How many Jews on Earth?

Could the 7 billionth person on the planet be Jewish?

According to the United Nations Population Fund, the Earth welcomed its 7 billionth resident on Oct. 31. Statistically, the newborn was most likely a boy in India or China. The symbolic title was given to Danica May Camacho, born two minutes before midnight in Manila in the Philippines.

There is no reason, however, it couldn’t have been Ava Sarah Keyrallah, who was born later that evening in Paris.

“Every single second, four to five new babies are born in the world,” Sergio DellaPergola, a professor of population studies at Hebrew University, told JTA by e-mail. “It is difficult to say exactly which baby was the 7 billionth inhabitant of Earth. But why not dream that it might have been a Jew?”

The daughter of a French Jewish mother and a Lebanese Christian father, the 7-pound Ava Sarah joined a world in which one in 510 people is Jewish, but where the Jewish world as a whole, according to demographers, grows gradually and unevenly.

That Jewish world is one increasingly defined by a small number of population centers, according to a study by DellaPergola titled “World Jewish Population, 2010.” Approximately 80 percent of Jews live in Israel and the United States, and the nine countries with more than 100,000 Jews constitute 91.1 percent of the total worldwide Jewish population.

Further, Jews remain exceptionally urbanized, with half living in just five cities and two-thirds living in 11 cities.

“Jewish population stands at somewhat above 13.5 million and very slowly grows—only thanks to Israel’s component, now approaching 43 percent of the total world Jewry,” DellaPergola said.

Israel, the world’s most fertile developed nation, is the engine of Jewish population growth. Like the rest of the world, Israel saw a massive decline in fertility rates during the 1970s and 1980s due to increases in public health and education for women. Unlike the rest of the world, however, Israel stabilized in the early ‘90s and since then has maintained a fertility rate of 2.9 children per woman.

“Israel has an unprecedented birth rate,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University whose current research involves demographic studies of American Jewry. “Women, even highly educated women, have high birth rates.”

By 1995, according to the World Bank, Israeli women for the first time began having more children than the rest of the world. And last year, Israel surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the most fertile developed nation in the world.

At the beginning of 2010, Israel had a Jewish population of 5.7 million.

Counting Jews outside of Israel is no simple task. Where Israel has a government census, Jewish communities in the Diaspora must rely on less rigorous and consistent methods, which leads to disagreements over numbers.

Just two weeks ago, an otherwise productive conference at Brandeis temporarily turned to finger pointing during a debate over the decision of the Jewish Federations of North America not to fund a census of the Jewish community.

In general, demographers agree that the Diaspora population is in decline due to low fertility rates. Other factors changing the Jewish population include migration, “opting out” of Jewish life, intermarriage and choosing not to raise children as Jews.

According to both DellaPergola and demographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, the apparent exception is the United States, where the American Jewish population has been stable.

“In the long term it should be decreasing, yet it’s relatively constant,” Sheskin said, noting fertility rates that are below replacement levels but citing immigration from the former Soviet Union as one possible reason for the population’s stability.

The two disagree, however, on the overall number of American Jews. DellaPergola says it’s 5.2 million, which is the number found in the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. Sheskin’s study found 6.5 million, but he doubts his own numbers, estimating a total of 6.2 million.

Saxe, on the other hand, has confidence in the 6.5 million figure, which he arrived at in an independent study. But unlike Sheskin, Saxe says the population trend is increasing due to intense outreach and improved Jewish education.

“We believe that what is happening is that families and households that include Jews are more and more making the decision to raise their kids Jewishly and Jews are more likely to acknowledge their Jewish heritage and Jewish identity,” he said.

Even if the population is shrinking, Sheskin says, there is still a bright side for young Ava.

“Jews are a tiny percentage of the world,” he said. “They’re going to continue to decrease—and win Nobel Prizes.”

A Solution to Israel’s Demographic Peril

When Israeli Arabs protest that talk of the “demographic threat” is racist, can Israeli Jews blame them? If non-Jewish professors and politicians anywhere on earth spoke of a Jewish demographic threat to their countries, what would Jews call it? What, for that matter, would decent non-Jews call it?

Raising the specter of the Arab demographic threat to Israel is, in fact, racist — if you believe that Zionism is racism, that a Jewish state is a racist state.

I don’t believe that (even while I know there is no shortage of Jews whose Zionism doesn’t amount to anything more than racism). Although the Jewish state by definition “belongs” to the Jews more than it does to its non-Jewish citizens, I don’t consider it a force for racism, but the opposite: Whatever racism exists in Israel, the Jewish state came into being as an answer to racism of a rather larger magnitude — the habit of anti-Semitic oppression.

And however unjust a Jewish state is to its Arab citizens, if Israel stops being a Jewish state it will start being an Arab state, and I think the injustice to the Jews that would result from that is worse than anything Israeli Arabs have to endure.

So I don’t think it’s racist or anti-democratic or unfair to want a Zionist future for this country. And while Zionists are known to argue over what makes a Jewish state, I’d say the absolute minimum, the point every Zionist can agree on, is that it must have a solid Jewish majority.

How much is solid? Eighty percent, the current figure (including the Russian immigrants who think of themselves as Jewish, even if the religion does not), is solid. But I’d say that once the figure drops below 75 percent, which leading demographers predict will happen in about 20 years, the viability of a Jewish state with an Arab minority in the Middle East starts coming into question. And the way things are going demographically, it’s downhill from there.

Obviously, Israeli Arabs, and not just them, take all this in as racism. But as it turns out, the project to solidify Israel’s Jewish majority serves not only the purpose of preserving the Jewish state, but also — despite all the Jewish racists — of protecting the democratic rights of Arab citizens.

There’s no way to avoid it — the more Israeli Jews feel their majority threatened, the more hostile, fearful and punitive they will become toward Israeli Arabs. It can already be felt: in the denial of citizenship to Palestinians marrying Israeli Arabs; in Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s boast that his child welfare cuts brought down the Israeli Arab birthrate; in the growing Jewish majority telling opinion polls that the government should “encourage” Israeli Arabs to emigrate.

None of this would be happening, I don’t think, if the 80 percent Jewish majority were secure; if Israel weren’t inching steadily toward a demographically binational state; if its foundation — its citzenry — weren’t headed for a “tipping point.”

Demography is a dirty business. I don’t like dealing with it. I don’t like knowing that if an Arab friend has a baby, I’m of course happy for him personally, but in the abstract, as a Zionist, as an Israeli thinking about the national interest, I have to say that such a birth is bad news.

This is a miserable state of affairs. And it wouldn’t be if demographic trends showed Israel’s Jewish majority holding at 80 percent, or even a little less, for generations to come. In the name of the national interest, Zionists could celebrate the births of all the Israeli Arab babies just as much as the births of all the Jewish ones. (More than a few Zionists, I’m sure, would still refrain.)

So for the sake of Israel’s Jewish character and democracy, the demographic threat has to be overcome. There have been all sorts of suggestions, some of which are truly malevolent, such as Netanyahu’s stated motive in cutting child welfare, and the idea of encouraging Arab citizens to leave the country — to coerce them into leaving, to bring about “voluntary transfer,” to make Israeli Arabs’ lives so daunting that they will “choose” emigration.

And if these are the only ways to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, then let’s leave it for the Arabs and the Jewish racists and help the decent Jews find a better place to live.

Then there’s the idea of cutting out a heavily Arab section of the Galilee and joining it to a Palestinian state in the West Bank, maybe in exchange for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank settlement blocs.

There are a couple of drawbacks here: One, who wants to give up the heart of the Galilee? Two, the Arab citizens in the Galilee don’t want to become part of Palestine, so you can’t force them. (Incidentally, you can force Jewish citizens out of Gush Katif, because Gaza, unlike the Galilee, doesn’t belong to sovereign Israel.)

A couple of other notions to bolster the Jewish majority involve easing the conversion process for interested gentiles, and pushing aliyah with more enthusiasm and marketing skill among the 5 million to 6 million American Jews. There’s nothing objectionable about either of these ideas, I just don’t think they’re mass-scale solutions. I don’t think they’re going to get enough takers to make a dent in the demographic threat.

So here’s my idea: Secular Israeli Jews have to start making more babies, say one more per family. If the religious also want to have more babies, that’s, of course, just as good, but I mention the secular, because they only have an average of about two children per family, while the religious have more, often many more.

In the pioneering era, when there weren’t that many Jews here, Jewish fertility was an overt Zionist value. Among the secular, it’s long forgotten, and I think it’s time to remember it again.

The biological clock is ticking for the Jewish state — and for its democracy.

Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.