Pew Director Explains Rationale Behind Survey of U.S. Jews

How did the Pew Research Center decide what to ask American Jews—and how to ask it? A Pew director explains what went into designing the groundbreaking poll.

I am pleased that our survey of Jewish Americans has sparked so much discussion within the Jewish community and beyond, including the kind of examination that Emily L. Hauser undertakes in her Open Zion column “Between J Street and the Pew Survey.” Hauser correctly points out that a majority of Jews (73 percent) say “remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them, and that far fewer (28 percent) say “being part of a Jewish community” is essential to their Jewish identity. But she then goes on to argue that “basing our identity in dreadful narratives of death and survival, and/or an amorphous ‘caring’ about a country [Israel] that’s an ocean away…is a path to failure. Indeed, if that’s all we care about, I’d say it already has failed.”

The Pew Research Center is a non-advocacy organization, and as such, it is not our place to say whether remembering the Holocaust or caring about Israel should or should not be key parts of what being Jewish means to U.S. Jews. I want to point out, however, that our survey shows that the Holocaust and Israel are not all that U.S. Jews care about. Large numbers of Jews say that leading an ethical and moral life (69 percent), working for justice and equality in society (56 percent), and being intellectually curious (49 percent) are essential to what being Jewish means to them. Furthermore, three-quarters of Jews tell us they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and more than six in ten say they feel a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world. I raise this not to disagree with Hauser’s argument, but simply because it would be unfortunate if Hauser’s readers concluded that our survey shows that all U.S. Jews care about is the Holocaust and Israel; that is not what the survey shows.

Hauser also raises concerns about some of the questions included in the survey. I hope explaining the rationale for our question choices will contribute to a better understanding of what goes into designing a questionnaire.

In her first example, Hauser wonders about the difference in the wording we used for two separate questions related to the importance U.S. Jews attach to Israel. In one question, the survey asks Jews whether each of nine attributes or activities is essential to what being Jewish means to them, is important but not essential, or is not an important part of what it means to be Jewish. The question is aimed at exploring elements of Jewish identity. “Caring about Israel” is one of the nine items and is worded to fit the context of the overall question. A separate, stand-alone question later in the survey asks, “How emotionally attached are you to Israel?” The wording of this question is very similar to a question from the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey; we included it in our survey to permit a rough comparison between the two surveys and a sense of how U.S. Jews’ attachment to Israel may have changed over time. (It turns out that U.S. Jews’ stated level of emotional attachment to Israel hasn’t changed very much over the past decade.) These two questions are not redundant; one can easily imagine a person who feels emotionally attached to Israel without feeling that caring for Israel is an essential part of their Jewish identity. Indeed, in our survey, roughly seven in ten Jews say they feel “very” or “somewhat” emotionally attached to Israel, but fewer (43 percent) say that “caring about Israel” is essential to what being Jewish means to them.

Hauser also wonders why the only question about Jewish settlements was linked to Israel’s security. We chose this question because it previously was asked in a Pew Research survey in Israel, and thus allows us to compare the attitudes of U.S. Jews with Israelis on the settlement issue. All together, the survey contained more than a dozen questions related to Israel. We would have liked to ask many more, but telephone surveys need to be kept to a reasonable length or many respondents will not complete them.

Hauser is certainly correct that our poll isn’t perfect; in my experience, no poll ever is. Designing and conducting a survey is always about tradeoffs. Different researchers with different interests and goals working under a different set of assumptions and constraints will reach different conclusions about what to ask and how best to ask it. For our part, we at the Pew Research Center take great care in designing and implementing our surveys, and we strive to present our findings accurately, impartially and transparently. We hope that our survey will continue to serve as a useful source of information for those interested in exploring questions of Jewish identity and the Jewish experience in the U.S. And we encourage readers to take a look at our full report to explore the survey results for themselves.