The Dangers of First Impressions

Today’s New York Times has an article by Ethan Bronner on Israel’s 60th anniversary, and how the country is celebrating by inviting a collection of the world’s top political, scientific and business thinkers to discuss major world challenges–with a uniquely Jewish and Israeli spin, of course.

Of course the article can’t avoid mentioning Middle Eastern politics, pointing out how Israel Independence Day is mourned as Naqba (“Catastrophe”) Day in the Arab world. But what’s a tad more unusual for a secular paper is the way the Times positions Israel in relation to the American Jewish community:

One significant development of recent years that will be discussed here is the shift in the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jewry. For decades, Israel was the needy child depending on contributions and support from abroad as it struggled to survive.

Today Israel’s Jewish population of 5.5 million is the world’s largest, just ahead of that of the United States, which is slowly declining through low birth rate and intermarriage. Israel has in fact become the center of Jewish life and is increasingly being asked to act like the older brother to Jewish communities elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Bronner propagates the nearly universally discredited myth that Israel’s Jewish population is larger than America’s, and the pernicious, unfounded rationale that America’s Jewish “decline” is due to intermarriage and assimilation. The problem stems from the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which initially reported that the Jewish population in the U.S. had shrunk in the previous decade, and was now a few hundred thousand people smaller than Israel’s Jewish population.

However, soon after the NJPS came out, it became immersed in controversy over lost interviews and flawed methodology. As demographers increasingly questioned its conclusions, eventually even the study’s authors admitted that it significantly undercounted certain populations and that its figure for the American Jewish population–5.2 million–was too small. Not a single significant American Jewish demographer or sociologist now accepts that number; in the past few years, two separate studies have come out arguing that the American Jewish population is at least 6 million.

But Israel’s leading demographer, Sergio DellaPergola, continues to use the discredited NJPS total, and continues to claim that Israel’s Jewish population is larger than America’s. Indeed, on Tuesday, Hebrew University announced that DellaPergola says that Israel is home to 41% of the world’s Jews.

Israeli news outlets have seized on DellaPergola’s claims. It is now perceived wisdom in Israel that Israel’s Jewish population is larger than America’s, and America’s “decline” is due to intermarriage and assimilation. It’s a perfectly self-justifying conclusion, given the ease of inmarriage and difficulty of non-Jewish assimilation in a majority-Jewish country. I’m not surprised that Israel has so quickly latched onto the myth of Jewish population superiority–this is a country that defines itself by its survival and its strength.

What’s worrisome is that the myth has now found its way into the most influential of American newspapers. Once it’s in the Times, it’s only a matter of time before it ends up in the rest of the nation’s papers.

Which shows that first impressions are lasting ones.

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One thought on “The Dangers of First Impressions

  1. When Israel was founded there were many times the number of Jews in the US as in Israel.

    Even if it is true that now the number of Jews in the US still exceeds that in Israel, the gap has shrunk so much in the last 60 years that it is safe to assume that Israel will have more Jews than the US in a few years. When is the question, not if.

    A higher proportion of Israeli Jews than American Jews are of the higher procreating ultra-Orthodox. Check the web for a gentile woman named Michelle Duggar who is expecting her 18th child on New Year’s day (she’s only 41) and you’ll get an idea of why Israeli Jews will outnumber American Jews.

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