The Pew Research: Religion and Public Life Project commissioned a new poll on American Jewish identity (full report here) and the results are fascinating and chilling at the same time. Pew decided to take up the task when the Jewish federations, who’d done the last, controversial poll in 2000, declined to do so.
So there’s good news and bad news. In fact, there’s lots of good news and lots of bad news. The good news is that all the major trends among American Jews and their affiliation with Judaism are reflected in the general population. The bad news is that Jews are less and less interested in being Jewish. The latter statement is a dramatic paraphrase of the poll results, which I’ll elaborate below.
According to the poll, there are now 6.6-million American Jews. 35% of Jews identify as Reform; 18% as Conservative; and 10% as Orthodox. 19% of Jews have no denomination. 58% of Jews intermarry and that figure rises to 71% for non-Orthodox Jews. Two-thirds of American Jews do not belong to a synagogue. One-quarter do not believe in God. Only 26% believe that religion is “very important” in their lives compared to 56% of the overall American population.
One of the statistics that shocked me was that while 2% of American adults identified as Jewish in this poll, in the late 1950s 4% of respondents identified as Jewish. As I read it, that means that we’ve totally lost a large number of Jews over the past 50-odd years, whose connection (or the connection of those who raised them) to their religion or culture has disappeared. The debate over why this has happened is very intense and I’ll try to offer my thoughts below.
Another interesting and troubling figure was that 22% of Jews overall (and 32% of the younger generation, called “millenials” in this survey) have “no religion.” This does not mean they don’t identify as Jews. It means, rather, that they don’t define being Jewish as being part of a religion. Of those who define themselves as having “no religion,” two-thirds of these do not raise their children to have any Jewish identity.
62% of Jews define being Jewish as “mainly a matter of culture or ancestry” rather than religion. Only 15% see being Jewish as mainly a matter of religion.
Many reading this, including secular Jews and those non-Jews who object to what they see as the chauvinism and intolerance of the Jewish religion (usually observed in Orthodox beliefs), may see this as a positive development. But keep in mind that the survey results find that it’s little more than one step from a Jew having no religion, to losing any Jewish identity. This progression might not happen in a single individual’s lifetime, but if he or she doesn’t raise their children with any Jewish identity then the next generation will likely disappear from the ranks of Jews (which may explain the stat I offered above in which Jews as a percentage of the general population declined by half over the past nearly six decades).
The decline in religious affiliation affects all of America, not just Jews. Meaning that Jews are influenced in this dynamic in the same proportion as non-Jews. This again means Jews are more successfully integrated into American life than they were in the past.
75% of all Jews say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” 69% feel an “emotional attachment” to Israel, 43% have visited Israel, and 40% believe “the land that is now Israel was given by God to the Jewish people.” Interestingly, more Christians (56%) than Jews believe this statement. 44% believe settlement activity “hurts Israel’s security.” Only 17% believe that continuing to build settlements is helpful to Israel’s security. 60% of Jews believe Israel and the Palestinian people can achieve peace based on a two state solution. Nearly half do not believe the current Israeli government is sincere in its peace efforts, while 75% believe the Palestinian leadership is not sincere in such efforts.
Tellingly, there appear to have been no questions asked about other peace options such as a one-state solution. The prevailing thought must’ve been: what you don’t ask can’t hurt you! It’s important to note that liberal Zionist demographer, Steven Cohen, was a paid consultant for the project; and Jane Eisner, editor of the liberal Zionist Jewish Forward, encouraged Pew to undertake the poll. While I do not doubt the number of respondents sympathetic to options other than two-states might be small, the number of American Jews supporting gay rights or the two state solution in 1980 was equally small. That’s why it’s important to track such trends, and why those who produced the poll should’ve been more expansive.
Large majorities said that remembering the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical life (69%) and social justice (56%) were “essential” to their Jewishness. While 43% said that “caring for Israel” was essential. Just under 20% of those under the age of 30 say that caring for Israel is not an essential part of being Jewish. 53% of Jews say they can read the Hebrew alphabet, while 13% understand the Hebrew words they read.
43% of Jews believe that they face discrimination and 15% feel they were discriminated against or insulted in the past year. Jews as a whole believe that other minorities like gays and African-Americans face higher levels of discrimination.
58% of Jews have a college degree and 28% have a graduate degree. Only 29% of Americans as a whole have a college degree.
A curiosity of self-definition is that while 60% of Jews said that believing Jesus was the messiah set one beyond the Jewish pale, fully 34% said you could be Jewish holding such a belief.
Let’s start by saying, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the reports of the death of American Judaism have been greatly exaggerated. Classical Zionists, who include much of Israel’s current nationalist majority, believe in the ‘withering away’ of the Diaspora. They believe that only Jews living in Israel can persevere and continue the Jewish people. Judaism outside Israel is essentially doomed. For them, much of the material in this survey reaffirms all of these views. Undoubtedly, you’ll hear a few of these in the comment thread here.
I, of course, reject this view. Judaism (or if you’re secular and prefer “Jewishness”) will continue for many generations to come in this country. It will continue playing a formative role not just in the lives of its adherents, but of the entire American people. Assimilation, if it is happening, results from the successful integration of Jews into the American mainstream. It is the price, if you will, of such success.
Those who are alarmed by this should turn to Orthodox Judaism if you want a model of resistance to such assimilation. But at what price are Orthodox Jews retaining their allegiance to Judaism?
Returning to classical Zionism, it posits Israel as the center of Jewish identity, a Garden of Eden, if you will, for world Jewry. Israel is the place where the best ideas will form and take hold. Ideas that will represent the best that Jews have to offer and that will save the Jewish people. The only problem is that it hasn’t worked out that way. Israel has offered a stultifying vision of a State enmeshed in theocracy and ultra-Orthodox dogma. Judaism, in latter day Israel, has become intolerant, racist, and triumphalist. Ethics, social justice, prophetic Judaism–have all been all but subsumed under a virulent form of religious nationalism
So before we American Jews throw in the towel and concede to our Israeli brethren as true upholders of the tradition, we ought to think again. Diaspora Judaism brings something critical to the table. Abandoning it means abandoning a valuable part of the Jewish soul.
To those in the American Jewish community who wring their hands and ask what can be done to reverse the “declines” they see in Jewish affiliation, I say: not much. That’s because the leadership is essentially driven by a narrow consensus of what are acceptable expressions of Jewish beliefs, in which I include political beliefs. As but one example, why did the survey only include one option for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal: the two state solution? This option is increasingly derided not just in the U.S., but in Israel itself and among Israeli Jews. By pretending for the sake of the survey that only one option exists, the creators of the poll created a closed circle and self-fulfilling beliefs.
Jewish leaders (including rabbis, teachers, and communal leaders) offer, by and large, a pallid version of Judaism to their charges. It’s not milchik, not fleischik, but parve. When I was a teenager, the havurah movement was ascendant. My teachers in Hebrew school and summer camp (Ramah) were college students on fire with a passion for Judaism as a prophetic religion embodying values of peace and social justice. The ideas they inculcated in us have inspired us to our later achievements in life, including as Jews.
What does American Judaism offer today’s youth? Birthright trips, where participants are told that making Jewish babies is an important part of why they’re there. StandWithUs and other campus groups offering a stultifying definition of Israel and Jewish identity. Not to mention a community that continues to be obsessed by anti-Semitism, when most young people find such fixations off-putting and irrelevant. Finally, substituting Israel as an object of religious worship for American Jews is a failing proposition.
Is it any wonder that younger Jews are taking a pass at this version of Judaism?
Apologies, perhaps, but I am a goy and fail to see what the hand wringing is about. Not being one of God’s chosen, I have never believed in the so-called Jewish people. It is a religion pure and simple. The irony for me is that it would seem that the ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of converts, perhaps originating in Khazaria. yest they claim some link with the sands of Palestine. Similarly, the Muslims of Palestine are in all probability descendants of the original Jews from the area who chose conversion to Islam rather than being put to the sword during the Arab invasion. So we have Israelis who are descendants of converts discriminating and worse against the Arabs who are descendants of the original Jews.
As for what is happening in the US, do we hear similar soul searching about Presbyterians, or Catholics? So much ill in the world has been born of religion. If people become more secular in the religious beliefs but still adhere to the ethics, I say good.
Just some thoughts:
There certainly is similar soul-searching among Christian denominations in Europe, who face similar or higher rates of secularization. American Christianity seems to be out of step with this trend, but perhaps American Jews are more ‘European’.
I recall having read that the strongest factor predicting how religious a population will be is to look at insecurity. In societies with a high level of insecurity people are proportionally more religious. (Also people who have experienced war are more religious.) If true, the European type social system, where (until now at least) your medical bills and basic food and housing were guaranteed may have enhanced secularization.
What I see is that when people stop believing actively in a certain religion (after their family has been part of this religion for as long as they can remember), their feeling of ‘association’ with this religion still lingers on for a generation or two. But if you belong to a majority religion, there it stops.
I think it may be different if you are a religious minority surrounded by people of another faith. Like Copts in Egypt for instance. I think Copts who become atheist will continue to identify as ‘Copt’ despite of this. And I also think that their descendants will continue to feel for a number of generations that they are still somehow ‘Coptic’ even if they never embrace the religion seriously again. In a society where they face little discrimination that feeling of belonging would fade sooner than in an intolerant society.
The Pew results make me think that American Jews may be like Copts who have been living in a tolerant society for a couple of generations.
Bob Mann says
Which you be willing to post your responses to the poll questions?
I know you are very busy with your work, but I think it might offer a really fascinating window for your readers as to where you land on these questions.
Any chance you might consider doing that? (Even just a few of the questions if the whole poll is too time-consuming)
Arthur Waskow says
Has any swift survey of US opinion on the Syria war/peace issue reported on where various strands of US Jews stood or stand on that? If so, pls give me citation/ URL. Thanks. Shalom, AW
Richard, You write: “The bad news is that Jews are less and less interested in being Jewish.”
Of course, “good” and “bad” as to news (or anything else) is in the eye of the beholder, but why is THIS bad news? Bad for whom? I’d say, for instance, that my main “umbilicus” to “being Jewish” (apart from some relatives) is my concern for Palestine (and my concern for the re-ordering of Jewish opinion away from Israel-my-country-right-or-wrong-ism). In short, not much “Jewish” there, and certainly neither “religion” nor “concern for the well-being of the Jewish people” (apart from a wish for the moral adn ethical repair/tikkun of the so-called and soi-dissant “Jewish People”. I intermarried , that is, I married a Palestinian Quaker. Best thing that ever happened to me.
When the content of “being Jewish” is broadly minimized (and distorted) to be no more and nop other than support for Israel (including all its crimes — as I see many of its actions), then better NOT to maintain an interest in “being Jewish”.
Bob Mann says
What is it you are saying here? Can you boil it down to a sentence or two?
I think this poll is a bearer of really good news. perhaps the conclusion to draw on the decline of whatever is labeled “Jewish identity” is a direct result of the obvious cognitive dissonance: it is not possible to have any credible values at all (much less social conscience or commitment to justice) if one continues to pledge an allegiance to a thuggish state in the Middle east. Some see value in israel. I see mostly the opposite of what we humans label as “values”. Israel, though it has some good people (hey, I know 5 personally and heard of at least 100 more. Wow!), is, spiritually, one of the most backward, reactionary states in the world today. Don’t point to its sky scrappers and fabulous high tech. Or to the all-out commercialized celebrations of invented and recreated “Jewish” holidays. look at the day to day reality; the crudity of daily life, the all out commitment to the most materialistic of values, the inability to regard oneself as a human equal to others in the world, idiotic notions of chosen-ness, pathetic in their all-exclusiveness. Most importantly, the utter arrogance of the know-it-alls who profess to some inately acquired “superiority” while actually knowing very little. I find the majority of israeli ignorant of history (other than their own spoon-fed, make-believe one), totally incurious about other people, full of misconceptions about just about anything, incapable of empathy with others, except the empathy of the overlord, uncaring about histories and places in the world, except in so far as they are compared to themselves – and found perpetually wanting, and generally rather cynical and limited in their personal aspirations and notions about the greater humanity.
Of course, to know all I said above, one kind of has to be willing to listen to people talk in their original language, usually the only one they have any real command of – hebrew. Perhaps stroll through some facebooks, see what they comment on, what people find interesting. In israeli facebooks, people (some, not all) can be surprisingly honest and revealing. after all, it’s all in the family.
I wish the poll asked more about what the young Jews considered important in their lives. perhaps tribalism wasn’t so high on the list and an allegiance to a rinky-dinky foreign power hell-bent on domination of others, was not, as they say, so attractive. And if the “Jewish state” is such a sad sight to behold, spiritually speaking, and Judaism became all wrapped up in it, what to make of that “judaism”? what’s left of it other than some theoretical “jewish values” that are, at their core, no different than the better Christian values (not speaking now of the conservative denominations in either grouping)? and frankly, can any country in the world be further away – in practice and in deed – than anything that could pass as “jewish values”?
So the jewish people in the US are dumping the baggage in increasing numbers. marrying to others not jewish, is called – voting with your feet. Like wise -providing no jewish upbringing. It’s hard enough to try and salvage an American being.
These are some first thoughts (sorry for the length. Unintended). Now I’ll go and think about it some more.
RE: “One of the statistics that shocked me was that while 2% of American adults identified as Jewish in this poll, in the late 1950s 4% of respondents identified as Jewish. As I read it, that means that we’ve totally lost a large number of Jews over the past 50-odd years. . .” ~ R.S.
MY QUESTIONS: How many of these Jews lost by the U.S. since the late 1950s made aliya to Israel? As to Jewish Israelis who have come to the U.S. from Israel since the late 1950s, is it possible that they are mostly the more secular, non-practicing type? In other words, since the late 1950s, have Americans who most strongly identify as Jews tended to move to Israel, while the Israelis who least strongly identify as Jews tended to move to U.S.?
mindsmimes want to know!”
Bob Mann says
Americans who most strongly identify as Jews have not tended to move to Israel in large numbers. There have been less than 100,000 who have done so over the past 60 years.
I can second what Bob Mann is saying. based on my own personal knowledge, I did not know more than one single individual American who actually moved to israel until the late 70’s. And that individual was a more religious man who was hoping to find a bride.
Unfortunately the vast majority of Americans who did move to israel were of the religious nationalist variety, as the settlement enterprise amply proves. there was a smattering of individuals who happen to have married israelis, and a few who became idealistically attached for one reason or anpother. Kind of like the Australian ben Zygier – there wewre those who became fascinated with the ultra-military ethos and bought into that fake macho mentality.
But Dickerson brings up a very good point too that didn’t even occur to me till now. During the same period of time – from the early 70’s through today, legions of israelis moved to the US. By some counts, there are between 750,000 and 1M of them. They would by and large be the secular/cultural types. IF some were reached by the survey, they are likely to so identify. These would be the ones mostly married to jewish spouses and have a strong attachment to Israel. What that says is that the survey results may be skewed even more than realized:
1. The 6.6 M Jews would include a large number of ex-Israelis. That means that, to use Richard’s comparison, not only did the original American jewish segment not gain in numbers, they actually lost absolute numbers quite a bit, and the total is kind of propped up by the israeli emigres.
2. The survey answers that show decline in Jewish identification among the secular/cultural identified would be even more deeply skewed, if not for the growing number of ex-Israelis. An aside: many of the children of the ex-Israelis do indeed intermarry in America. Some spouses convert; the majority do not. Their children would be raised “sort of” jewish, perhaps with emphasis on the israel attachment.
Interim conclusion: American jewry must urgently encourage reverse aliya from israel to save its dwindling numbers.
Clif Brown says
I’m glad to see any diminution of “I am X”, X coming usually from the accident of birth. Strip away all affiliations with nation or religion or what have you and look at what behavior a person engages in regarding others. No matter how laudable one may think a system of established beliefs, what one practices is all that counts. Live the life you would have others emulate, one that has no requirements or expectations of professed identity, but values only what is actually done.
That seems a contradiction to me. What one practices comes
from a part of one’s identity. It doesn’t have to be nation,
religion, or state, but *some* belief system is always there,
whether or not it’s “established” in a wider context. And the
accidents of birth and upbringing are inescapably part and parcel
of it, though not necessarily in a simplistic or deterministic
manner. Richard’s Jewish values are worlds apart from Meir Kahane’s
Jewish values, but both are/were undoubtedly Jewish. So you have to
be wary drawing your identity, your justifications from any system
larger than yourself, because it always represents more than you
bargained for. A plea for “rootless cosmopolitanism”, as it was
called in another era, doesn’t follow, however.