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Everybody Counts

Jonathan BoydFilmed at JHub

In Jewish tradition, we are warned against counting Jews which, as a Jewish demographer, is rather inconvenient for me! But what is the Jewish prohibition against counting Jews all about? Perhaps we risk seeing people or communities as insignificant; at an extreme we risk dehumanising people. Given that the number of Jews on the planet is a tiny, tiny minority, and our numerical influence in the global population is actually decreasing, we certainly risk feeling powerless or incapable of effecting change. But what if we were to look at ourselves and the data entirely differently? What if, instead of seeing ourselves as a tiny dot on the landscape, we valued ourselves as a collective of uniquely precious individuals - and indeed as a collective of individuals called upon to be a blessing to others and the world? Surely, I argue in this talk, we would then see that we could have a huge impact on the people around us and a real ability to change the world.

Jonathan Boyd is the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, an independent Jewish research organisation and think-tank that specialises in providing data to support Jewish community planning in development in the UK and across Europe.

A specialist in contemporary Jewry, he holds a doctorate in education from the University of Nottingham, and a BA and MA in Modern Jewish History from University College London. He was formerly a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Institute in Israel, and has held professional positions in research and policy at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in London and Paris, the Jewish Agency for Israel in London and New York, and the UK-based United Jewish Israel Appeal and Holocaust Educational Trust. His writings have been published in various newspapers, publications and journals, and he is the editor of The Sovereign and the Situated Self: Jewish Identity and Community in the 21st Century (Profile Books, 2003). His work focuses on Jewish demography, identity, community development, antisemitism and education.

Now you may or may not remember this but on October the 31st last year, the global population hit seven billion people for the first time in history. There are today more or less 7 billion people living on the planet. Now, however much it may feel like it is not the case when you’re at these sorts of events but it turns out that – and I was surprised to find this out actually but it turns out that not every single one of them is Jewish. In fact the global Jewish population is 13, 428,300 and when you calculate the global Jewish population as a proportion of the global population as a whole and present it in pie-chart form; this is what it looks like. Now, I don’t how many of you can see that tiny red sliver there at 12 o clock but that’s us. Now, recently the global population has been increasing at an extraordinary rate. It was more or less stable for centuries until we hit modernity, and it hit a billion, roughly around the time of the year 1800, and since that time it’s really increased exponentially. It was 2.35 billion by the end of the Second World War and today as I said it’s 7 billion and it’s projected to reach 9 billion in just thirty or so years’ time, by 2045. Just since the war, the global population has increased by 200%. From 2.35 billion in 1945 to seven billion today. Now, in comparison the Jewish population has also increased over the same period but by a relatively paltry 22%. It was a 11 million in 1945 and its 13.4 million today. And what that means, is that even though our numbers are increasing, our numerical influence is actually decreasing, because whereas you would have found in 1945 about 5 Jews in every thousand people on the planet, today, you’ll barely find 2. Expressed slightly differently. About one in every 500 people in the world today is Jewish. Oh look, there she is you can see her there. To capture that statistic in a slightly different way, that’s roughly the same proportion as the number of Americans who live in the state of Vermont, or the number of Israeli Jews that live in the town of Zichron Yaakov or the number of Brits who live in Watford. All of that’s the global picture. If one in e every 500 people in the world is Jewish then one in every 1250 people in the world is an Israeli Jew. The current Israeli Jewish population is about 5.7 million. And approximately one in every 1,333 people in the world is an American Jew. That’s based on account of an American Jewish population count of 5.2 million. Actually, recently published figures suggest that it might be as high as 6.5 million, but let’s not quibble too much. What about us? What about British Jews? Well, there’s about one British Jew in every 25,000 people on the planet. Don’t know if you can see that but that’s us. And of course, that’s all British Jews and of course not all British Jews are affiliated to the community and once you take that into consideration, then we’re talking about one in every thirty three thousand, or even one in every 40 thousand, depending on how you calculate it. And, lest we get carried away by probably the largest Jewish event on the British Jewish calendar, which is probably Limmud, we should be conscious of the fact that approximately 0.00000035 % of the world’s population typically attends Limmud conference, which essentially means that, if you were to randomly collect together 2.8 million people from the planet, and you were to look for long enough, you’d probably find one Limmudnik in there somewhere. Now, I hope the overarching point is clear: That we’re not very big. In fact, we’re tiny. We are miniscule. We are a mere dot on the landscape. And when we start to think about ourselves in these terms it can actually get quite disconcerting and disempowering which might be the reason why Judaism warns us against counting Jews. Because, whilst God commands Moses to count the Jewish people several times in the book of Bamidbar, which possibly accounts for the reason why it’s called Numbers in English, God gets pretty angry with King David when David overrules his general Yoav and decides to count the Jewish people. In fact, he gets so angry with David that he allows him to choose his punishment. He can either have seven years of famine, or he can have 3 months of being chased relentlessly by his enemies or he can have 3 days of pestilence. Now, not surprisingly he goes for 3 days of pestilence, but as it turns out this is pretty nasty pestilence and it ends up in the deaths of 70,000 people. Now by Talmudic times, the Rabbis are very clear in their opposite to counting Jews. Rabbi Eleazar says: Whoever counts Israel transgresses a biblical prohibition. As it says: Yet the number of the children of Israel should be as the sand at the sea, which cannot under any circumstances be measured. And Rabbi Nachman ben Yitzchak never to be undone, said: well, actually Rabbi Eleazar, he would transgress two prohibitions, because the text actually says, cannot be measured or numbered. Now, I don’t know if you’re particularly interested in the distinction between measuring something and numbering something but if you hang out with the people that I hang out with on a day –to – day basis, they could talk for hours on the difference between measuring and numbering. In fact they do actually talk for hours about it. Now the problem with all of this is that counting Jews is actually really useful, and it also rather inconveniently, what I do for a living. That’s basically what the Institute for Jewish Policy Research does. So, how do we deal with this? Well, let me show you a few bits of data from the UK census on Jews, which perhaps will give you an indication of why we think it’s useful. Here’s a list of the 25 largest Jewish populations in Britain by local authority district. And what we can see here is that almost a quarter of all Jews in Britain live in just two London Boroughs. The borough of Barnet and the borough of Redbridge. And just over half live in the top ten on that list. Just ten local authority districts, those ten highlighted in yellow. But at the same time, there are at least some Jews living in the 407 of the 408 local authority districts that comprise the United Kingdom. So on the one hand, we’re incredibly, geographically concentrated, but at the same time we’re extraordinarily geographically dispersed. But we can also look at each of these areas in a little bit more detail. Here’s a population pyramid for the London borough of Barnet. To the left of that red line in the centre are males, to the right are females and down the left-hand side of the graph you can see ages, from nought to four at the bottom and ninety plus at the top. And each of those horizontal bars corresponds to a different age group, and the further they extend from the middle the larger the proportion of that group is in population. And what we can see here is a reasonably healthy picture. It’s a little top-heavy; it’s a little older than we would ideally like, but essentially suffice it to say at this stage, the Jewish population in the borough of Barnet is not going anywhere anytime soon. Here’s Hertsmere and what we can see here is lots of children, and lots of people in their parents’ age group, but relatively few elderly, so this is clearly an area of young families, presumably ripe for Jewish growth and investment over time. Here’s Bournemouth. For those of you not familiar with Bournemouth, it’s basically the kind of equivalent of the Jewish population of South Florida in America. Very elderly, and you can see, large numbers of elderly, lots of retirees. Here’s Hackenye, total opposite picture. It’s a jaw dropping picture actually, and what we can see here is huge numbers of children. What’s going on? Well, Hackney is home to a significant part of the British Jewish Haredi population, which incidentally has pretty much doubled in size over the last 18 years. But we can also look at each of these areas in more detail, and drill down a little bit further. So here’s a map of London. You can see north London and central London there. And the darker the area, the denser the Jewish population, so you can very clearly see in this map the dense Jewish population of Barnet and Redbridge there in the East. But let’s focus on the little area in the middle: Hampstead Garden Suburb, which may be familiar to many of us, which has a particularly dense Jewish population. And what we can see is that Hampstead Garden Suburb has 5,460 Jews living in it, or did in 2001, which is more, incidentally than Golders Green to the west of it, and Hendon North west of that. We can also drill down a little further to a level known as output area. And here we are, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Again, the darker the area, the desert the Jewish population. And each of the demarcated areas now basically correspond to handful of streets. Now that little box there in the middle of the map with Magen David at the top of it is Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, otherwise known as Norrice Lea. And what we can effectively do, is draw circles around that point on the map that correspond to half a mile, a mile and a half of that particular point, and figure out exactly how many Jews live within half a mile, a mile or a mile and a half of that Synagogue, and here are the figures. Now hopefully you can see that is all pretty useful data. In fact, I’m not sure how any local Jewish organisation plans for the future or sets realistic targets without it. So what’s the Jewish prohibition against counting Jews all about? Well, it seems to me that there are two key reasons why there is some concern here. The first is that we might look at the proportions of how small we are and start to feel powerless. We might see how small we are, look at the challenges around us, see them as so overwhelming, so great and think: we’re powerless what can we do? Surely all our efforts are ultimately futile. Equally, we might start to think about people as numbers and of course the moment we do that we start to go down the dangerous path of dehumanisation. And perhaps we of all people should be conscious of the risks of doing that. But we don’t have to go to these sorts of extremes to be heading off in that direction. We only have to think back to that population pyramid I showed you of Bournemouth just a few moments ago, to see a population that’s elderly and small and it’s quite easy to write them off as irrelevant. And of course all such thinking is totally anathema to Judaism, because we are told in the book of Bereishit and the book of Genesis that all people were created ‘be’tzelem Elokim’ – in the image of God. And in this week’s parasha coming up in lech lecha we’re also told ‘veneivruchu veha col mishpachat ha adoma’ – that through us, the Jewish people, all the families of the world should be blessed. The way we see one another – as people made in the image of God – and the way we understand our role in the world to be a blessing to others- is utterly core to Judaism. So what’s the best way to handle these figures? How do I best understand the data? Let’s go back to this image: Approximately one in every 500 people in the world is Jewish. We could look at that individual there in the red circle and think: who are they? What can they realistically do? What impact can they possibly have? Surely all their attempts at change are futile. Or, alternatively, we could look at them as uniquely precious, with the capacity to influence change around them. What difference would it make if we were to think about not individual Jews, but Jews as a collective in that sort of way? As uniquely precious individuals, all of whom, without exception, have the potential to change the world. Not just on an individual level, but more probably more importantly on a collective level. What impact could 13,428,300 people have on the world if we’re all committed to working together to affect change? How would it, if we were to think in those terms, how would that affect how we see one another? How would it affect how we talk to one another? How would it affect how we treat one another? How would it affect how we write about one another in the Jewish press or the general press or online? How would it change how we connect to one another and work together as a collective? Because, for time, that’s what the data tells me above everything: that everyone matters; that everyone counts. And that includes people like us, and people not like us. People near us and people far from us. People we know, and people we don’t yet know. People sitting to our left, people sitting to our right, people sitting behind us, people sitting in front of us. Everyone matters. Everyone counts. Even you.

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