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The Pew 2020 survey in the context of demographic studies, and US Jewry in the global Jewish context


Comparative research is enriched by new items that allow for tracing trends and outlining differences, discovering patterns, or disproving existing conceptions. We are told that the 2020 Pew data are not really comparable with the 2013 results, because they reflect a different concept and methodology in collecting and weighting the data, and this is a pity.

On the other hand, what is seven years out of eternity? Over seven years you do not expect dramatic differences, and what counts is the stability that we get in the Pew overall picture – more than the changes. And this is the major message: Jews in the United States are a very stable and solid lot. Their position as a strong and proud component of American society, and the fundamentals of their beliefs and behaviors, individual and collective, are coherent and persisting.

For example, Holocaust memory, followed by love for ethics and social justice, is far more salient than belief in God. This is of great importance in assessing the role of religion in the definition of American Jews, as we shall argue later. But no less important is the fact that exactly the same value hierarchy appears in all major Jewish communities worldwide, in Western and Eastern Europe, in Latin America, in Australia, in South Africa, and remarkably in Israel. American Jewry thus pertains not only to America, but to a much broader transnational Jewish family.

Discourse is a little different when we look at the numbers. Here the new data are much less about demography than about narratives. The Pew report presents a synthetic evaluation of 7.5 million Jews – nearly 900,000 more that in 2013. In no way, and under no miracle, could the Jewish population grow at such a fast rate over the last seven years. If we take a longer time span, say since 1990, American Jews would have grown by 2 million, at a rate far faster than the total US population or the Jewish population in Israel. Who can believe that?

Both the US and Israel had a huge influx of immigrants, and Israel in addition had the highest birth rate of any developed country worldwide. Neither applies to US Jews. Fertility in the US recently approached its historical minimum, and the majority of Jews are not known for their large family sizes. By the same token, the reported increase of half a million Jewish children raises questions. In fact, it never happened, and I suggest those responsible for Jewish education do NOT start planning the construction of the 25,000 school classrooms that would be necessary to accommodate the additional half million kids.

What happened instead was a change in definitions and a change in data collection procedures. Regarding the latter, it is true that telephone interviews (used in 2013) nowadays reach a 5% successful response rate. But if the internet connection method used in 2020 may be the best possible under the present circumstances, it does not mean it is an optimally accurate method. As we abundantly saw in the last presidential elections, internet surveys tend to over-represent the medium-high social classes among which Jews are highly concentrated. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump indeed, but he was significantly overstated in most surveys. Jews (most of whom identified with Biden) are even more overstated in our survey.

Interestingly, we also learn that such biases in determining the size of groups do not affect as much the distribution of opinions among those included. The survey is, therefore, more useful in assessing characteristics than for estimating population size.

And then crucially, the definitions adopted – especially in the case of children – include persons absolutely marginal or absent in terms of the meaning of being Jewish. The bottom line in the screening questionnaire is persons who consider themselves Jewish because of their family background. Jewishness is defined fundamentally as a property that once acquired can never be lost. This contradicts the precepts of sociology and demography, neither of which follows a deterministic approach, seeking instead to ascertain facts empirically.

Listen to the following example: I was born in Trieste in Northern Italy. I left the place when I was 11 months old. My birthplace is an indelible detail in my ID document. My children can declare a Trieste-born father, and my grandchildren have a Trieste-born grandfather. None of them has ever visited the place (to which I returned myself five or six times since I left), most of them don’t know or care where the city is located. How significant is this type of ascription?

From a social scientific perspective, it is better to consider the Jews as a socially meaningful collective rather than a random aggregate of people with an indelibly ascribed trait. This is most significant for those who want to use the survey for policy purposes.

Here we should devote some attention to the fallacy of Judaism as a religion. Note that in 2013 there were 4.2 million Jewish adults by religion in the United States, and in 2020 we find the exact same 4.2 million. This confirms exceptional stability, and this should be the real and positive message of the Pew survey. All population growth comes from the so-called Jews of no religion. This assumes that all Jews by religion have a religion, but is that true?

In reality, the majority of American Jews by religion hold quite a secular outlook: 53% of them say religion is not important to them (versus 91% of Jews of no religion). Less than half of Jews by religion (43%) say being Jewish is about religion. Seventy-four percent of Jews by religion do not think religious faith provides them a great deal of meaning or fulfillment. This is not to say that Jews less concerned with religion are less Jewish: far from it. The point is that lots of Jews by religion in reality do not profess a Jewish religion. Most of the Jewish seculars are already in. The additional quest for Jews of no religion is, in reality, an effort to find those who did not have the courage to say they were just Jewish in the first place.

This is why I have suggested a more realistic estimate of the core Jewish population in the US of 6 million – which per se is an increase over the previous survey and calls for a retroactive upward revision of previous estimates. This is perfectly doable, always considering statistical variability and the method used this time. The 6 million estimate is based on the total of Jews by religion, and all those Jews of no religion who have two Jewish parents. Age-wise, the proportion of persons with two Jewish parents out of all Jews of no religion steadily declined from 84% among those 65 or older to 17% among those in the 18-29 age cohort. The same trend plausibly continued among children under 18.

The real challenge regarding the Pew survey, clearly, is not the numbers. It is the meaning attributed to identities and to pertinent concepts and relations. Contrary to what some people think, I really do not care if there are more Jews in the US or in Israel. I am interested in the explanatory mechanisms. For example, the index of human development over the last 40 years grew much faster in Israel than in the US, making Israel an attractive place for international migrants. And the same applies when comparing Canada to the US.

In this regard, two aspects should be stressed. The first is that the old concept of a clean binary division of the world between Jews and non-Jews is over – from a social scientific perspective of course, not from the normative point of view of Jewish law. The infinite intermediate nuances are an established fact. One can be all inclusive, but there are yet significant cutting points, and these should not be ignored.

The second fact is that this survey unquestionably points to a strengthening of Jewish identity in the US in some respects, and to a weakening in some other respects. This bifurcation is particularly important among the younger age cohorts. The ability to maintain coherent internal discourse within the American Jewish community, and between it and Jewish communities in Israel and in other countries is the real great challenge for all analysts and policy planners.

As social scientists, but also as concerned Jewish citizens, we should look at the Pew results not only as a local but also as an important transnational fact; not as a static portrayal but as a processual sequence; and as a platform for what essentially needs to be impartial social scientific investigation and sensitive policy making, and not the pretext for a battle of narratives – as we have seen so often in the past.