Perspective 51. Israel as the Center of Jewish Life: An Emerging Reality?

In 1897 Zionist visionary Ahad Ha'am projected a Jewish state as a center from which "the spirit of Judaism will go forth to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora." Since then the emergence of Israel has indeed created a new reality. But is it becoming the center of the Jewish world?

Yes. In sheer numbers, Israel already has the largest Jewish population of any nation, and patterns of influence are steadily shifting from inward to outward.

In perspective, the demographic and cultural shift in the Jewish world over the last century has been monumental. When the first Zionist settlers arrived in the early 1880s, the Jewish population of the three Palestinian districts of the Ottoman Empire was estimated at 20,000-25,000 -- some 0.3 percent of the world's Jews. Jews in Israel today, about three-quarters of the total population of over nine million, constitute about 47 percent of the world's Jews.

Given current trends, Israel will soon have over half of the world Jewish population -- fulfilling one of the unlikeliest fantasies of early Zionists. By some accounts it is the first time since 586 B.C.E. (beginning of the Babylonian exile) that Jews inside the Land of Israel will outnumber Jews outside the historic homeland.

The flow of influence is reversing. Private Jewish aid to Israel, at one time critical to the nation's development, is now well less than one percent of Israel's GDP (as is, for that matter, U.S. governmental assistance). Foreign donors are still important for many Israeli institutions, but Israeli public and private support of Jewish causes elsewhere in the world is beginning to make a mark.

In the Jewish religious world, particularly in Orthodox circles, leadership comes increasingly from Israeli rabbis and movements. Jewish scholarship is now clearly based on the vibrant Hebrew culture that has evolved since the days of Ahad Ha'am, even beyond his dreams.

There is even an Israeli Diaspora that is beginning to play an important role in Jewish communities elsewhere. An estimated 300,000-400,000 Jews of Israeli origin are now an integral part of these communities.

As one observer has termed it, Israel is becoming "the Jewish mainland." Presently surveys show that Israelis, asked whether they identity more as Israeli or as Jewish, are torn almost evenly between the two orientations. But eventually the distinction will lose its relevance: Israeliness will more and more define Jewishness.