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FALL 2002  
Vol. 31, No. 1

Arthur Hertzberg Forecasts the Jewish Future

Arthur Hertzberg is the author of nine books on Jewish history and religion. A frequent commentator on Jewish affairs, he has served as president of the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Policy Foundation. Currently Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University, he has also taught at Columbia and Dartmouth. His memoir, A Jew in America, will be published this fall by Harper SanFrancisco. He was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

What will the American Jewish community look like in 2025?

It will reflect American society as a whole--an amalgram of innumerable interweaving cultures and worldviews. Just as both Jews and white Christians will be minorities in America, about twenty percent of our synagogues' population will be more multiethnic. The intermarriage rate will rise, but not sharply, as more non-Jews who marry into the Jewish faith will choose to convert because it is easier to raise children in homes that are united by religion. To keep Judaism afloat amidst these many cultural countercurrents and complexities, we will need to infuse our children with a level of Jewish passion that is deep enough to regard competing traditions with respect but critically, secure in their knowledge of Judaism and the meaning of Jewish existence.

Will an increase in converts to Judaism change the ethnic character of synagogue life?

Even as the members of our synagogues become ever more diverse, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Eastern European immigrants will remain the backbone of our congregations. And they will insist, and rightly so, that the great cultural traditions of European Jewry not be stripped down to some version of Ethical Culture, in which the specific history and traditions of the Jewish people would have to be abandoned in the name of universal morality. Being a Jew is not primarily about affirming a credo or catechism; it requires an embrace of Jewish historic memory. In the Bible, Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, did not say to Naomi, "I accept your theology." She said, "Your people are my people. Wherever you go, I shall go." She accepted being part of Jewish destiny. The convert becomes part of our history, stands on our side of the barricade.

If we forget the concept of avarim zeh bazeh--every Jew is responsible for the other--we will become a fragmented, self-indulgent sect. Those who forget the history and experience, and, yes, the tragedies of the Jews, and are taught only the "morally uplifting" and "feel good" elements of Judaism will not long endure.

Will Israel continue to play a vital role in how Jews define themselves?

In recent years, a number of Jewish leaders have expressed concern that a significant portion of American Jews, especially young adults in their 20s-40s, have become less connected to Israel. The strong support that Israel is now receiving should allay that concern. The overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community stands with Israel in its war with Palestinian terrorism, even though many oppose the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Our solidarity with Israel is the most uniting and least divisive aspect of American Jewish public life. This passion for Israel will remain deep and abiding into the next generation and beyond.

How will Israel-Diaspora relations change?

On the social level, we can expect closer relationships between American Jews and Israelis than ever before. By 2025, air travel from New York to Tel Aviv will take much less time. More American Jews will have second homes in Israel--and the more Israel-Diaspora contact, the better the relationship.

On the political level, Israel-Diaspora relations will no longer be a one-way street--Israel makes policy and we say amen. That arrangement will have to change because, increasingly, the future of Israel will not be determined in Jerusalem, but in Washington, as a measure of the American people's caring for Israel. Israeli policymakers do not understand America now, and they will certainly be clueless in the future, as the ethnic revolution transforms American society. Thus, in 2025, American Jews will need to find a way to ensure that a more ethnically diverse Congress still cares about Israel.

Will the Orthodox still maintain religious control in Israel in twenty-five years?

Yes. I see no likelihood that Israel's Knesset will produce the majority needed to dismantle the chief rabbinate and the extensive structure of rabbinic authority throughout the country. That battle for religious pluralism will have to be fought in Israel, and too few Reform and Conservative Jews are going to make aliyah to change the status quo. Our best hope lies with the sizable immigrant community from the Former Soviet Union, which will become more insistent that Israel adopt a liberal version of Jewish law on such personal status issues as marriage, conversion, and burial.

On the conversion issue, the Orthodox are currently yielding ground on a matter which they cannot totally control: the Israeli Supreme Court ruled recently that individuals converted to Judaism by Reform and Conservative rabbis must be registered in Israel as Jews. The Orthodox-controlled Interior Ministry is not complying with the court's decision. A "compromise" is in the works under which Reform and Conservative converts will be listed as Jews on state-issued identity cards but will not be accorded Jewish status on religious law documents, which are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment. Some version of this arrangement may persist for decades to come. Liberal Jews in Israel are unlikely to acquire more religious rights.

Will Jews have the same, less, or more political clout in the U.S.?

We will continue to wield political influence disproportionate to our numbers. While there will be few elections where the Jewish vote will constitute the margin of difference, Jewish political clout will continue to manifest itself, as it does today, in money and in brainpower. U.S. presidents will continue to prize Jewish experts in areas such as economics, defense, and science. Today Jewish money accounts for a significant proportion of contributions to the Democratic and Republican parties, with about twice as much going to the Democrats. In twenty-five years, American Jews will donate a smaller proportion of campaign funds to both parties because other communities--mainly Asians and Hispanics--will become bigger players. Nonetheless, candidates for Congress will continue to look for substantial contributions from Jews in their districts and states.

Do you think it's likely that a Jew could be elected president by 2025? Why or why not?

Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, negotiated an important turning point when he ran for vice president, not as an "American Jew"--that is, as a special pleader for the interests of his group--but as a Jewish American. John F. Kennedy got himself elected in 1960 by negotiating the same turn as a Catholic. He promised his Protestant critics that he would behave as an American political leader who happened to go to Mass on Sunday, but make policy decisions without consulting the pope. Therefore, a Jew can very well be elected president by 2025, or even sooner, especially if the Middle East conflict is sufficiently resolved to be on the back burner of American politics.

How will the denominations of North American Judaism--Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox--be configured a quarter century from now?

Not much will change. Orthodoxy will be split into the self-ghettoized ultra-Orthodox, on the one hand, and the modern Orthodox on the other. Conservative and Reform congregational life will look more and morealike. When one walks into a Reform or Conservative synagogue during prayer, it will be difficult to tell them apart. Worshipers in both will wear yarmulkes and tallitot, both will be led by men and women clergy, and their prayerbooks will be liturgically similar. From a sociological point of view, the constituencies are primarily the same--the great-grandchildren of those who came to the United States from Eastern Europe beginning in the 1880s. The only remaining differences of any consequence will concern intermarriage. Marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew will be more acceptable in the Reform Movement because the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis recognizes as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, if the child is educated as a Jew. Patrilineal descent is a "red line" that the Conservative rabbinate will not cross. Another ideological "red line" is rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. It will remain an option among Reform rabbis, though discouraged by the CCAR. In 2025, as is the case today, any Conservative rabbi who officiates or takes part in an intermarriage ceremony will be expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly of America.

Will there be more or fewer synagogue-affiliated Jews in 2025?

I expect synagogue affiliation to decline by about ten percent or more. A major reason is that synagogues are pricing themselves out of the market for the Jewish middle class, especially among young couples with children. Alternative religious groups such as havurot and the Lubavitchers will continue to undercut the price structures of established synagogues, offering bar mitzvah training and other services at a much lower cost. Those who cannot afford or refuse to pay the cost of belonging to an established synagogue will either be lost to the Jewish people or find new ways of expressing their personal and familial Jewish commitments. Already, people are celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs at private parties, with a few minutes taken out for a speech and a religious reading or two. The liberal synagogue movements will have to restructure their dues systems in such a way that no one is or feels excluded because of an inability to pay. Any shortfall will have to be made up by those members who can afford to pay more. The synagogue is not a department store in which people come in on occasion to buy a dress or a toaster; it is the collective home of the Jewish community, and it will continue to play that vital role so long as we instill in our children a passion for congregational life.

What will be the principal Jewish population centers in 2025?

The major centers of Jewish life will be, even more than they are today, Israel and America. Israel's five million Jews will grow to five and a half or six million by 2025, primarily because of immigration--every time there is a crisis somewhere, such as Argentina today, Israel becomes a refuge. Also, there is a higher birthrate among Orthodox Jews in Israel, who account for nearly one third of the Jewish population. In America, by contrast, the number of Jews will decrease from approximately 4.5 million today to four million in twenty-plus years as a result of assimilation and the low Jewish birthrate, which is below the replacement level, except for the Orthodox, who constitute less than ten percent of American Jewry. Divorce and the rising age of marriage partners will further drive down the Jewish population in America.

Another trend will be a shift of Jewish institutional power from New York as American Jews relocate to the South and West. Already we have witnessed the Los Angeles offices of the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League wrestling with their respective New York headquarters, and in defiance of the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles has established its own Conservative rabbinical school. This trend will continue. As a result, the organized American Jewish community will be less centralized, and regional institutions will keep rising in importance.

What will be the main domestic concerns of the American Jewish community?

As always, the American Jewish community will be concerned about antisemitism, but with a new face--Jews will worry less about extremist Christians and more about Muslims. Of course, we will continue to be concerned about Israel and the Jews of the rest of the world. But the deepest problem of the American Jewish community will remain the transmission of their Jewishness to future generations. Here we must face the fact that we have not yet devised the strategy to convince the majority of fourth-generation Jews to care passionately about being Jewish and to pass that caring on to their children.

Will the majority of American Jews continue to vote Democratic and support liberal causes?

In every presidential election in the last forty years, Jews have voted on average two to one for the Democrats. This has happened despite large efforts by the Republicans, and especially by their neo-Conservative partisans, to change this tide. As arch neo-Conservative theoretician Irving Kristol remarked ruefully, "Jews make money like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." The reason for this is that no temporary gains or claims by either party about its love for Israel makes the slightest difference. Jimmy Carter tried to push Israel toward moving off the West Bank, and he lost some points with Jews, but he still got over sixty percent of the Jewish vote. American Jews know that, regardless of the party in power, every president eventually will advocate a two-state solution, and neither party will allow Israel to go down in defeat. Jews, therefore, have continued to choose candidates on the basis of domestic issues--and the one clear distinction between the Republicans and the Democrats is support of the welfare state. Tikkun olam means to defend the defenseless; therefore, on moral grounds, Jews are not going to vote to fatten our pocketbooks with money that ought to be going to the poor. The majority of Jews will continue to favor Democrats over Republicans.

Will the Israelis and Palestinians have made peace by 2025?

Unfortunately, the conflict will not be resolved in twenty-five years, and perhaps not even in one hundred years, because the Palestinian refugee problem will not be solved. No Arab nation will take in the refugees in large numbers, and neither will Israel. There won't be a formal peace, but neither will there be war. Eventually, Israel will take the pragmatic step of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza to more defensible borders, bringing Israel closer to becoming a fortress state connected to the world primarily by international commerce and the Internet. The economic situation in the Middle East will improve for the very pragmatic reason that the pro-Western Arab states will not be able to contain the unrest unless, as part of a worldwide effort to aid economic progress in the Mideast, more factories are created, and thereby more jobs. In the long term, an economic symbiosis between Israel and its Arab neighbors will be the foundation of lasting peace, but it will not happen in two decades.

What about the future of European Jewry? Will we see a rise in antisemitism, as is evidenced today, or a decrease, and why?

Antisemitism will increase. Europeans have become accustomed to the idea of very few Jews living in their midst. But Jews are reappearing in France and Germany. The current turmoil in Europe is rooted in its resistance to immigrants, and in the European mind Jews are quintessential "resident aliens."

What will be the state of Jewish-Christian relations in 2025?

On the local level, Catholic-Jewish relations will continue to improve, as both communities adapt to the realities of a more pluralistic America. In terms of our relationship with the Vatican, we have made much progress in terms of the removal of antisemitism from Catholic teachings and texts. But the question of the Vatican's failures during the Holocaust will continue to be a major irritant. Even if the war archives of the Vatican are opened by 2025, any scholarly investigation of the Church and Pope Pius XII will not resolve the dispute. To my own certain knowledge, these archives have already been "cleaned up" several times, and anything that is damaging has been removed. Therefore, the question of Holocaust responsibility will remain open in 2025 and beyond. This is a "red line" between Jews and the Church, and no amount of rhetoric on either side will erase it. Other issues between the Vatican and the world Jewish community--the Vatican's tendency to lean toward the Palestinians; its desire to internationalize the holy sites in Jerusalem, thus increasing its religious and political roles; or its defense of Catholic property in the Holy Land--are not really major irritants. I have reason to believe that the Vatican would negotiate on all these issues, if it could achieve an ultimate aim: "absolution" from the Jewish community for its conduct during the Holocaust.

Our relations with the Protestants will be mixed. Evangelicals who believe that the return of Jews to the Holy Land is a necessary prelude to the Apocalypse and Second Coming will remain vehemently pro-Israel. The mainline Protestant churches, which maintain a significant missionary and educational presence in Beirut, Cairo, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, will continue to be pro-Arab. As the number of Christians in the Holy Land decreases, the only way Protestant interests can be maintained is through such institutions, and any sign of support for Israel would threaten these interests.

Are you optimistic about the Jewish future?

Absolutely. Our faith that we must go on has kept our people alive for nearly four thousand years. I have great expectations of the continuity of Jewish courage. Think of the Jews who were tempted to give up after the destruction of the Second Temple. Hundreds of thousands did. They were taken off into slavery. And yet, some hung on. At the very depth of the Crusades, there were fewer than ten thousand Jews remaining in Europe. The rest had either been killed or forcibly converted. And yet, we are here to tell the story.

The Jewish response to adversity is to rebuild. The moral of the Job story is not, as most people think, that we cannot understand the ways of God. The lesson lies in the final verse, which tells us that Job remarried, raised a family, restored his fortune, and forged a useful life. No matter how mighty the obstacles we encounter on our journey, we Jews will do as the Prophet Ezekiel advised after the destruction of the First Temple: "Build houses, cultivate vineyards, and wait for the day your fortunes will be revived" (Ezekiel 28:26). The story of the Jewish people will continue. We will always find the courage and, yes, the wisdom to regroup and rebuild.

First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a UAHC Congregation

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