WASHINGTON -- It is the week of Passover, the first festival of human freedom. In many ways Jews have never had it so good, and much of their good fortune is associated with freedom. But Jews have some monumental problems -- some perennial, some self-inflicted and some linked to liberty.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will remain in office, not indicted for "breach of trust." But there is still an alleged crisis in the peace process. Notwithstanding, those negotiations have been generally fruitful, extending Israel's survivability as a free nation in a rough neighborhood. The Mideast seems to be headed toward some sort of a nasty, cold peace.

The key to it is not Mr. Netanyahu, but Yasser Arafat. After all, Mr. Netanyahu delivered his earnest with the Hebron pull-out agreement, which honored the Oslo accords and the pledge of the prior Israeli government. Mr. Arafat promised to contain terrorism. He hasn't. If he can't deliver that, why would the Israelis negotiate?

The bedrock beneath the negotiations is Israel's position of strength. The Arabs have had no patron superpower since the fall of the Soviet Union. Oil prices are low and the petro-princes are strapped. A wave of Russian immigrants has bolstered the population. A strong Israeli economy will get stronger if Netanyahu delivers the market-oriented reforms he promised. Some of this good news comes from Israeli dilligence and some comes from external sources, particularly from support by America.

External success allows for intensified internal tension, in Israel and for Jews elsewhere. A bill before the Knesset provides that any conversions to Judaism in Israel be effectuated through the office of the Chief Rabbi, which, as always, is controlled by Orthodox Jews. This offends many Jews in America who fear the de-legitimization of Reform and Conservative Judaism, with which most American Jews identify.

Some Orthodox rabbis in America have declared that Orthodoxy is the only true Jewish faith. Some non-Orthodox American Jews demand that Israel eliminate the office of the Chief Rabbi in Israel, allowing all styles of Jewish religious practice to flower, thus making it easier to be Jewish, not harder. As with most internecine religious arguments, this one is bitter, probably destined to get worse, albeit within the realm of manageability.

A third issue is transcendent. Birth and fertility rates in the modern nations are sinking dramatically, to levels below those required to keep a population from shrinking. The situation is particularly acute in the American Jewish community.

Fertility moves inversely with the level of education, income and urban residence. Successful yuppies want it all, but children often come at the end of the process, typically in diminished numbers. American Jews are disproportionately likely to be college-educated, live in metropolitan areas, and have higher incomes than all but Episcopalians. The estimated Total Fertility Rate for the whole American population for 1996 is 1.98 children per woman. The estimate for the American Jewish population is about 1.5, about 30 percent below replacement level.

More than half intermarry

Moreover, 52 percent of Jews intermarry these days, according to the 1990 National Jewish Poulation Survey (compared to 9 percent before 1965). Of the children of intermarriage, fewer than 30 percent are raised in the Jewish religion, although that rate is more complex than it seems. (40 percent observe Yom Kippur.)

There are now an estimated 5.4 million Jews in America, about 2 percent of the population. (Compared to 4 percent in 1930). There are arguments about projections. Some Jews fear that American Judaism will fade away. In any event, it is likely that there will be fewer American Jews in the future than now. (Jewish fertility rates in Europe are even lower than in America. Only in Israel, with a Total Fertility Rate of 2.6, is the Jewish population replacing itself.)

Why all the intermarriage? American Jews are accepted as in no other society ever. This should be no surprise: America is the most free nation in history. (There is some anti-Semitism left, but there is also philo-Semitism, i.e., gentiles who want their kids to go to school with Jews, who want to go to a Jewish doctor, who want to live in a neighborhood with Jews.)

If Jews are accepted, and 98 percent of potential marriage partners in America are non-Jewish, there will be plenty of intermarriage. Egon Mayer of the Jewish Outreach Institute says, "Our problem is no longer anti-Semitism, it is romance. We have met the enemy and it is us." He preaches a more inclusive Jewish faith. I think it would be wise if Jews had babies at rates similar to other Americans.

The situation is serious, even if driven by good news. There won't be many Jewish problems if there aren't many Jews.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, "Think Tank."

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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