Raw Data

Pew Survey Raises More Questions About American Jewry

The new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews pulls from tons of raw data and raises tons of questions about American Jewish identity. Brent E. Sasley poses five of his own.

The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project has just come out with an expansive survey of American Jewry. Titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” it provides lots of data on a range of issues, but especially how U.S. Jews conceptualize Jewish identity. Indeed, Josh Nathan-Kazis of The Forward noted that the information “will probably drive American Jewish policy for the next decade.”

Looking at the raw data raises a number of questions and issues that need further exploration. Here’s a list of five, each of which is tied to the other. Indeed, dealing with some of them requires answering others first.

1. Who is Jewish? The survey found multiple factors that make up Jewishness: religious practices, ideological principles, mere identification as part of the community, humanist values, the Holocaust, emotional attachment to Israel, food, and (my favorite), a particular sense of humor. Around whom, then, do community organizations, especially those involved in national politics, organize? What are the boundaries of the Jewish community, and might it depend on the issue?

2. On which sub-group does the future of the community depend? Put another way, assuming there aren’t enough resources to go around, should more attention be paid to the 62 percent of those who define Jewishness as ethnicity and culture, or to the 15 percent who say it’s mainly a matter of religion? The former are more likely to interpret Jewishness very broadly, and be more likely to forgo synagogue services, join local community institutions, and raise their children Jewish. Yet the latter are more likely to have a narrower definition of Jewish identity (tied, obviously, more directly to religious practices) that excludes the bulk of the community.

3. Which group or sub-group do community institutions represent? Or, which should they represent? This question is highly relevant when it comes to political advocacy on Israel, particularly in an increasingly partisan political sphere. But it’s also relevant to a broader set of concerns, highlighted by the reaction of national establishment Jewish organizations. Of these popular perceptions, institutional leaders were dismissive, unconcerned, or unsure.

That the broader community is detached from the community institutions (like synagogues, federations, agencies, and—especially—national organizations) says something both about what U.S. Jews see as their primary concerns, and about what little effort the big community institutions put into mobilizing them. It’s not clear if that’s because they can’t or don’t want to, but certainly this is something that deserves much more attention.

4. What does it mean to be pro-Israel? Disagreement over this is fierce, sometimes degenerating into ludicrous levels of incivility. But some response is necessary. J Street’s recent annual convention highlighted the difficulty of answering this question. A panel composed of Peter Beinart, Jeremy Burton, and Rabbi Melissa Weintraub (moderated by Deborah Kaufman) looked at “How the Israel Conversation Is Shut Down and Opened Up in Communities Across the Country.” At the heart of the discussion was who should be included in a conversation about Israel, particularly when it comes to advocacy on Israel. Beinart and Burton disagreed over how inclusionary the conversation should be.

Among those who dominate the conversation, there is a definite right-leaning tilt: there is, for example, more willingness to include the far-right Zionist Organization of America than the far-left Jewish Voices for Peace. This is unsatisfactory.

In 2011, I proposed some markers for setting the borders of “pro-Israel,” which took Zionism as its basis. Briefly, it included: taking the Israeli Declaration of Independence as the starting point; eschewing violence by non-state actors; commitment to liberal democracy in Israel; defining Israel as within the pre-June 1967 lines; and accepting that there is a limit to what American Jews can demand of Israel when it comes to Israeli security concerns. I meant these as the beginning of a conversation, though obviously any such identifiers will be controversial. But it’s clearly time to directly address the issue itself.

5. What responsibility does Israel have regarding diaspora Jewish identity? American Jews think Israel is an important part of community identity: 69 percent say they feel “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. Even more, 43 percent say caring about Israel is an “essential” part of being Jewish, and 44 percent say “it is important but not essential.” Attachment to an ancestral homeland or transnational kin group is a normal part of ethnic communities’ identities.

In the Jewish case, does it fall to Israel to do what it can to strengthen that connection? There are clear religious and ideological differences both within U.S. Jewry and within Israel; how can these gaps be bridged? I noted the other day that some presenters at J Street’s conference tried to address this issue, but the answers thus far have been very vague at best.

This is only a partial list of questions, but already the difficulties in answering them are obvious. We have lots of information to begin the conversation, but we also need a willingness across Jews and Jewish groups to do so. That remains to be seen.