It’s hard to know where to begin unpacking the issues raised by Judy Maltz’s article, “Number of ‘wannabe’ Jews equals that of recognized Jews” in Haaretz. We at Be’chol Lashon are concerned not only about the suspect language, but that this sweeping generalization made by scholars is based more on conjecture than sound research.
Shalva Weil’s characterization of “wannbe” Jews is itself derogatory and dismissive. Those exploring their heritage or seeking to convert to Judaism should according to our tradition be treated with respect, even if they do not choose to complete their journey. Additionally, by lumping together all those who are not ‘officially’ recognized by some in the mainstream, she conflates distinct geographic, historic and cultural realities. The complexity and diversity that distinguishes between those who have undergone conversion at one extreme and those who have no significant connection to Judaism or interest in it on the other is ignored.
Tudor Parfitt’s claim that there is a “shadow” community of Jews rivaling the number of known Jews (between 13.5 million and 14 million) is, at best, speculation. Estimating the number of Jews in the world, or any minority for that matter, is fraught with challenges. Long standing controversy over population estimates call into question even the “official” counts of well-know organizations such as the World Jewish Congress, The Jewish People Policy Institute, and The American Jewish Yearbook–never mind tallying numbers well beyond the scope of these surveys. Accurate data simply do not exist. Many of the populations the authors purport to identify are illusive, such as the descendants of Jews who fled the Inquisition.
As an organization devoted to a more inclusive Jewish community, we are in the position of championing those who find themselves on the margins of Jewish life, often related to their race, ethnicity and/or culture. Precisely because the communities for which we advocate are legitimately fighting for recognition, we take strong exception to characterizations that either insult or trivialize their sincerity. “Exotic” communities make for sensationalized headlines, but this kind of cavalier narrative confuses fact and fiction and poorly reflects the complexities of the world in which we live. This is an exciting time for global Judaism and its growth deserves to be taken seriously.