In Pew poll on American Jewish identity, ‘caring about Israel’ is way behind ‘working for justice’

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Everyone’s talking about the new Pew poll and its “portrait” of Jewish American attitudes and culture. Pew’s main findings are that one in five Jews says he or she has “no religion,” that nearly three in five are now marrying outside the group, and that the non-religious are more distanced from Israel. Also, affluence is a feature of the Jewish presence; more than a quarter of Jewish households have incomes of $150,000 or more–more than three times the national average.

Some excerpts from Pew’s findings:

[T]he survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.

Who is a Jew? Pew counted those who said

 (a) that their religion is Jewish, or (b) that aside from religion they consider themselves to be Jewish or partially Jewish, or (c) that they were raised Jewish or had at least one Jewish parent, even if they do not consider themselves Jewish today.

Pew found that only 46 percent of Jews said that being Jewish is very important to them (and the figure falls the younger Jews are), and that Jewish is a cultural identifier:

When asked whether being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, ancestry or culture, six-in-ten (62%) cite either ancestry or culture (or a combination of the two). Fewer than one-in-five (15%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion.

As to what it is essential to being Jewish, religion scores low. Nearly 3 in 4 say it’s remembering the Holocaust, while the numbers for caring about Israel and having a good sense of humor are roughly equal (43 and 42 percent). Being intellectually curious and “working for justice/equality” score a lot higher (49, 56 respectively). And lower down are being part of a Jewish community and observing Jewish law (28, 19).

On Israel: 47% of Jews who are religious say they believe the land that is now Israel was given by God to the Jewish people, but only 16% of Jews of “no religion” make this assertion.

At the same time, many American Jews express reservations about Israel’s approach to the peace process. Just 38% say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians. (Fewer still – 12% – think Palestinian leaders are sincerely seeking peace with Israel.) And just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security; 44% say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests.

More on Israel. Looks like non-Jews are twice as likely as Jews to say that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel.

More than half of U.S. Jews say U.S. support for Israel is about right (54%), although a substantial minority says the U.S. is not supportive enough of the Jewish state (31%), and 11% think the U.S. is too supportive. By comparison, 41% of the general public thinks support for Israel is about right, while the rest are nearly evenly divided between those who say the U.S. is not supportive enough (25%) and those who say it is too supportive of the Jewish state (22%). Interestingly, more white evangelical Protestants than Jews think the U.S. currently is not sufficiently supportive of Israel (46% vs. 31%).


Fully one-quarter of Jews (25%) say they have a household income exceeding $150,000, compared with 8% of adults in the public as a whole.

As I often say, it’s no wonder Jews marry outside the group; people want to marry up in America.

The Forward planted the idea of the poll and Josh Nathan-Kazis reports on it:

“I don’t know how to spin this report as being a good news story,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who acted as an adviser to Pew on the study. “It’s a story of a community that’s contracting.”..

Survey results point to an American Jewish identity that is at once filled with self-pride but is increasingly fluid, with widely varying ideas about what it means to be Jewish. Meanwhile, non-Orthodox birthrates are low, and non-Orthodox Jewish denominations are losing members fast, particularly among the young. Since 2000, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who married chose to wed non-Jews.

32 percent of Jews born after 1980 say they are Jews of “no religion.” And they are fairly assimilated religiously. 79 to 36 percent intermarried. compared to 36 percent of Jews of religion.

Having no religion means distance from the community.

Just 20% of Jews of no religion said they give to Jewish organizations, compared with 67% of Jews by religion. Only 10% of Jews of no religion said that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish.

“Their patterns of connection with Jewish life seem highly attenuated,” Wertheimer said of the Jews of no religion. “They have no religion, yet the majority of them have Christmas trees.”

A friend writes that the poll shows the amazing fluidity of what people understand to be religious “belief”:

Of Jews married between 1995 and 1999, 55% are married to non-Jews. Jews who married in the past five years married non-Jews 58% of the time.

The discussion reminds me of the plasticity of religious belief. Foundational myths go back no further than one own’s memory.

If you gave Americans the Bill of Rights today, but don’t tell them what it is and modernize the language, the majority would most likely reject it.

The attitude of religious Jews toward Israel is a great example. The Ultra-orthodox and the more traditional Orthodox first rejected or looked wearily at the state and its secular founders. As the advantages of the state to their communities became more obvious, God’s promise of the land became more actual and concrete. Modern orthodoxy evolved by melding ultra-nationalism with religious belief. And everyone has a different kind of head covering or yamaka to demarcate where they stand.

The Reform have zig-zagged on the issue of Zionism a number of times. Many initially opposed a Jewish state, then fell in love with the New Jews of Israel, and now are so conflicted many reform synagogues try to avoid the subject as much as possible.

All this occurred within a space of my lifetime. No historical myth has lasted as long as me.


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no matter the establishment will ignore consensus findings.

“In other words, it is not the leadership of Jewish communal organizations that is out of step, but Jewish communities”

So in the sample, 22% of American Jews descibe themselves as having no religion, but 16% of those same 22% profess that the land of Israel was given to Jews by God. Okay!

Your canard that people marry Jews because they’re golddiggers have no foundation in reality, at least in my circles. It’s cultural assimilation, people get together and only later do they marry. Then again I’m in my early 20s, so the lovelife I see tend to be idealistic/romantic. If you’re middle… Read more »

>> As to what it is essential to being Jewish, religion scores low. Nearly 3 in 4 say it’s remembering the Holocaust … For Zio-supremacists, that number is nearly 23 in 7. >> “I don’t know how to spin this report as being a good news story,” said Jack Wertheimer,… Read more »

“Of course, people can also convert but most people view Jewishness in the lens of “is your mother Jewish” and general ethnic/racial ancestry.” Okay, and all things being equal, half of those intermarrying will be women, and their children will be Jewish under Jewish law. “Nevertheless, when 70% or more… Read more »