Chairman of the Conference of Presidents Alan Sugarman,
Executive Vice-Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to devote my address today to what I believe is our most pressing policy issue. I am not going to talk about Iran or the Palestinians, but about Jewish continuity. I am happy to be able to speak about the issue of Jewish continuity here in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the State of Israel, because one of the eternal prayers that has kept us as a people throughout our exile are the words “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
Firstly, I would like to make it clear that when I talk about Jewish issues, like Jewish continuity, I refer to a challenge for the whole of world Jewry, Israeli and Diaspora Jew, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, alike. There is no part of world Jewry that is illegitimate and should be placed outside of the tent, and all of us have our obligations to meet these challenges as one people in the full sense of the word.
That being said, I would like to state my firm belief that the biggest threat to us as Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, regardless of background, is the demographic problem currently facing world Jewry. Today, according to the Israeli National Bureau of Statistics there are around 6.1 million Jews in Israel. In the U.S, the exact number of Jews is harder to accurately assess, but according to the 2012 American Jewish Yearbook and Israel’s leading demographer, Sergio DellaPergola, the total number of American Jews is around 5.4 million. The number of Jews estimated by the Pew Research Center during their recent survey is slightly less at 5.3 million.
However, the recently released results from the Pew survey on American Jewry make for pretty depressing reading. They demonstrate that there is a significant rise in those who have little or no Jewish content in their lives, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish, than from a similar survey taken ten years ago. The intermarriage rate has reached a high of 58% for all Jews, and 71% for non-Orthodox Jews, a huge change from before 1970 when only 17% of Jews intermarried.
On attitudes towards Israel we are witnessing a major generational gap. While 30% of respondents professed to be very attached to Israel and 39% said they felt “somewhat” attached, 31% answered that they felt not very or not at all attached to Israel. Asked whether caring about Israel was an "essential" part of being Jewish, only 43% answered in the affirmative, only one percentage point higher than those that responded “having a good sense of humor” was an essential part of being Jewish.
According to the researchers, older Jews are more likely than younger Jews to see caring about Israel as an essential part of what being Jewish means to them, with more than half of respondents over the age of 65 believing that caring about Israel was an essential part of their Jewish identity, whereas only 32% of respondents under the age of 30 shared the same belief.
Ladies and gentlemen, these statistics demonstrate that the Jews of America are facing nothing less than a demographic catastrophe.
For many years, Israeli officials have called on our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, like many of you gathered here tonight, to donate your time, energies and funds to Israel. However, I turn to you today and say that, while we are enormously and forever grateful for your assistance, we believe it is now time to concentrate on the challenges facing your own communities, especially those emanating from the dangerous trends in the Jewish community demonstrated in the recent survey.
It is my strongest belief that the antidote to this rising assimilation, intermarriage and disengagement is education. It is said in the Jewish sources that Jerusalem was destroyed just because school-children were kept from their classrooms. Today, unfortunately, Jewish children are being kept from the Jewish classrooms because of the exorbitant and prohibitive costs of Jewish education in the U.S. It cannot be, it should not be, that a Jewish child will not be able to receive a good Jewish education because of financial reasons. This should be unacceptable to all of us who care for the Jewish future.
On my last visit to New York, I met with a Russian Jewish family in Brooklyn. They told me that for their three children to attend good Jewish schools it would cost them around $100,000. They simply could not endure such costs. They are not alone. This situation is being replicated across the Jewish world, whether in the U.S., Russia, France, Argentina, or elsewhere. If this situation persists, we will lose another six million Jews in a generation or two.
In order to prevent this tragedy, all Jewish children should have the capacity and capability to attend a school where they will receive an education that will teach them about Jewish history, values and traditions, to treasure their Jewish identity and to have a strong attachment to Israel and Zionism. We need to ensure that Jewish schools will be among the best in the world.
As Foreign Minister, when I travel to capitals around the world, I speak to our ambassadors and Consul-Generals and ask them where their children study. I was shocked to discover that over 90% of the time, the children of Israeli representatives study at the American or international schools, even when there are local Jewish schools. When I ask them why do they not send their children to Jewish schools, they simply tell me that the American or international schools are a higher standard. This is unacceptable.
Sadly this is also reflective of the general Jewish population in places like the U.S., where only around 12% of Jewish children attend Jewish schools, and when the Orthodox children are removed from the equation; it drops down to no more than a few per cent.
We need to create a global network of Jewish schools that are superior in standard to the American and international school network. Only through this effort can we ensure our endurance as a people.
The Jerusalem Talmud describes the unity of the Jewish people as a body. Like all bodies, if there is something wrong with one part, then the whole body will not be able to function fully.
We, the Government of the State of Israel, would like to assist in creating a program which ensures that any and every Jewish child will be able to receive a high-level Jewish and Zionist education. You are doing important work for Israel and your engagement with us deepens these ties. We are especially grateful for your continued support for programs like Birthright-Taglit and Masa, which have brought so many young Jews closer to Israel and their Zionist identity.
However, above all discussions on Iran and the Palestinians, your discussions with the Israeli Government and the Jewish Agency should be focused on saving future generations.
The annual budget of the State of Israel stands at over $100 billion. I believe that the Israeli Government should contribute $1 million for every day in a calendar year, making a total of $365 million, which we hope you, the Jewish community in the Diaspora, will match for this educational project. This cannot become just another small project and needs to be the central point of partnership between us.
These funds will be found in our budgets, it is just a matter of prioritizing Jewish education above all other issues. This must become the most pressing issue on the global Jewish agenda. From my point of view, this is more pressing than any other issue, including the Palestinian negotiations or the Iranian nuclear threat.
The essence of the partnership between the Israeli Government and Jewish leaders in the Diaspora should revolve around ensuring that together we contribute $2 million per day to save the Jewish people. I hope that when we create thee next budget, one of its cornerstones will be the allocation of $365 million for this program. This is something that my party, Yisrael Beytenu, will be very active in promoting.
We need a strong response to the looming demographic catastrophe and we need direct investment in our Jewish youth to ensure that they remain Jewish and acquire the tools to remain part of a vibrant Jewish community. I would like to accomplish this vision that I have laid out today and not merely say that I have a dream and then walk away happy that my words made some headlines.
However, the creation of an international network of Jewish schools is only the first part of my vision. In addition, my goal is to bring an additional 3.5 million Jews from the Diaspora in the next ten years so that the Jewish population in Israel will exceed 10 million.
I know this might sound unrealistic to some, and others will say that it is merely a slogan. However, I say:
"אם תרצו – אין זו אגדה" – “If you will it, it is no dream”.
This has been the rallying call for the attainment of so-called unrealistic goals for over a hundred years and we have consistently managed to achieve the impossible, especially when our future depended on it.
These essential and existential goals, education and Aliyah, have to become the most important goals of the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. I hope together we will move these projects forward.