Commentary Magazine


Jews and the Census

To the Editor:

There is an unconscious irony in your publication of Erich Rosenthal’s quite competent article on the Jewish population of the United States (“Five Million American Jews,” December 1958). He begins with the data on religious groups that were recently revealed in the Census Bureau’s 1957 sample survey, but he does not tell his readers that Jewish community relations agencies, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Congress, were most vocal in their hostility to the question on religious belief. In fact, so effective was their opposition that the Census Bureau now has been directed to cease all further attempts at eliciting any information regarding religious identification, so that when Jewish communities want to determine the growth, or decline, of their population they will have to find out for themselves.

As one of those pioneer Jewish demographers to whom Mr. Rosenthal refers, I found the opposition of the agencies to the Census Bureau’s careful efforts based on rather specious legal grounds (the attorneys pursuing the matter unfurled the principle of Church-State separation with great alacrity) and endowed with more heat than logic. The scientific needs of the population expert, social scientist, and community worker were brushed to one side. What makes the entire incident even more ironic is the adherence in 1949 of these same organizations to the plea of the Conference on Jewish Demography for the inclusion of a question on religious affiliation in the work of the Census Bureau.

Ben B. Seligman
Washington, D.C.

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[Edwin J. Lukas, director of the Department of National Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, was invited to comment on Mr. Seligman’s letter.—Ed.]

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To the Editor:

The American Jewish Committee, as well as other Jewish agencies—and also many Protestant bodies—did indeed oppose the inclusion of the question, “What is your religion?” in the next decennial census. We were by no means unmindful of the undoubted benefits that might accrue to social scientists and others if accurate answers to that question were obtained. But we were keenly aware, as Mr. Seligman apparently is not, that while it is constitutionally permissible for government to inquire about our habits in possessing radios, refrigerators, and automobiles (data useful to the Department of Commerce), it is constitutionally estopped from invading the sacred area of conscience. We felt that the inclusion of the religion question would introduce a precedent that might prove damaging to a unique American tradition which places a man’s religious beliefs, or the lack of them, beyond the competence of the civil authority to inquire into, however useful the information might prove to demographers. It is regrettable that Mr. Seligman sees fit to treat the Church-State separation principle in such cavalier fashion.

Moreover, Mr. Seligman’s facts are not quite right. The Conference on Jewish Demography never advocated the inclusion of a question on religious affiliation in the census conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. In a letter to the National Jewish Post, dated April 24, 1950, Dr. Salo W. Baron, who was then chairman of the Conference, wrote: “. . . I can say without hesitation that we have never considered the matter of religious question in the Federal census as within our purview and have never carried on any kind of activity in this direction. As a matter of fact, I suspect that if the views of our member agencies were polled on this issue a number of them would be strongly against such a question.” The concern of the Conference was with the adequacy of the data obtained by the religious bodies themselves, as part of the U.S. Census of Religious Bodies (which has since been discontinued). Its principal preoccupation—and this is the crucial point—was with the development of plans under Jewish auspices for securing better data on the U.S. Jewish population. The best evidence of this was the establishment by the Conference of an Office for Jewish Population Research, of which—mark you!—Mr. Seligman was for a time executive secretary.

Edwin J. Lukas
New York City

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To the Editor:

I have read with interest Erich Rosenthal’s article “Five Million American Jews.”

I should like to call to the attention of your readers that Mr. Rosenthal’s reference to immigration of Egyptian Jews [“when . . . 30,000 Egyptian Jews were made homeless, the quota restriction made it virtually impossible to admit any to the United States”] might . . . be misleading. The actual number of Egyptian Jews assisted by United Hias Service in coming to the United States during 1958 was 380. A total of 1,500 to 2,000 Egyptian Jews are permitted to immigrate into the U.S. under Section 15 of Public Law 85-316, passed by Congress on September 11, 1957. The delay in implementation has been of an administrative nature, but the law has nevertheless demonstrated the interest of the Congress and the administration in the plight of the Egyptian Jews, and the desire or a significant number of them to come to the United States, especially on a family reunion basis.

James P. Rice
Executive Director
United Hias Service
New York City

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