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Millennium Special

In our special...

The Countdown

Feature Articles

Census and Sensibilities

'It would have been very difficult in 1900 to predict that by the year 2000 there would be a state of Israel and that the 50,000 Jews living in Palestine would have grown to 5.1 million. And who could predict a holocaust with six million victims? What happened during the century defied fantasy and wisdom. Not just what happened to the Jews but also to the world system whose transformations were unpredictable.' - Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, "Census and Sensibilities"

At the close of a turbulent millennium, the Jewish People counts its gains and losses. At the lavish balls in Vienna 100 years ago tonight ushering in the 20th century, so full of promise, there were not a few Austro-Hungarians of the Mosaic persuasion among the dancers gaily whirling in the waltz. Their number was, in fact, quite extraordinary, not to mention their social aspirations.

Visit our Timeline Just half a century earlier, only 2,000 Jews had lived in Vienna, and they were subject to humiliating restrictions on work and residence. Now there were 147,000, 9 percent of the city's population. Warsaw and Budapest had larger Jewish communities and so did New York, with its 600,000 Jews, but nowhere had Jews attained the same glittering prominence as they had in Vienna.

Barred from practicing law until the 1860s, Jews now comprised the majority of Viennese attorneys. By 1881, when Sigmund Freud was starting his medical career, 60 percent of the city's physicians were Jews, including the personal physician to the emperor. More than one-third of the students at the university were Jews. Almost all the city's major banks had been founded by Jews, including the Rothschilds, and Jews owned many of the most fashionable stores in the city. In the Austro-Hungarian empire as a whole, Jews constituted less than 5 percent of the population but they made up 8 percent of its officer corps, including a vice field marshal and five generals.

Jews overwhelmingly dominated journalism, Theodor Herzl being one of the most prominent of their number. Jewish composers (Mahler, Schoenberg), writers (Schnitzler), actors, and critics largely shaped the cultural scene, and Jews were no less prominent as patrons of the arts. "Nine-tenths of what the world celebrated as Viennese culture," wrote Stefan Zweig - himself one of the city's most prominent Jewish writers of a later generation - "was promoted, nourished, and even created by Viennese Jewry."

But there were also other kinds of Jews in the empire. In 1934, Teddy Kollek, who was raised in Vienna, traveled east by train to Transylvania to organize a Zionist youth camp. "I saw primitive Jewish shtetls for the first time," the future mayor of Jerusalem would write of his journey. "They were exactly as described by the renowned Yiddish writers, full of robust farmers, teamsters, innkeepers, artisans, blacksmiths, horse traders, dairymen, woodcutters. These people were a far cry from the middle-class Jews familiar to me. They didn't seem miserable, apologetic and scared of every antisemite as did their brothers in Vienna. They were sturdy characters, visibly sure of themselves, comfortable in their surroundings, and they seemed capable of taking on anybody. Unfortunately, as it turned out, they were not able to take on the Germans."

In fact, those glittering fin-de-siecle balls ushered in the most horrific century in Jewish history, but also, in the creation of Israel, one of the most exalting. Demographic shifts would, during the course of the century, profoundly change the nature of the Jewish world and bring the Jewish People to the edge of the millennium ensconced in their homeland for the first time in 2,000 years but, outside that homeland, more uncertain of their identity and of their future than they may have ever been.

Vienna in 1900 was ib the cutting edge of a phenomenon that had begun a century earlier when the enlightenment and Napoleonic reforms opened up the modern world to the Jewish People, hitherto largely immersed in a closed environment of tradition and poverty. Improved health conditions and a reduction in infant mortality resulted in a spectacular growth of east European Jewry in the 19th century and their relative weight in the Jewish world. Of the 10.5 million Jews in the world in 1900, 7.4 million lived in eastern Europe. Another 1.3 million lived in central and western Europe.

One of the most striking aspects of east European Jewry, says Hebrew University demographer Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, was its cohesiveness. "Almost half of the five million Jews in the Russian empire lived in conditions where they were the majority in their place of residence. This had an enormous impact on their interaction and the perpetuation of Jewish norms. They could speak Yiddish and live Jewish lives." The bulk lived in thousands of small localities, but in the latter half of the 19th century Jews began to move in large numbers to cities as residential restrictions gave way. Odessa, Kiev, Lodz and numerous other cities began developing sizable Jewish quarters. Warsaw's Jewish population grew from 40,000 in mid-century to 220,000 by 1900. Although a minority in the cities, the Jews here, too, were concentrated in large numbers which eased continuity of communal life.

At the same time, other Jews, prodded by pogroms, were packing their meager belongings and heading in a different direction - to the goldene medina. By the turn of the century, there were a million Jews living in the US, including immigrants who had come earlier from Germany. A small number of idealists chose to migrate instead to the backward Turkish region of Palestine.

"It was a time of incredible mobility," says Della Pergola. "A lively time of change. You could still see the old world but new trends were at their peak."

The Moslem world had until the Middle Ages been the vibrant heart of world Jewry but with the decline of their host countries, the Jews of the region also declined. As late as the 16th century, world Jewry had been divided roughly 50/50 between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. By 1900, Sephardim constituted only 7 percent of world Jewry as a result of a stagnant birth rate and high infant mortality.

Demographers like to shape their predictions by projecting existing trends in a straight line. That model would have proved useless at the beginning of the century which ends tonight. "It would have been very difficult in 1900 to predict that by the year 2000 there would be a State of Israel and that the 50,000 Jews living in Palestine would have grown to 5.1 million," says Della Pergola. "And who could predict a holocaust with six million victims? What happened during the century defied fantasy and wisdom. Not just what happened to the Jews but also to the world system whose transformations were unpredictable." Had it not been for the Holocaust, says Della Pergola, world Jewry today would number 26 million to 32 million. "This is a very conservative estimate. It factors in losses due to assimilation and a lowered birthrate." Instead, the figure is 13 million, of whom 5.7 million are in the US. Together with Israel's 5.1 million, this constitutes 80 percent of world Jewry, a much more compact concentration than a century ago.

Jewish reservoirs abroad are shrinking. There are not millions of Jews still in the former Soviet Union as some would have it, says Della Pergola. "There are half a million declared Jews there, around whom are several circles of people eligible for emigration to Israel under the Law of Return. There may also be a few tens of thousands of hidden Jews who have not yet reemerged but not hundreds of thousands or millions." Other large Jewish concentrations are in France (more than 500,000), Canada (360,000), the United Kingdom (280,000), Argentina (200,000), Brazil (100,000), Australia (100,000), and South Africa (80,000). The Ashkenazi-Sephardi worldwide ratio is now roughly 70:30 but in Israel itself, where most of the Sephardim live, it is roughly 50:50.

Never since masses of Jews dropped out of the ranks after the destruction of the Second Temple to blend into the pagan, Christian and then Moslem worlds have so many Jews left the faith as in this century. Perhaps never since the Second Temple period, when the Idumeans and others were co-opted, sometimes by the sword, have so many non-Jews linked their faith to the Jewish people as has been happening with the current influx of Russians and Ukrainians under the Law of Return. Only a small number of these have converted to Judaism but the rest, says Della Pergola, can be expected to "converge" in time, together with their children, into an Israeli-Jewish way of life.

"What is happening to world Jewry now is unprecedented. The losses are very significant and more recently the gains are significant as well." The ability of the Jewish people to move forward from the Holocaust, says Della Pergola, bespeaks a spectacular power of will. "In this century, we have seen a unique manifestation of this will for survival, the ability of the Jews to overcome tragedy and move on, to create their own existential framework. They have done this basically by themselves." Overcoming national tragedy has proven simpler than staving off the erosion of assimilation. Intermarriage has been a powerfully erosive force in the US and elsewhere. "Surveys show that a majority of children of these marriages are not raised as Jews," says Della Pergola. "Hundreds of thousands of children of a Jewish parent are not Jewish by their own definition."

The existence of a Jewish state, he says, has been a major element in the struggle to maintain Jewish identity in the Diaspora. "Even for those who will never come on aliya and who can't identify with the policies of the Israeli government, Israel is a point of reference. It obliges them to reflect and be more aware of their Jewishness." Another important stabilizing factor in North America are the Conservative and Reform movements, which have permitted many to adhere to their Jewish identity instead of sliding out into the broader society.

The Orthodox community in the US has a higher birthrate than other Jews and is largely immune to assimilation but it constitutes only 6-7 percent of the Jewish population. By 2020, says Della Pergola, this might increase to 10-15 percent. The estrangement between Orthodox and secular, pulling the Jewish world in opposite directions, is no less a problem than assimilation, he says.

Despite the perils of such predictions, the Italian-born demographer estimates that by 2020 the world Jewish population will be roughly what it is today, 13 million-13.5 million, with Israel constituting 45 percent of the total, instead of 36 percent today.

Whether or not Israel will ever become "a light unto the nations," it will be incumbent upon it to serve as a light for the Jews of the world if the Diaspora is to retain its vital life force. The challenge for the Jewish People in the coming century, says Della Pergola, will be to halt its increasing polarization and seek cohesion. "This demands leaders capable of creating discourse and finding common themes." Jewish survival, certainly one of history's oddest phenomena, has been sustained by religion, by an apartness partially self-imposed and partially imposed by the outside world, and by survival stratagems. The latter have permitted the Jews to adapt with amazing success to new environments, as if by an organism with a will to live. Religion is no longer a strong adhesive and apartness is also a muted factor in the modern world. It will be of no small interest in the coming years to see whether the will to live is sufficiently strong to enable new survival strategies to be shaped.

Della Pergola hesitates to predict the Jewish demographic situation a century hence but his successor in 2100 will doubtless have a tale to tell.



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