Bernie newBy BERNIE BELLAN

Although two  stories elsewhere on this site  – about the new survey of Canadian Jews just released, and the town hall on the upcoming Israeli election, may appear to have little in common, there is one theme that does tie them together in my mind, and that is the question: Just how many Israelis are there living in Winnipeg right now?

 

While the town hall was an interesting experiment, as I note in my report on that event, the poor attendance (only 60)  came as quite a disappointment to representatives of the various organizations that had combined to mount the town hall, and particularly to me, as I was the one who suggested having the town hall in the first place. I still think there’s a place for intelligent discussion within our community on various issues - where audience members don’t necessarily have to listen either to a long lecture or panel discussion before they can be allowed to offer their two cents.
I don’t think it was for lack of publicity that the attendance was so low. Not only was it publicized to great extent in this paper, it was also widely advertised on social media – especially in the kinds of social media that Israelis living in Winnipeg might be expected to be looking at.


When I spoke with an Israeli colleague prior to the town hall and asked him whether he thought there would be much interest among Israelis here in discussing the upcoming Israeli election at a town hall meeting – where they would also be encouraged to speak in Hebrew if that would be their preference, his curt reply was: “Nah, they don’t care about that!”
Now, to be fair, I’m not sure that many other Winnipeg Jews care much about the Israeli election either. Sure, many of us follow what’s going on in Israel to one degree or another, but I doubt that anyone is terribly excited about the election. For that matter, neither are Israelis themselves it would seem, as this particular election has turned into nothing more than a popularity contest between two “Bennys” – Netanyahu and Gantz. There doesn’t appear to be any real debate over anything substantive, with the end result being that it’s become a mud-throwing affair over who has been tougher on “terrorists”.


Yet, as I sat through what I‚Äąthought was a very reasoned discussion of Israeli politics at the Shaarey Zedek on March 7, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are there really as many Israelis living in Winnipeg as the Jewish Federation has been telling us is the case? The number “5,000” has been used by the Federation in reference to the number of Jewish newcomers who have to Winnipeg over the past 12 years; however, as readers of this paper might have noted, I have been repeatedly questioning the assertion made by the Federation that our Jewish community has grown in the past 12 years. In fact, I have argued, statistics do not bear out that claim and, rather than our community having grown, I have argued that it has shrunk.
The only conclusive data about the current size of our Jewish population here goes back to 2011, when the National Household Survey  reported that there were only a little more than 10,000 Jews living in Winnipeg that year. I did spend quite a bit of time discussing those findings with a demographer for StatsCan though, and we came to mutual agreement that because there were two different ways of identifying someone as Jewish: by ethnic background or by religion, that it was possible to arrive at a higher figure for the number of Jews in Winnipeg by looking carefully at results for both groups.


Since different respondents reported that they may have been Jewish by ethnicity but not by religion, and vice versa, the  the demographer from StatsCan and I came to the conclusion that the likely size of the Jewish population was somewhere around 12,000 – still considerably lower than it had been since the beginning of the 20th century - and considerably less than the figure of 15,000 that the Jewish Federation was claiming was the size of the Jewish population here.
But, because great numbers of newcomers did start to come to Winnipeg especially within the past 12 years – primarily from Israel, but also from other countries, the evidence seemed to be pointing to a growing Jewish population here. However, when results of the 2016 census were released, not only was the size of Winnipeg’s Jewish population reported as having shrunk drastically – to just over 8,000, the Jewish population in Canada as a whole was also reported to have shrunk, from 350,000 to 190,000. Surely those figures were completely unreliable and demographers have gone to great lengths to show that they are not at all credible. (As has been explained many times by critics of the 2016 census, the likely reason that the number of Jews was reported to have dropped so drastically was that “Jewish” was not listed as one of the choices for ethnicity. Also, there wasn’t a question which asked respondents their religion, as that question is only posed once every ten years and it had been asked in the 2011 National Household Survey.)
But, as I noted at the beginning of this column, I found a common theme between my story about the new survey of Canadian Jews and my story about the town hall meeting to discuss the Israeli election: Winnipeg’s Jewish population has indeed shrunk! Don’t take my word for it; read what the 2018 survey of Canadian Jews itself has to say: “Jewish communities in Montreal and Winnipeg are shrinking in size”. There you have it – a finding from an authoritative survey paid for in part by the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.
How could that be if we’ve had such a mass infusion of newcomers – according to the Jewish Federation? And, don’t get me wrong. I’m as happy as anyone to report about new arrivals to our community. That’s why I commissioned one of our writers, Rebeca Kuropatwa, working with Dalia Szpiro, GrowWinnipeg Director for  the Jewish Federation, to undertake an entire series of profiles of newcomers to Winnipeg.

Okay – so let’s accept the argument for the moment that there have been many new arrivals to Winnipeg’s Jewish community. Here, then, is the question that needs to be asked: “But, how many of them have left – or, if they haven’t left yet, are planning on leaving?”
While it might be hard enough for some members of our Jewish community to accept the fact that our community hasn’t grown – it’s shrunk, how much harder is it to read this observation, also reported in the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada: “One-third (34%) of Jews in Winnipeg say they have thought about moving away from the city at some point in the past few years (this includes 1% who say they have already decided to move).”

As if that conclusion itself doesn’t come like a body blow to the image that’s been constructed of Winnipeg as a dynamic community that’s been attracting hordes of newcomers to our Jewish community, the insult is further compounded by the observation that “thinking about moving is most likely to be reported by those 18 to 29 years of age, those with no children, and those with higher levels of education and income” - in other words, some of the members of our community whose loss would be most severe in its impact.
There are many other aspects of the survey that warrant careful examination, but those two conclusions must be highly dispiriting to those individuals who have been insisting all along that, after a period of population decline, our community has not only  stemmed the drop in numbers,  it has been highly successful in attracting newcomers.

Look, I know I’ve been accused of having a negative attitude when it comes to reporting on the size of Winnipeg’s Jewish population, but frankly all that I care about is empirical evidence. I might say to those who reject my assertion that Winnipeg’s Jewish population has declined, not grown, that they ought to take it up with the authors of the 2018 Survey of  Jews in Canada.
Then again, there are more than a few individuals who have a real stake in advancing the notion that our Jewish community is growing. How can you make the case for increased budgets and continued new hirings for Jewish organizations if the population base meant to be served by those organizations is, in fact, on the decline?

But, until we have a comprehensive statistical analysis of Canada’s population in 2021, which is when the next major census is slated to occur, much of the discussion about the exact size and composition of Winnipeg’s Jewish population will remain largely speculative. Oh, but I wish that we still had Evelyn Katz as the unofficial demographer of Winnipeg’s Jewish community. That lady kept the most up-to-date records we ever had about Jewish population figures. Her data were more reliable than any census report ever published.