How many Jews are there in the United States? That’s the question at the heart of a lively debate between Jewish studies academics, demographers and sociologists attending this week’s Association for Jewish Studies annual conference in Boston.
In his “World Jewish Population, 2010” report, demographer Sergio DellaPergola, a professor of Israel-diaspora relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pegged the number of American Jews at 5.3 million.
Ira Sheskin, a geographer at the University of Miami, argues that DellaPergola is underestimating the number of American Jews; a more accurate figure, he believes, hovers around 6 million. (Sheskin’s “Jewish Population in the United States 2010” report estimated the number of American Jews at 6.5 million, but Sheskin says that number is actually an overestimate due to over-counting of certain populations, including college students and those he terms “snowbirds” — retirees who spend several months each year living in Florida).
And Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, has publicly stated that in light of his recent research, the number of American Jews may be as high as 6.5 million.
DellaPergola’s estimates are of note because he claims that Israel’s Jewish population — now 5.7 million strong — has finally surpassed that of American Jews. “It is plausible to claim that Israel now hosts the largest Jewish community worldwide,” DellaPergola wrote in the report, adding that some researchers disagree with this assessment.
“As an avid Zionist, I would applaud the day when there are more Jews in Israel than in the United States,” Sheskin told The Jewish Week. “But I don’t think that day is here yet.”
Few disagree that should current trends continue, Israel will soon be home to the largest concentration of Jews worldwide. In large part, this is because of demographic trends within the United States. Nearly 20 percent of Jews in the U.S. are 65 or older according to Sheskin. And the “effective” Jewish birthrate in the United States, at 1.4 children, is very low. (The birth rate among Jews is actually 1.9, but because of intermarriage a sizable percentage of children are raised in another faith/identity entirely.) A birth rate of 2.2 children is needed to replace the population. In Israel, however, the Jewish fertility rate (at 2.9 children, as measured by the country’s census) is much higher, even among the non-Orthodox.
While Israel may soon, if not already, boast the largest concentration of world Jewry, increasingly, Jews are becoming a smaller population within Israel and the Palestinian territories. This can be attributed largely to higher fertility rates among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.
In 2010, “core” Jews made up just 49.8 percent of all residents living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. “This is a critical number politically,” says Sheskin. “If Israel would want to keep all of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and remain a Jewish state, it wouldn’t also be able to remain a democratic country.” (Some researchers, it should be noted, dispute the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank and believe that the Palestinian Authority inflates those numbers in order to increase its overall claim).
The debate regarding the number of American Jews is a continuation of the controversy surrounding the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, which found that there were 5.2 million American Jews. Some critics, Sheskin among them, argue that the study undercounted the true number of Jews in the United States. “We did a test that proved that Jews are less likely to stay on the phone and answer the question, ‘Are you Jewish?’” he says.
“Does the number of American Jews really matter?” Sheskin asks, half jokingly. “Depending on which numbers you choose, Jews represent either 1.7 percent of the population or 2.1 percent of the population. Either way they are a tiny percentage of the American population.”
The fact that more than 52 percent of world Jewry live in five large metropolitan areas — Tel Aviv, New York, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and Haifa — and 72 percent live in 15 urban areas, is far more significant, he says. “The fact that we are clustered gives us political clout,” he says.