Jewish demographics…

Middle Israel: On Jewish demographics

In one respect, the right-wing insistence that demographics not be allowed to shape Israeli policy makes sense: Jewish demographics are about as predictable as the next five World Cup winners.

Take, for instance, the emergence of Ashkenazi Jewry. Three hundred and fifty years ago world Jewry was evenly split between Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East. Yet by the 19th century, the so-called Ashkenazim had multiplied massively, thanks to hygienic and economic improvements in Europe, while Mideastern communities shrank dramatically due to the region’s failure to modernize.

The result was an utterly unforeseen – indeed, unpredictable – soaring of the Ashkenazi share in the Jewish people to some 90 percent.

By the turn of the 20th century, Mideastern Jewry had become so marginal that many saw in them an exotic curiosity rather than the invaluable Jewish demographic reservoir that they soon proved to be. Whereas the Holocaust killed six million Ashkenazim, the Mideast conflict caused a million Jews to flee the Arab world and flock to the Promised Land, where they suddenly constituted an unforeseen – indeed, unpredictable – significant part of Israel‘s population. The failure to predict the emergence of a largely non-Ashkenazi Israel had far-reaching consequences.

On the one hand, the state’s Ashkenazi elite was disinclined to share power with the non-Ashkenazim. The latter, on the other hand, refused to remain in the margins to which they had been consigned by Israel‘s founders. Soon enough, social discontent translated into street riots, cultural defiance, and political transformation.

By the late 1980s, the so-called – and utterly unpredicted – Sephardi revolution had become so pervasive that an Iraqi-born rabbi was crowning prime ministers, roughly half the cabinet were non-Ashkenazim, and statistics indicated that for the first time in its history Israeli Jews would be predominantly non-Ashkenazim. Who would have thought it?

Yet then, an utterly unforeseen – indeed, unpredictable – immigration from the former Eastern Bloc brought here a million new Ashkenazim.

EQUALLY UNPREDICTABLE were the coincidences of Jewish geography.

During the times of the Sages, the Jewish people’s spiritual and demographic center of gravity was in today’s Iraq, from Nisibis in the north to Sura, Pumbedita, Nehardea, and Mekhoza some 500 kilometers to the south, around today’s Baghdad. Mentally, the Jews of the time were so far to Europe‘s east that when they wanted to indicate something was far-fetched, they said it was like “dreams in Spain,” which was as far west as their theoretical horizons reached.

And yet, by the time of Frederick Barbarossa several centuries later, that very Spain had not only become home to numerous Jews, it actually succeeded Babylonia as the world’s major Jewish community. In fact, throughout Jewish history whenever one major Jewish center was destroyed, another soon rose to succeed it.

After the Crusaders razed much of Franco-German Jewry, Poland‘s King Casimir the Great welcomed the Jews, offered them protection through special legislation, and thus laid the foundations for the next great Jewish center. It was, needless to say, unpredicted; much the way the Spanish Expulsion took place a mere four decades after Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and welcomed the Jews to the Ottoman Empire, or the way the 17th-century Chmielnicki massacres in Eastern Europe happened to take place just when an age of tolerance was about to dawn in Central Europe, giving rise to modern German Jewry.

IN SHORT, predictions concerning the Jews’ location, treatment, and fate have never been safe to make. The only thing that one could expect with confidence is, as Dutch Jewish scholar Manasseh Ben-Israel observed in the 17th century, that when one regime persecutes the Jews in one place, another will welcome them elsewhere. Does it not follow, then, that our generation, too, is in no position to make predictions about the future of the Jewish presence beyond the Green Line, that which Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert are now saying must be re-distributed because of demographic trends?

Maybe that situation, too, is bound to develop in altogether unpredictable ways, like so many previous geographic situations and demographic trends have in Jewish history? Maybe, all we Jews are meant to do is what the Diaspora was all about throughout the centuries, and what Jacob did when Esau approached him with his army, namely divide our camp so that when violence befalls some of us, at least the rest of us will survive? In short, are Jews allowed to make predictions about their situation?

Whether allowed or forbidden, historically Jews certainly did make their moves based on predictions, and those in turn were often tragically naive. When the Jews provoked Rome, they predicted they would win. When the Jews settled in Europe they predicted Christianity would not be more hostile to them than Islam had been. And when Europe‘s Jews shunned Zionism, they predicted anti-Semitism would not kill them.

Today, too, the very resort to predictions, despite its endlessly proven futility, is inescapable, and in fact practiced by all of us, albeit in very different ways.

Ironically, the Right’s prediction that current demographic trends will somehow make a U-turn in the Jews’ favor, and the Left’s prediction that peace will transform us, the enemy and the region – have a very common denominator: They are optimistic.

Sadly, theirs is the very sort of optimism that has historically led Jews to initially misunderstand their neighbors and ultimately lose their dignity, property and lives.

We fans of the fence, separation, and unilateralism also have our predictions; but ours are pessimistic. We are no longer prepared to just assume that the enemy we face is about to disappear, shrink, transmogrify, convert, or change in any other way. Yes, we realize that Jewish history has repeatedly made a mockery of even the most studious predictions. But when it next does so, we prefer its surprise to turn us into protagonists of a comedy, not a tragedy.

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