Is Demography Destiny?

The new U.S. census figures have generated banner headlines this month, though no one seems to have a clue what those numbers portend. The big news, of course, is that America’s Latino population has ballooned almost 60 percent in the past decade, surpassing 35 million. More than 43 percent of Californians younger than 18 are now Hispanic, compared with about 35 percent a decade ago. In both the city and county of Los Angeles, Latinos have replaced whites as the largest ethnic group.

"The Anglo hegemony was only an intermittent phase in California’s arc of identity, extending from the arrival of the Spanish," Kevin Starr, the state librarian, told The New York Times. "The Hispanic nature of California has been there all along, and it was temporarily swamped between the 1880s and the 1960s, but that was an aberration."

Since most Jews are white, we find ourselves being a kind of minority squared, a minority within this new white minority. But Jewish groups have long seen this trend coming. They began their outreach to the Latino community years ago and have stepped up efforts in the recent past. What they have discovered is a community much more complex than the demographers’ numbers would lead us to believe. The word Latino hardly describes the tremendous linguistic, cultural, economic, political and national diversity of the region’s "non-white Hispanics." In Los Angeles, demography is not destiny but a test, perhaps a triumph, of democracy.

Now consider Israel. There are 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and 300,000 Jews. For Israel to incorporate largely Palestinian areas would mean the certain dissipation of the Jewish character of the state, either through the democratic process or by enforcing an apartheid-like hegemony over a non-Jewish majority. Thus Israeli leaders from Yitzchak Rabin to Benjamin Netanyahu have sought out a compromise with Palestinians that would essentially trade land for security. The United States’ former lead Mideast negotiator, Dennis Ross, has said that demographics makes an eventual rapprochement and agreement inevitable, although Yasser Arafat seems determined to prove him wrong.

On Saturday night we’ll read the Passover story. "Behold," said Pharaoh, "the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply." If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know "dealing wisely" was Pharaoh’s way of saying, "Kill them." So Moses led us away, to multiply elsewhere. Does Arafat see himself as Pharoah, hoping to drive the Children of Israel into the sea? Or does he imagine himself Moses, leading a tribe that will eventually outnumber its enemy? In Israel, demography is destiny.

These refelctions on head-counting come at a time when human genome decoders have determined that at the genetic level, the concept of race is scientifically meaningless. "Race is a social concept, not a scientific one," Dr. J. Craig Venter, head of the Celera Genomics Corporation in Rockville, Md. told The Times. "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world." It turns out that .01 percent of our genes is reflected in our external appearance: in other words, in our obvious Black-ness, Caucasian-ness or Latino-ness.

Jews, of course, are not a race, despite Hitler’s best efforts to categorize and exterminate us as one. We belong to a religion and a culture that embraces all races. There are black Jews and Latino Jews, and though the mind boggles, there is nothing other than a century of animosity to prevent there being Palestinian Arab Jews as well. To be a Jew is not, at the end of the day, a question of race, nationality, skin color, genetics or birth. It is a matter of what you believe and how you behave.

In this light, the admonition of the ancient rabbis against counting Jews seems sublime. When all the head-tallying and label-fixing is over, we must remember that quantity is less important than quality. In the end, it is not bodies that matter most, but souls.