“I don’t believe Jews have a special interest in numbers,” he says with a smile on his face. “The entirety of humanity loves numbers. Many people want to know, compare and derive trends from the dry numbers. It should be noted, however, that even in the Bible there were already censuses of the people of Israel, and that is likely where the attempt to count the number of Jews in the world began, an attempt which has continued to this very day in different ways.”
Prof. DellaPergola, 74, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is considered the world’s most prominent researcher in the field of Jewish demography. He began studying the subject when the field was considered marginal and lacked any special importance in academia and watched it develop and turn into a key issue with social and geopolitical effects that fascinate many in the world.
The studies he conducts – including the American Jewish Yearbook 2016, which is in the process of publication – are detailed so accurately that they make the reader’s jaw drop. The information about every country includes numbers, trends, increases and decreases from the past, present and future. Countries from Israel to the United States, France, Britain and Argentina, to tiny countries or countries where peopl would never have imagined that there are active Jewish communities such as the Virgin Islands or Syria.
So how are the Jews of the world counted?
“Each country individually. There are complicated cases and there are cases in which it’s easier to collect the information. In easy cases, there are countries with population censuses like England, Canada or Australia, which include figures that can be used. We take data from the census and start crosschecking with the number of children studying in Jewish schools or with the number of deceased from the community. The last moment in which a Jew remembers his identity is when he selects the cemetery he will be buried in.
“From here, we start implementing demographic models in a critical and cautious analysis. We can compare trends and results versus past research. Additionally, there are countries where the Jewish community is a body recognized by the state and it registers the number of Jews, such as in Italy or Switzerland. The community data provide a good infrastructure for research.”
US is the toughest case
In order to conduct the research, DellaPergola visited dozens of countries around the world where he proudly says he was called to the Torah in synagogues on every continent. Of all the many countries with at least 10,000 Jews, he has yet to visit only Chile (some 18,000 Jews) and Belarus (about 11,000 Jews).
What do you do in countries with no data infrastructure?
“The toughest case is also the most important one – the United States. The community in the US is a dispersed body which reflects the American decentralization perception. The only way to start is through a sample of the entire population. In other words, carrying out broad surveys in an attempt to catch the small fish you are interested in. It’s a very expensive tool, because with the size of the population in the US, you need at least 250,000 respondents.”
The Jewish Federations of North America began investing millions of dollars in the surveys in the 1970s, but at some stage they reached the conclusion that it was too expensive and were also concerned by the results, which sparked serious arguments and greatly affected community activity.
What helped Prof. DellaPergola in recent years was an extensive study on the US Jewry conducted by the Pew Research Center in Washington, which was co-funded with a Jewish family from Philadelphia that allotted a considerable sum to the project. “The results served as an excellent basis for thorough research and a fertile ground for a public discourse,” he added. "The data received were obviously raw, and this is where the work started."
First we take Italy, then we take the world
Sergio DellaPergola was born in Italy in 1942 into World War II. His family was rescued after crossing the border to Switzerland with the help of four Righteous Among the Nations. The family later returned to Italy and settled in Milan. Jewish life resumed after the war and DellaPergola studied in a Jewish school before seeking higher education at the University of Pavia.
While his melodic surname is uncommon, it is not unusual among Italian Jews. Pergola is a town in central Italy, east of Florence and north of the area which was hit by an earthquake this past summer. Jews who left the are in the 16th century, fleeing the pope’s regime, moved to the nearby and more pleasant Tuscany and took the town’s name with them.
DellaPergola, who visited Israel several times as a teenager, says he finally fell in love with the country in 1960. “It was wonderful. Men would walk around with khaki-colored shorts and there was a feeling of pioneership in the air,” he recounts. “I said to myself that this is a wonderful place and I knew I would be back.
“I made aliyah in December 1966, and luckily received a scholarship from Hebrew University and eligibility to live in the dorms. I began studying as a sort of a protégé of Prof. Roberto Bachi, who told me that if I wanted to seriously do what I was doing, research the construction and demography of the Jewish people, I should do it in Jerusalem.”
DellaPergola made it his goal to implement social science research methods on the Jewish community in the Diaspora. He began with the community in Italy and later expanded his research to the rest of the world.
“I built my academic career on expertise in demographic studies in different countries,” he says. “We tried to understand processes, trends and dilemmas surrounding the Jewish identity. Over time, we created a factual infrastructure which did not exist in the past and which today allows us to hold thorough discussions on the distribution and future of the Jewish people.”
Who did you call Jewish?
The most basic question facing anyone trying to investigate the issue is who is actually a Jew? As every Israeli knows, there are several answers to that question, each concealing the potential for an endless, stormy debate with religious, national and political meanings.
The issue is obviously relevant to the State of Israel, and DellaPergola bases his research on several assumptions, mainly the “Brother Daniel” High Court ruling, in which a Jewish-born Christian monk sought Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. A majority of four judges versus one decided to reject the petition, ruling that a person who converted to Christianity can no longer be considered Jewish.
“In the past, it was easy to determine who is Jewish,” DellaPergola sighs. “Whoever lived inside the ghetto, spoke a certain language or engaged in professions identified with Jews – was considered Jewish. Today things are much more complicated and are built on different circles. The freedom and the intellectual processes which Europe has undergone in recent centuries created a separation between religion and nationality, and identity has become complicated. A person can say, ‘I am Jewish according to my nationality and Christian according to my religion', or vice versa.”
DellaPergola relies on the High Court ruling defining one as a Jew anyone who was born to a Jewish person or converted and has no other religion. From this circle, which is called the core of the Jewish people, emerge additional circles of populations with different affiliations to Judaism. The second circle includes, for example, people who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish nuclear family. For example, a Jew’s partner or people living in a household which includes at least one Jew.
“A more distant circle is based on the Law of Return, which goes down to the level of a Jew’s grandson,” he adds. “Another circle that has erupted in recent years is the movement of Bnei Anusim or lost tribes, who are not a third generation of Jews, but claim to be of a more distant descent. They have kept a certain identity and feeling of belonging all these years, including Jewish ceremonies and customs, and even circumcision.”
In his studies, Prof. DellaPergola publishes the data of all these circles, and the gaps between one and another are dramatic. The core of the Jewish people includes some 14.5 million Jews, but the circle of those who are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return includes about 9 million non-Jews (in Israel alone there are about 300,000 people in this gap).
There are quite a few disagreements over where we should stop counting.
“Each researcher stops at a different place. I am perceived as conservative and I stop at the first and second circle, close to what the High Court ruled - in other words, that there is only one identity. There are researchers who claim there are movements between the circles, that identity is fluid and that one can be both or move from one circle to another. There are even those who argue that ‘a Jew is a person who chooses to be Jewish.’ That’s a perception which greatly changes the way we count.”
‘It’s a catastrophe, something must be done’
Delving into the data and different circles, especially in light of the perception that the identity constantly changes, raises the question whether these studies have any practical meaning. In an era in which people feel Jewish one day and not Jewish the other day, is there really any point in counting and dividing?
According to DellaPergola, “The different perceptions don’t change the fact that the issue is interesting. There is still a concept of a ‘Jewish people’ which includes quite a few ramifications. I wouldn’t rush into a nihilist and rejecting perception. There is no doubt that the Jewish people are still alive and kicking, even if it’s not always easy to place it in within a framework.
“In a wider sense, the global studies show that religion is an extremely strong predicting variable of other phenomena such as economy, education, life expectancy, etc. Moreover, these studies have – not just in regards to Jews – a huge geopolitical importance. For example, the estimation that by 2050 about half the world's population will be Muslim. Such a figure has significant consequences. The question what Europe will look like in 50 years is very important. It has both micro and macro ramifications. The research on Jews is part of the research on global processes, and it is important beyond the State of Israel’s private interest in it.”
Researchers who present such data – all the more so in regards to numbers of Jews and Jewish identity – should be prepared for a strong reaction. Anyone can look at numbers differently, and mainly use them in favor of their own agenda. DellaPergola is used to the variety of responses and divides them into reactions that are either public or research-based. The public reaction ranges from “it’s a catastrophe and we must do something” to “this is the best era we have ever experienced.” A reaction he often gets from leaders of communities abroad is: “Don’t confuse us with the facts. We already know everything.”
“I am known as a right-wing and conservative marker,” DellaPergola says, “but there is no doubt that studies suggest that the core of the Jewish people is shrinking. The fact that the ultra-Orthodox minority is growing stronger may actually help the core grow in the future.
“As for the other circles, I am documenting an erosion in Jewish identity, but not a complete disappearance. Although different elements are growing weaker, there are still quite a few people who attend at least one ceremony a year at the synagogue, donate to a Jewish fundraising campaign or have an affiliation or certain feelings towards the State of Israel. A memory is being preserved also in farther circles which are no longer at the core.”
What do you feel about the term “the quiet Holocaust,” which refers to assimilation?
“I hate it. I am very hostile towards the use of the term Holocaust in other contexts. The Holocaust was the Holocaust, and here we are talking about complicated processes which do reflect a loss, no doubt, but it’s something else.”
Number of Jews: It’s all politics
Throughout the years, his studies were interpreted for political purposes, mainly in the context of the territories and the State of Israel’s borders. Although his goal is that his study will be as objective as possible, DellaPergola does not evade the conclusions. “I have been saying for many years that the Jewish majority in the geophysical unit between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been worn out and has even disappeared, all the more so if you only address the halachic definition, thereby removing from the count hundreds of thousands who are in Israel by the power of the Law of Return, but are not Jewish. According to these parameters, there is no Jewish majority in Israel.
“This statement is very unpopular in certain circles, and there is a counterattack trying to say that it’s not true. The responses range from “we’ll leave Gaza out of the calculations” to “we’ll perform a land swap” and then the Jewish majority will increase. This is basically a political question, and I believe it’s an integral issue because I can’t investigate the Jewish world without handling this question. If the State of Israel is the core of the Jewish people, the question of the majority and existence of the Jewish state is an essential issue.
"But I don’t feel comfortable with the political use of the data. In the past, I advised the Jerusalem Municipality and prime ministers such as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and there is contact with the executive system which I believe must know the factual infrastructure. There is, for example, a supposition that we will bring another a million immigrants to Israel. Under the existing conditions, that is completely groundless. Massive aliyah is the result of distress, or a feeling of distress. Today there is not enough strength or a catastrophe to move a large mass of immigrants, like the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
“The answer is yes and no. The measures of US Jewry’s concern towards the State of Israel should be read properly. One-third are greatly in favor of Israel, one-third are somewhere in the middle, and one-third don’t care about anything. But the one-third in the middle is not unequivocal. Diaspora Jewry is a complicated body. It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion from it.”