Commentary Magazine


Topic: Pew Study

The Problem with American Jewry

When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

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When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

Beinart writes principally about the contrast between the well-attended Jewish schools in Australia and the situation in the United States where middle-class parents are often forced to choose between day school tuition and paying their mortgages. Day schools remain the best form of Jewish education and a chance to at least provide kids with an informed choice about their decisions about embracing Jewish life. They are not a magic bullet against assimilation and intermarriage. Given the ingrained secularism of the majority of American Jews, many, if not most wouldn’t send their kids to a day school if it were free. But along with improved synagogue schools, Jewish camps, and trips to Israel, they all provide a comprehensive alternative to a population that is Jewishly illiterate.

As Beinart points out, there is certainly enough Jewish wealth in America to fund all of these programs in a manner that could actually make a dent in the Pew statistics if not completely change the future of a community that is rapidly shrinking. But instead of funding schools adequately, American Jews have funded vanity projects like museums while not doing what’s necessary so that, “American Jewish six-year-olds [can] read Hebrew and know Torah so that a Jewish tradition that has survived thousands of years of exile and persecution isn’t destroyed by affluent, easy-going ignorance.”

Beinart is wrong to lump Israel advocacy—which often struggles for support in much the same manner as education—with the money lavished by American Jews on secular universities and museums as examples of misallocated funds. That is a function of his feud with AIPAC, which he despises for its loyalty to the principle of backing Israel’s democratically elected government.

But I find myself sympathizing with Beinart’s joke about being a “self-hating American Jew” when he regards the complacent manner with which most of the community has reacted to Pew. The struggle to change our priorities in order to preserve non-Orthodox Jewish life in this country is an uphill slog and it’s easy to be discouraged about the foolish manner in which the Reform and Conservative movements as well as many federations have opted out of the fight. But at least this is one battle that needn’t divide us along the familiar lines of left and right.

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Why Anti-Zionist Jews Are a Minority

It is a principle of journalism that news consists of those events that are out of the ordinary. The old cliché is that when man bites dog, it’s news. A dog biting a man is not. Thus, the conceit of the New York Times Beliefs column feature on Friday met that basic standard for newsworthiness. A story about religious Jews who actively oppose the existence of the State of Israel is one in which it must be conceded that the subjects are unusual.

The Pew Research Center of U.S. Jews published in October reported that 91 percent of Orthodox Jews, 88 percent of Conservative Jews, and even 70 percent of those who identified themselves as Reform Jews are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. That means any discussion about observant Jews who are anti-Zionists is, by definition, one about a very tiny minority. But considering that three of the five Jews whose views are featured in the piece seem to fall into the category of Modern Orthodox, of whom 99 percent told Pew they were very or somewhat attached to Israel with one percent saying “not very attached” and zero percent “not at all attached,” the trio constitute a sample of a group that is not merely a minority but one so small that it is statistically insignificant.

Once that is understood, it becomes clear that one of the main failings of the article is not only the fact that its author has no interest in challenging their views but that it fails to put that fact in proper perspective. The Orthodox trio and the one Conservative Jew and one Reconstructionist movement rabbi (whose views may not be all that out of the ordinary among that small left-leaning demographic) highlighted are a peculiar minority. But the willingness of the paper to give them such favorable attention illustrates once again the falsity of the notion that it takes courage for Jews to oppose Israel. To the contrary, as was made clear last week by the controversy over two Manhattan rabbis who defied many of the congregants by signing a letter denouncing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), those Jews who publicly denounce Israel can always look forward to the applause of the mainstream media.

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It is a principle of journalism that news consists of those events that are out of the ordinary. The old cliché is that when man bites dog, it’s news. A dog biting a man is not. Thus, the conceit of the New York Times Beliefs column feature on Friday met that basic standard for newsworthiness. A story about religious Jews who actively oppose the existence of the State of Israel is one in which it must be conceded that the subjects are unusual.

The Pew Research Center of U.S. Jews published in October reported that 91 percent of Orthodox Jews, 88 percent of Conservative Jews, and even 70 percent of those who identified themselves as Reform Jews are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. That means any discussion about observant Jews who are anti-Zionists is, by definition, one about a very tiny minority. But considering that three of the five Jews whose views are featured in the piece seem to fall into the category of Modern Orthodox, of whom 99 percent told Pew they were very or somewhat attached to Israel with one percent saying “not very attached” and zero percent “not at all attached,” the trio constitute a sample of a group that is not merely a minority but one so small that it is statistically insignificant.

Once that is understood, it becomes clear that one of the main failings of the article is not only the fact that its author has no interest in challenging their views but that it fails to put that fact in proper perspective. The Orthodox trio and the one Conservative Jew and one Reconstructionist movement rabbi (whose views may not be all that out of the ordinary among that small left-leaning demographic) highlighted are a peculiar minority. But the willingness of the paper to give them such favorable attention illustrates once again the falsity of the notion that it takes courage for Jews to oppose Israel. To the contrary, as was made clear last week by the controversy over two Manhattan rabbis who defied many of the congregants by signing a letter denouncing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), those Jews who publicly denounce Israel can always look forward to the applause of the mainstream media.

While this quintet are entitled to their views about Israel and appear to be none the worse for wear for being so determined to flout the views of their co-religionists, two aspects of the article are particularly objectionable. One is the article’s assumption that there is something remarkable about the fact that they are able to go about their business while living in a Jewish community and attending synagogue without much trouble. The second is the failure of the piece to acknowledge that the views their subjects express are inherently bigoted.

It should be acknowledged that the article is correct when it states that prior to 1948, support for Zionism was not universal among American Jews. Many Jews, especially those affiliated with “classic” Reform temples, viewed it as a threat to the rights of American Jews to be treated as equal citizens in the United States. The reason the adherents of that view declined from minority status to statistical insignificance is that Israel’s creation did no such thing. To the contrary, the creation of a Jewish state only a few years after the Nazis and their collaborators had killed nearly one third of the Jews on the planet engendered the respect of other Americans as well as enhancing the self-esteem of every Jew in the world whether he or she was religious or a Zionist.

Israel gained its independence because the Jews had a right to sovereignty in their ancient homeland and not as compensation for the Holocaust. The sweat and the blood of the Jews who built Israel and fought to defend it earned that independence. But the Holocaust made it abundantly clear, even to those who had never previously given the idea their support, that without a Jewish state to defend them, Diaspora Jews who had not been lucky enough to make it the United States or the other English-speaking countries that had not succumbed to the Nazis would always be at the mercy of violent anti-Semitism. That was just as true of Jews who lived in Muslim and Arab countries (who were forced to flee their homes after 1948) as it was of the Jews of Europe. Theodor Herzl’s understanding of the inevitable fate of a homeless Jewry—a thesis that he adopted after seeing Alfred Dreyfus being degraded in Paris as a mob shouted, “Death to the Jews”—was sadly vindicated by the events of the first half of the 20th century.

Though their neighbors and fellow congregants treat them with the toleration that Israel’s foes do not extend to the Jewish state, the common failing of the five anti-Zionist Jews in the Times story is their failure to account for this basic historical lesson that the rest of their community understands. One need not support every action of the government of the State of Israel or have no sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians to understand that not only does Israel have a right to exist but that its fall would endanger the lives of its people and, by extension, Jews everywhere. The notion put forward by one of the subjects that “non-statist Zionism” would succeed was exploded several decades ago by the refusal of Arab opponents of the Jewish presence in Israel/Palestine to accept Jews on any terms.

Nor does the article ask its subjects why the Jews, of all peoples, should be asked to forgo the right to their own country when no other nation is required to do so. Cynthia Ozick famously wrote that universalism is the parochialism of the Jews. But it takes a particularly perverse kind of universalism to say that Jews should have fewer rights than other peoples.

But what is particularly disingenuous about the Times article is the unwillingness to hold its subjects accountable for the thinly veiled anti-Semitism that often masquerades as anti-Zionism in contemporary debates. Groups like Jewish Voices for Peace—which is supported by one of the quintet—aren’t content to support liberal Israelis or to criticize Israel’s government. Instead it seeks to wage economic warfare on Israel in order to destroy it. If the only imperfect state that is seen as worthy of such a fate is the one Jewish one—rather than the many others founded on national or religious principles—then it is clear that the driving force behind anti-Zionism is prejudice and not concern about human rights. Websites like Mondoweiss, to which one of the five contributes, similarly trades in anti-Jewish stereotypes in its campaign against Zionism.

What the overwhelming majority of Jews know that these five people and their adoring audience at the Times don’t is that opposition to Israel’s existence—as opposed to criticism of it—is taking a stand against the right of the Jewish people to life. While there is a portion of the ultra-Orthodox community that also holds to anti-Zionism because of their own bizarre interpretation of Judaism (which strangely goes unmentioned in the article), non-Haredim who do so are fighting common sense, history, and the basic principles of fairness. If those who adopt such positions are a minority, it is not due to any resistance on the part of the majority to ethics or concern for others but because of the implausibility of their beliefs.

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Looking at the Pew Study Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

Reactions to the Pew Study on American Jewish life that I discussed in the cover story of COMMENTARY’s November issue are still pouring in. They run the gamut from sensible dives into the numbers, such as the Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis’s pessimistic analysis of the future of the Conservative movement in the Jewish Review of Books and former Reform movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s thoughtful criticism of the rise of secularism in Haaretz, to the extremely foolish, such as that of columnist J.J. Goldberg’s attempt to claim that the acclaimed study was fundamentally incorrect in its analysis and conclusions. Goldberg’s piece was subsequently given a thorough fisking by two of the study’s authors. But given the investment that many Jews have in the idea that the rise of intermarriage is an opportunity rather than a calamity, there wasn’t much doubt we would see more such efforts to turn the lemons delivered by Pew into lemonade for the organized Jewish world. And that’s exactly what we have now received from Tablet magazine in the form of a piece by Middlebury College’s Theodore Sasson claiming that the lesson we should derive from the numbers showing the vast increase in the number of Jews intermarrying is that most of them are becoming Jews.

Sasson asserts that if we add up the number of millennials who are children of intermarriage who are Jewish by religion or say they have no religion but identify as Jewish or as partly Jewish, it adds up to 59 percent. Since anything over 50 percent would mean a net population gain for the Jewish people, he says that accounts for the fact that total number of Jews by any definition hasn’t gone down in the last 20 years. That leads him to conclude that not only is pessimism about the future unwarranted but that this should motivate Jewish groups to concentrate more of their efforts on outreach toward this population. But this is not only a misinterpretation of these numbers; it is a fundamental misreading of what this means for the future.

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Reactions to the Pew Study on American Jewish life that I discussed in the cover story of COMMENTARY’s November issue are still pouring in. They run the gamut from sensible dives into the numbers, such as the Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis’s pessimistic analysis of the future of the Conservative movement in the Jewish Review of Books and former Reform movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s thoughtful criticism of the rise of secularism in Haaretz, to the extremely foolish, such as that of columnist J.J. Goldberg’s attempt to claim that the acclaimed study was fundamentally incorrect in its analysis and conclusions. Goldberg’s piece was subsequently given a thorough fisking by two of the study’s authors. But given the investment that many Jews have in the idea that the rise of intermarriage is an opportunity rather than a calamity, there wasn’t much doubt we would see more such efforts to turn the lemons delivered by Pew into lemonade for the organized Jewish world. And that’s exactly what we have now received from Tablet magazine in the form of a piece by Middlebury College’s Theodore Sasson claiming that the lesson we should derive from the numbers showing the vast increase in the number of Jews intermarrying is that most of them are becoming Jews.

Sasson asserts that if we add up the number of millennials who are children of intermarriage who are Jewish by religion or say they have no religion but identify as Jewish or as partly Jewish, it adds up to 59 percent. Since anything over 50 percent would mean a net population gain for the Jewish people, he says that accounts for the fact that total number of Jews by any definition hasn’t gone down in the last 20 years. That leads him to conclude that not only is pessimism about the future unwarranted but that this should motivate Jewish groups to concentrate more of their efforts on outreach toward this population. But this is not only a misinterpretation of these numbers; it is a fundamental misreading of what this means for the future.

Let’s first take apart that 59 percent number. Including people who are raised in more than one religion or who identify as “partly Jewish” in the number of total Jews is somewhat suspect. That means the confidence that intermarriage is increasing the Jewish population is a myth. Even more important, by taking these numbers in isolation without looking at them alongside the other data in the study about the behavior of the intermarried and their children, it’s easy to see that this optimistic reading misses the real story in the study. Since the overwhelming majority of intermarried Jews are not raising their children as Jews or giving them any sort of Jewish education, that means most will not have any meaningful Jewish identity in terms of affiliation or behavior no matter what they call themselves at the moment. Moreover, since even Sasson agrees “most of the younger Jews in this category will probably marry non-Jews,” there is simply no way to see this as anything but a trend that will lead to more assimilation, not greater affiliation. Thus to claim the growth in this group is a positive trend is to look at the numbers through the wrong end of the telescope.

The problem with the rise in intermarriage for the Jewish community is primarily because it is the product of trends that reflect that lack of religious faith or identification with the Jewish people by those who intermarry. The Pew authors could not determine whether being intermarried made Jews less religious or whether being less religious made Jews more likely to intermarry, but the connection is not in doubt.

Going beyond the raw population numbers, Pew’s data informs us that the growth in intermarriage must be viewed in the context of a web of attitudes about Jewish life that are indicative of the decline of faith and affiliation. That’s why expecting those who come from backgrounds where both of these factors are not considered important to latch onto Judaism or Jewish affiliation as adults is not justified by any reasonable reading of the numbers.

It is true that more children of intermarriage are willing to admit to ties to the Jewish community in previous generations leading to the increase of Jews of no religion. But that is a function of the general decline in anti-Semitism that has helped break down barriers between Jews and non-Jews that has led to more intermarriage. But, as Pew’s numbers show, the idea that this is a meaningful measure of affiliation or future behavior is more than a stretch.

The most lamentable part of this argument is the conclusion he draws from it about the large number of younger Jews with some ties to the community but no religious faith or belief in the value of taking part in Jewish life. Sasson claims the sheer numbers of the people in this group justifies a major investment on the part of the organized Jewish world in programming and outreach toward them. But if there is anything we have learned in the past 20 years it is that such efforts have done nothing to stop intermarriage or increase affiliation among groups that have already demonstrated a lack of interest in faith or any other aspect of Jewish life. Indeed, the Pew numbers demonstrate exactly this point as intermarriage goes up and the numbers of the intermarried who have embraced Jewish education for their kids has remained low.

As Jack Wertheimer persuasively argued in Mosaic magazine, the outreach industry is predicated on the idea that the Jewish community can do nothing about intermarriage and should give up encouraging endogamy. While the Jewish world should welcome anyone who wants to join, for the past generation the community has squandered scarce resources chasing unaffiliated Jews who don’t care about Jewish life on the margins while doing little if anything to make it easier for people who are still part of the community to stay there. While the community’s doors must stay open, its focus must be on helping those still inside the tent, not chasing a fool’s errand outside of it.

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