2021 Annual Assessment

The Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People

PROJECT HEAD: Shmuel Rosner

Dan Feferman, Shlomo Fischer, Shuki Friedman, Avi Gil, Inbal Hakman, Michael Herzog, Gitit Levy-Paz, Dov Maimon, Steven Popper, Uzi Rebhun, John Ruskay, Noah Slepkov, Adar Schieber, Yedidia Stern, Shalom Salomon Wald

Barry Geltman

2021 Annual Assessment

The large Jewish community of the United States was affected this year by a number of major events: first, the COVID-19 pandemic; second, a turbulent election season and change of administration; and third, a rise in antisemitism. For several years now, the antisemitism gauge has been showing a gradual rise in Jewish concern about more frequent antisemitic manifestations and – though not at the same pace – a certain actual increase in the number of incidents targeting Jews.16 Current data show that over half of US Jews feel less safe than in past years.17 Nearly half feel that there is currently “a great deal of antisemitism” in the United States (45%). Over half of US Jews noted at least one incident in which they personally observed antisemitism in action, though they were physically attacked in only a small minority of cases (5%); in most instances they were eyewitnesses (of graffiti or online posts). A focused analysis of antisemitism in the US and in all of the Jewish communities appears on page 71.

The most up-to-data information on the state of American Jewry comes from a comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center, eight years after its publication of a similar report. This work will serve as a major platform for discussion on the US Jewish community over the coming years. The report’s main findings have been extensively covered by the American and Israeli press, but several of them are worth mentioning here as they herald long-term trends and have consequences for those tasked with making policy decisions on behalf of the Jewish people.

The number of Jews in America: As with the earlier Pew report, and reports from other sources, conditions unique both to the United States (separation of religion and state) and to the American Jewish community (Jews by choice), make it impossible to arrive at an agreed-upon and authoritative number of Jewish Americans. The Jewish population count is subject to debate, with gaps between the proposed figures reaching a million and a half people. These gaps stem from differing data collection methodologies, and from diverging ideas about where the “Jewish” tribe’s boundaries lie. A number of issues can be found in the Pew report that reflect these disagreements. Among them are the questions of whether Judaism is a religion (a large proportion of US Jews are not “Jews by religion”); whether Judaism can be “partial” (people identifying as “partly Jewish”); whether an individual’s decision to belong is enough, or whether there are shared and binding community criteria (relating to ethnicity and the process of joining); and more. (For a full assessment regarding the number of American Jews, see page 94).

Looking at facts that are essentially undisputed: it is clear from the report that the intermarriage rate in the US among those who self-define as Jews is higher now than it was before 2000 (nearly 70% for today’s younger generation). This has implications for the community’s structure (many members of the community are not Jewish, or belong to households that are not made up entirely of “Jews”). It also has implications for the education of the next generation (at least half will be growing up in homes with one Jewish parent); for how the community is defined and its sense of cohesion (when there are many “grey-area” Jews who may or may not be accepted as members of the Jewish tribe); for relations with Israel and with other communities around the world (most of which adhere to more conservative membership criteria); for the quality of relations between “closed” and “open” subgroups within the American Jewish community; and more. One may also assume and expect that, as the years pass, the notable presence of non-Jews, of partial-Jews and of Jews of no religion will have a cultural impact on the character, consciousness, and customs of the community. This is especially true given the historical fact that, for most of its history, the American Jewish community has been centered around the synagogue, and Judaism is regarded in the US as a religion, first and foremost.18

It should be noted that there is a US-wide trend toward weaker affiliation with religious institutions, which attracted considerable attention this year. Gallup, for the first time since its surveys on this topic were initiated (during the 1930s), found that the majority Americans do not belong to a religious institution of any kind (47% belong).19
The trend toward declining religious- institutional membership has been in place for a long time, and has been accompanied by a steep rise in the share of “nones” – Americans of no religious affiliation.20

However, a report from the summer of 2021 indicated a slowing of the trend toward religious non-affiliation (the unaffiliated currently account for a quarter of the US population).21

Identity and polarization: Without entering into all of the study data, it should be noted that US Jewry over the past few decades has been characterized by processes of expansion and diversification. That is, the community in its broader definition is both growing, and becoming less uniform. There are more Jews, but the commonalities between them, whether behavioral, ethical/ideological, or relating to knowledge levels or the degree of importance attached to Judaism, are eroding. This can also be seen in the testimony of the Jews themselves, who find commonalities with those of similar outlook, but often share little with other Jews. The dwindling of commonalities is particularly apparent in the alienation between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews.

As noted by Dr. Shlomo Fischer, the Pew study essentially reinforces the sense that two diametric developments pertaining to Jewishness and Jewish identity are emerging within the Jewish community: 1) An Orthodox Jewish identity, and 2) “Jews of no religion.” These developments are especially pronounced in the younger age groups and become more significant over time. Both represent significant departures from what characterized Jewish-American identity in the 20th century. American Jews who identify as Orthodox constitute 17% of all US Jews in the younger age groups (versus 10% of the total US Jewish population). Jews of no religion, a category requiring in-depth explanation that consists primarily of Jews whose ties to the Jewish community and to Jewish activity are very loose, constitute 40% of the youngest age groups (compared to 33% in the 2013 survey). It thus appears that these groups will be even more dominant in the future.
These two groups differ greatly in nearly every respect. Regarding mixed marriages, for instance: Among the Orthodox, the rate is 2%, while for Jews of no religion it is 79%. Attachment to Israel: Two-thirds of the Orthodox say they have much in common with Israeli Jews, while only 4% of Jews of no religion share that view. And further: 91% of the Orthodox say it is very important that their grandchildren be Jewish; only 4% of Jews of no religion feel the same way.

The two groups also differ in terms of what they see as the essence of Jewishness. The Orthodox mainly emphasize adherence to Jewish law: 83% feel that halachic observance is essential to Jewishness. But this determination isolates them. Only 15% of all Jews think that such observance is essential, and among Jews of no religion the share is just 5%. At the same time, few Jews of no religion think that Jewishness means being part of a Jewish community or perpetuating family traditions (12% and 24%, respectively). A common view is that American Jewish identity developed as a kind of “Jewish civil religion.” Although most American Jews are not personally religious, they show a normative commitment to Jewish solidarity. However, the Pew findings raise the possibility that this trend is leveling off, as the Jews of no religion do not feel this commitment to the same degree, while the Haredi-Orthodox, in contrast, are veering toward factionalism, which also distances them from the rest of American Jewry.

The report also highlights a gap between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox regarding relations between US Jewry and Israel, as well as a gap between the younger and older generations. These gaps are not new and have already been discussed; among other things, the question has been raised of whether the gaps are a lifecycle issue, or whether they may lead to long-term generational change. There is no unequivocal answer to this question in the report, which constitutes a snapshot of a given moment in time. Nevertheless, if we look at the data amassed over previous years, we can discern a gradual decline among American Jews in the feeling that concern for Israel is an essential part of their Jewish identity.

Israel-Diaspora relations: All the developments discussed above may, of course, have ramifications for the Jerusalem-Washington-American-Jewry triangular relationship; trends are afoot that threaten to weaken its resilience (for more on the triangular relationship, see page 43). While most Israeli Jews hoped that Donald Trump would win the US presidential elections, most American Jewish voters (70%) wanted to see him defeated. Much of US Jewry has reservations with respect to Israeli policy (only a third feel that the Israeli government is making a real effort to reach a peace agreement), and this situation is worsening in the face of growing American ideological polarization, which poses a challenge for preserving US bipartisan sympathy for Israel.

During Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza, harsh criticism was voiced against Israel by several Jewish leaders. This criticism came at a time when many sectors of American society were taking a sterner tone toward Israel, especially those associated with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (with which many American Jews identity). The criticism, of course, reflects the mood among various Israeli Jewish subgroups, but it also illuminates the attitude of Israeli Jews toward American Jewry. The more vehement and vocal the criticism, the greater the number of Israeli Jews who cease to see American Jews as reliable allies, and the greater the alienation between the communities. A resonant article by former Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Professor Gil Troy expressed this possibility and echoed the impatience many Israeli Jews feel when faced with American Jewish criticism that sometimes borders on non-Zionism or anti-Zionism. “Admittedly, anti-Zionist Jews are a small fraction of American Jewry, wildly outnumbered by polls showing 70% to 80% of the American Jewish community supports Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. But at a time when 85% of American Jews also say that it’s ‘important’ or ‘very important’ for them to ‘stand up for the marginalized or oppressed,’ it is no wonder that for many American Jews, especially those in public spaces, Israel has become the ball and chain that endangers their standing as good progressives.”22

Israel’s new government must attend to these challenges, many of which are rooted in fundamental differences in the structure of the communities and in the identities that they create – differences that lie beyond the scope of this work.23

The present coalition embodies an opportunity to address at least some of them. Netanyahu’s longtime presence was marked by a number of crises, which Diaspora Jews, rightly or wrongly, lay to his charge (the Western Wall crisis is a key example, though not the only one). This is certainly true of American Jewry, but also of many European Jewish communities.24
The new government can at least try to “turn a new page,” even if no dramatic policy change is in the offing. It is worth noting that the last round of elections, which resulted in the new government, also highlighted the fact that most of the Israeli Jewish public currently identifies with the right-wing parties, and with right-leaning policies (especially on foreign relations and defense issues).

However, several members of the new government have a good grasp of Israel-Diaspora relations. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett served as Minister of Diaspora Affairs and is well acquainted with some of the topics of controversy between Israel and the Diaspora community leadership. The new Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Nachman Shai, formerly served as Senior VP and Director General of UJC Israel (now the Jewish Federations of North America), and is also well acquainted with US Jewish affairs. The mere fact that these figures, along with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Israel’s new President, Isaac Herzog (until recently Chairman of the Jewish Agency) are now managing the dialogue with the leaders of Diaspora Jewry, should result in an immediate improvement in relations, beyond the sense of a new beginning that accompanies any change in government.