Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Specter of Dwindling Numbers: Population Quantity and Jewish Biopolitics in the United States

  • Michal Kravel-Tovi (a1)


Over the last three decades, the organized American-Jewish community has preoccupied itself with sociodemographic concerns regarding maintenance of a viable Jewish life in the United States. In this article, I study a key dimension of this preoccupation with population trends: the quantity of the Jewish population, that is, the number of Jews. I show the centrality of this dimension in shaping a cluster of anxious discourses and interventionist engagements directed toward stemming numerical decline. Analyzing this policy world in terms of a “Jewish biopolitics,” I assess how the voluntary nature of American Jewry has shaped a distinct biopolitical field, reliant on “making Jews” by both biological and cultural reproduction, enmeshing dimensions of quantity and quality. Juxtaposing this Jewish biopolitical engagement with the one exercised by the Israeli state, I flesh out broader considerations and contributions, and introduce the exploratory concept of “minority community biopolitics.” The article is grounded in an anthropological study of policy, including fieldwork, interviews, and a review of the flurry of archival and public materials related to the topic.


Corresponding author


Hide All
Abelson, Kassel and Dorff, Elliot. 2007. Mitzvah Children. Even HaEzer 1, 5: 114. At: (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
American Jewish Committee. 1983. National Conference on Jewish Population Growth, Summary of Proceedings (archival document, no file number available).
American Jewish Committee. 1997. Jewish Continuity: Policy Statement and Action Plan (no longer on-line).
Bachi, Roberto. 1992. World Jewish Population: Trends and Policies. In Pergola, S. Della and Cohen, I., eds., World Jewish Population. Jeruslaem: Magnes, 2028.
Barack-Fishman, Sylvia. 1994. The Changing American Jewish Family Faces the 1990s. In Bayme, Steve and Rosen, Gladys, eds., The Jewish Family and Jewish Continuity. Brooklyn: Ktav Pub. & Distributors Inc., 352.
Barack-Fishman, Sylvia. 2004. Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.
Bashford, Alison. 2006. Nation, Empire, Globe: The Spaces of Population Debate in the Interwar Years. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49: 170201.
Ben, Aviv. 2016. Why Infertility Is a Jewish Issue—and What We Can Do about It. Forward, 16 July, / (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Berkovitch, Nitza. 1997. Motherhood as a National Mission: The Construction of Womanhood in the Legal Discourse in Israel. Women's Studies International Forum 20: 605–19.
Bitton, Mijual and Cohen, Steven. 2015. More Is Better when It Comes to Jewish Numbers. Forward, 1 May, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Boyarin, Jonathan. 2013. Jewish Families. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Brodkin, Karen. 1998. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Brodkin, Karen. 2016. How Jews Became White Folks—and May Become Nonwhite under Trump. Forward, 6 Dec., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Cameron, Deborah. 2007. Language Endangerment and Verbal Hygiene: History, Morality and Politics. In Duchêne, Alexandre and Heller, Monica, eds., Discourses of Endangerment. London: Continuum, 268–85.
Campbell, Timothy C. and Sitze, Adam, eds. 2013. Biopolitics: A Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cohen, Steven. 2015. Can Intermarriage Lead to an Increase in the Number of Jews in America? Mosaic, 9 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Commentary (magazine). 2006. An Exchange between Jack Wertheimer and readers on his October 2005 piece, “Jews and the Jewish Birthrate,” 1 Jan., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Connelly, Matthew. 2008. Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Cooper, Marilyn. 2017. Is Intermarriage Good for the Jews? A Moment Symposium. Moment, 6 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Corwin Berman, Lila. 2009. Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Corwin Berman, Lila. 2017. How Americans Give: The Financialization of American Jewish Philanthropy. American Historical Review 122: 1459–89.
Curtis, Bruce. 2002. The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840–1875. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Dash Moore, Deborah. 1978. From Kehillah to Federation: The Communal Functions of Federated Philanthropy in New York City, 1917–1933. American Jewish History 68, 2: 131–46.
Dashefsky, Arnold and Sheskin, Ira. 2017. Contribution to George Johnson, ed., “What Will the Jewish World Look Like in 2050?” A Moment Symposium. Moment, 13 Feb., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Dorff, Elliot. 2006. Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Personal Ethics. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Douglass, Carrie. 2005. Barren States: The Population Implosion in Europe. London: Berg.
Duchêne, Alexandre and Heller, Monica. 2007. Discourses of Endangerment: Ideology and Interest in the Defence of Languages. London: Continuum.
Duchêne, Alexandre and Humbert, Philippe N.. 2018. Surveying Languages: The Art of Governing Speakers with Numbers. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 252: 120.
Duden, Barbara. 2009. Population. In Sachs, Wolfgang, ed., The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London: Zed Books, 146–57.
Eisner, Jane. 2014. Be Fruitful and Multiply—Please? Forward, 4 Dec., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Philanthropy, E-Jewish. 2015. A Statement: Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action. E-Jewish-Philanthropy, 1 Oct., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Elazar, Daniel. 1976. Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Talks, ELI. 2016. Looking for a Solution to Jewish Continuity? Introducing: The BirthRATE Program, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Hurley, Robert, trans. New York: Pantheon Books.
Foucault, Michel. 2006 [1991]. Governmentality. In Sharma, Aradhana and Gupta, Akhil, eds., The Anthropology of the State: A Reader. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Foucault, Michel. 2007 [2004]. Security, Territory, Population. Burchell, Graham, trans. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Friedman, Joshua and Kornfeld, Moshe. 2018. Identity Projects: Philanthropy, Neoliberalism, and Jewish Cultural Production. American Jewish History 102, 4: 537–61.
Ginsberg, Faye and Rapp, Rayna, eds. 1995. Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkley: University of California Press.
Goldstein, Eric. 2006. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Goldstein, Sidney. 1992. What of the Future? The New National Jewish Population Study for American Jewry. In Harlow, Rabbi Jules, ed. Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly. New York: Rabbinical Assembly.
Gordis, Robert. 1982. Be Fruitful and Multiply: Biography of a Mitzvah. Midstream 28: 2129.
Gordon, Antony and Horowitz, Richard. 2016. Will Your Grandchildren be Jews: Updated., 12 Dec., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Greenhalgh, Susan. 1996. The Social Construction of Population Science: An Intellectual, Institutional, and Political History of Twentieth-Century Demography. Comparative Studies in Society and History 38, 1: 2666.
Greenhalgh, Susan and Winckler, Edwin A.. 2005. Governing China's Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hacking, Ian. 1982. Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers. Humanities in Society 5: 279–95.
Handwerker, Haim. 2018. Tinder for Jews Only. In Hebrew. Haaretz, 20 July, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Hazelton, Lesley. 1977. The Cult of Fertility. Israeli Women. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Heller, Monica and Duchêne, Alexandra. 2007. Discourses of Endangerment: Sociolinguistics, Globalization and Social Order. In Duchêne, Alexandre and Heller, Monica, eds., Discourses of Endangerment. London: Continuum, 113.
Hertin, Julia, et al. 2004. Are ‘Soft’ Policy Instruments Effective? The Link between Environmental Management Systems and the Environmental Performance of Companies. SPRY Electronic Working Paper Series, no. 124. Falmer: Freeman Centre, University of Sussex, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Hoffman, Maayan. 2016. Seeding Our Future. eJewish Philantropy, 20 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Jessop, Bob. 2016. The State: Past, Present, Future. Cambridge: Polity.
Kahn, Susan M. 2000. Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kelner, Shaul. 2010. Tours that Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism. New York: New York University Press.
Kelner, Shaul. 2011. In Its Own Image: Independent Philanthropy and the Cultivation of Young Jewish Leadership. In Wertheimer, Jack, ed., The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape. Hanover: University Press of New England, 261321.
King, Leslie. 2002. Demographic Trends, Pronatalism, and National Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century. Ethnic and Racial Studies 25, 3: 367–89.
Krause, L. Elizabeth and Zordo, Silvia De. 2012. Introduction. Ethnography and Biopolitics: Tracing ‘Rationalities’ of Reproduction across the North–South Divide. Anthropology & Medicine 19, 2: 137–51.
Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2012. ‘National mission’: Biopolitics, Non-Jewish Immigration and Jewish Conversion Policy in Contemporary Israel. Ethnic and Racial Studies 35, 4: 737–54.
Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2016. Wet Numbers: The Language of Continuity Crisis and the Work of Care among the Organized American Jewish Community. In Kravel-Tovi, Michal and Dash-Moore, Deborah, eds., Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 141–63.
Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2017. When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2018a. Who Needs Conversion? Jewish Conversion in a Time of Shattered Boundaries. The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Space (forum), 29 May, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2018b. Accounting of the Soul: Enumeration, Affect, and Soul-Searching among American Jewry. American Anthropologist 120, 4: 711–24.
Kurtzer, Yehuda. 2014. Abraham's Lesson: Quality Over Quantity in Push for Jewish Continuity. Forward, 16 Dec., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Lemke, Thomas. 2011. Bio-Politics: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press.
Levisohn, Jon. 2015. Three Cheers for the Jewish Vitality Statement—and Three Qualifications. eJewish Philanthropy, 4 Oct., (accessed 5 Aug. 2019).
Linde, Steve. 2015. American Jews Need to Have More Babies, Says Outgoing JFNA Chairman. Jerusalem Post, 8 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. 2015. The “Statement on Jewish Vitality”: One Foundation's Response. eJewish Philanthropy, 12 Oct., / (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Lustick, Ian S. 1999. Israel as a Non-Arab State: The Political Implication of Mass Immigration of Non-Jews. Middle East Journal 53: 417–33.
Lustick, Ian S. 2019. The Red Thread of Israel's “Demographic Problem.” Middle East Policy 26, 1: 141–49.
Magid, Shaul. 2014. Why the Jewish Now (and Future) Can't be Confined to the Paradigms of the Past. Zeek, 20 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Maltz Bovy, Phoebe. 2017. I.V.F. as Birthright: Jewish Fertility Foundation Offers Grants. Forward, 19 Jan., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Markoe, Lauren. 2015. US Jewish Numbers no Longer Declining, but Demographic Worries Persist. Washington Post, 12 June, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
McGinity, Keren. 2009. Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America. New York: New York University Press.
McGinity, Keren. 2014. Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mirsky, Yehudah. 2011. The New WASPs. Erez Acheret 59 (Jan.), Special Issue: “Two Countries for Two States? American Jews and Us.”
Moore, E. Robert, Pietikäinen, Sari, and Blommaert, Jan. 2010. Counting the Losses: Numbers as the Language of Language Endangerment. Sociolinguistic Studies 4, 1: 126.
Mott, Frank. 2006. Response to Jack Wertheimer's Jewish Numbers. Commentary, 1 Jan., / (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Muehlmann, Sahlih. 2012. Rhizomes and other Uncountables: The Malaise of Enumeration in Mexico's Colorado River Delta. American Ethnologist 39, 2: 339–53.
National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). 1971. Prime Researchers: Massarik Fred, Bernard Lazerwitz, Morris Axelrod, and Alvin Chenkin. New York: Council of Jewish Federations.
National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). 1990. Prime Researchers: Goldstein Sidney, Barry A. Kosmin, Jeffrey Scheckner, Ariela Keysar, Nava Lerer, and Joseph Waksberg. New York: Council of Jewish Federations.
National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). 2000–2001. Prime Researchers: Cohen Steven M., Frank Mott, Lorraine Blass, Jim Schwartz, Jonathon Ament, Vivian Klaff, and Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz. New York: United Jewish Communities.
Paxson, Heather. 2004. Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pew Research Center. 2013. A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Washington, D.C., (accessed 6 Aug. 2019).
Portugese, Jacqueline. 1998. Fertility Policy in Israel: The Politics of Religion, Gender and Nation. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Prell, Riv-Ellen. 2014. The (Un)Importance of Jewish Difference. Mosaic, 17 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Rákosník, Jakub and Šustrová, Radka. 2018. Toward a Population Revolution? The Threat of Extinction and Family Policy in Czechoslovakia 1930s–1950s. Journal of Family History 43, 2: 177–93.
Rawidowicz, Simon. 1986. Israel, the Ever-Dying People, and other Essays. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Remennick, Larissa 2000. Childless in the Land of Imperative Motherhood: Stigma and Coping Among Infertile Israeli Women. Sex Roles 43: 1112: 821–41.
Sacket, Shmuel. 2017. The Disappearing Jews. Arutz Sheva, 20 July, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Sanua, Marianne. 2007. Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee, 1945–2006. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.
Sarna, Jonathan. 2004. American Judaism: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sasson, Theodore. 2013. New Analysis of Pew Data: Children of Intermarriage Increasingly Identify as Jews. Tablet, 11 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Saxe, Leonard, et al. 2010. Intermarriage: The Impact and Lessons of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Contemporary Jewry 31, 2: 151–72.
Shore, Cris and Wright, Susan. 2011. Introduction: Conceptualizing Policy: Technologies of Governance and the Politics of Visibility. In Shore, Cris, Wright, Susan, and Però, Davide, eds., Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power. New York: Berghahn, 125.
Silverman, Jerry. 2014. Lessons from Pew. In “After Pew: What Will It Take to Save American Jewry?” Jewish Action (Summer), (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Solinger, Rickie and Nakachi, Mie. 2016. Introduction. In Solinger, Rickie and Nakachi, Mie, eds., Reproductive States: Global Perspectives on the Invention and Implementation of Population Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 132.
Steinhardt, Michael. 2003. On the Question of Crisis. Contact: The Journal of Jewish Life Network 5, 3: 910
Stratton, Jon. 2000. Coming out Jewish. London: Routledge.
Tal, Alon. 2016. The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel. New Heaven: Yale University Press.
Thompson, Malcolm. 2012. Foucault, Fields of Governmentality, and the Population-Family-Economy nexus in China. History and Theory 51, 1: 4262.
Thompson, Jennifer A. 2014. Jewish on Their Own Terms. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Tobin, Gary, 1999. Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tobin, Jonathan. 2013. Loving Us to Death: How America's Embrace Is Imperiling American Jewry. Commentary 136, 4: 1116.
Ungar-Sargon, Batya, 2018. Pittsburgh Massacre Taught Me about Jews in the Age of Trump. Forward, 29 Oct., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Urla, Jacqueline and Burdick, Christa. 2018. Counting Matters: Quantifying the Vitality and Value of Basque. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 252: 7396.
Valley, Ely, ed. 2004. Measurement and Accountability in the Jewish World. Special issue of Contact: The Journal of Jewish Network 6, 4.
Valley, Ely, ed. 2006. Social Research and the Jews. Special issue of Contact: The Journal of Jewish Network 8, 4.
Vogelstein, C. Ilene and Jacobs, Francine. 2003. Universal Jewish Early Care and Education: A Worthy Solution to Our Demographic Woes. Contact 5, 3: 1315.
Wertheimer, Jack. 2005. Jews and the Jewish Birthrate. Commentary, 1 Oct., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Wertheimer, Jack. 2007. Family Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.
Wertheimer, Jack. 2018. The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wertheimer, Jack and Cohen, Steven M.. 2014a. The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope. Mosaic, 2 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Wertheimer, Jack and Cohen, Steven M.. 2014b. No Apology for Alarm. Mosaic, 24 Nov., (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Wiener, Julie. 2000. Intermarriage: Jewish Attitudes. My Jewish Learning, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).
Wuthnow, Robert. 2015. Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation's Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zero Population Growth Endangers Jewish Survival. 1983. Jewish Press (serving Nebraska, Iowa) 61, 44 (15 July): 1, (accessed 19 Aug. 2019).


The Specter of Dwindling Numbers: Population Quantity and Jewish Biopolitics in the United States

  • Michal Kravel-Tovi (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed