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Israel Studies 10.1 (2005) 61-95

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Contemporary Jewish Diaspora in Global Context:

Human Development Correlates of Population Trends

At the turn of the 21st century, international political and military interactions, socioeconomic development and transactions, and, not less significantly, cultural patterns and communication networks reached a definitive stage of globalization. A short span of years witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Soviet Union as a major global power, the reunion of Germany, the revival of religious fundamentalism, particularly within Islam, the return of "ethnic cleansing" in Europe and Africa, new waves of mass international migration, the beginning but also the stoppage of a peace process in the Middle East, the Catholic Church's improvement of its relationship to the Jewish people and its historic recognition of the State of Israel, the European monetary union, and also the rise of the internet and other global and regional societal changes. Transformations of the global polity, economy, and communications deeply and rapidly affected the daily life, identity, and boundary definition of nations, communities, and individuals in world society, and among world Jewry within the broader context.

Since the late 1960s, powerful events related to general geopolitical change and more specific events directly stemming from the Jewish experience have contributed to transforming Jewish population and society. One major factor of a general nature was the end and dismemberment of the Soviet Union as a major global power. Among other things, this not only crucially affected the strategic position of the successor republics on the global scene, but also made possible radical changes in migration policies, which were followed by one of the largest migration waves in modern Jewish history. A major example of a more specifically Jewish circumstance, which actually preceded the migration from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and its European client states in time, concerns the long [End Page 61] and—at the time of this writing—unresolved chain of events following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. While an analysis of the strategic and geopolitical significance of those events is outside the purpose of this paper, 1967 and its aftermath deeply affected the position of the state of Israel in the world system, and more specifically made it much more salient among the Jewish Diaspora. Through a chain of direct and indirect consequences, the balance of demographic, migratory, and identifiable trends within the Jewish people significantly changed.1

The pressures, opportunities, and dilemmas brought about by these global changes also stimulated the emergence of conflicting visions of the present and future of the Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel. While in the Diaspora the quest for Jewish continuity was challenged by a steady pace of assimilation and alienation, in Israel the once predominant paradigms of ingathering of the exiles, immigrant absorption, fusion of the Diasporas and nation-building based on a Jewish majority were challenged by alternative non- or post-Zionist views. These ideational-cultural developments carried major consequences for Jewish demography. The size, pace of change and characteristics of Jewish population, reflecting both biological-demographic and cultural-identification determinants, were in fact strictly intertwined with the major turning points in contemporary Jewish history and society. Facing changes affecting the Jewish Diaspora, modern historiographic and sociological interpretations have competed over a variety of analytic propositions. Two major axes of investigation have been concerned with the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in relation to other Diasporas,2 on one hand, and what the more useful explanatory framework would be for observed patterns of change over time and in comparative context, on the other.3

Keeping in mind these trends and debates, this article's purpose is two-fold. After concisely reviewing some of the main recent and current trends in the world Jewish population, we shall focus on some observable relationships between major demographic and socioeconomic indicators at the macrosocial level, and changes in the geographical distribution and mobility of the Jewish population. Special attention will be paid to migration movements, following...


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