility rates in both West and East Germany were stagnant 10 years ago, the rate in East Germany has since increased by 36 percent due in part to incentives given large families, such as a year of paid leave for working mothers after birth.

Dr. Baruch Levy of the government demography center here said all Israeli governments since 1967 have discussed the problem “but leaders did not really deal with it.” More recently, the gloomy forecasts have led to an awareness by decision-makers that the problem must be dealt with. He said he hoped the conference would spur action at the government level.

Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, suggested that the issue was not simply one of numbers but the need to inject more Jewish content into Jewish life. That can be done by developing and improving Jewish education in the diaspora, he said.

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