Article Library / Background Papers

The Jewish Camp of the Nine Percent

The Pew Research Center’s new study of American Jews offers a wealth of data. Some of its findings are headline-making and can be expected to dominate the news, while others are more obscure. It is often the more obscure information that is truly important and interesting. Here I suggest examining one particular finding. The researchers examined the degree of connection between Jews. As in all surveys about US Jews, the relationship with Israel was examined. That’s important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important. The cohesiveness of American Jewry, the sense of community they make for themselves, is also important. As is the connection between US Jews and world Jewry as a whole.

The new report has some encouraging news: a substantial majority of American Jews said they feel responsible, at least to some degree, for helping Jews in other places. That is the attitude of eight out of ten US Jews (79 percent) toward Jews in need of assistance. That’s an indication that the sense of connection exists, even if it doesn’t always manifest in tangible ways. On the other hand, a question Pew asked for the first time found that many Jews feel quite alienated from other Jews, from other Jewish groups. Respondents were asked whether they have something in common with other groups of Jews. They answered, not really. The Pew researchers explained that, in their view, a delicately worded question of this kind reveals community rifts without making respondents feel the need to be less than candid, to give false answers. If we were to ask: Do you find the other intolerable, do you feel there’s something wrong with him or her? – some would feel uncomfortable answering. But when people are asked whether they “have something in common” and the response is negative – the message is clear. Those aren’t my friends; they are not members of my community.

The Jewish People Policy Institute’s annual surveys pose a similar question to Israelis. We ask: To what degree do members of this or that group contribute to the state? The responses allow us to distinguish between groups that are viewed more or less favorably than other groups. In the case of the Pew survey, again, the question refers to “something in common.” And it turns out that many Jews have forgotten, or don’t feel, a sense of commonality. Apparently it’s easier to remember what one doesn’t have in common.

How many American Jews say they have “a lot in common” with Israeli Jews? One in five (19 percent). And how many say they have “something in common” with Israeli Jews? Another two-fifths (40 percent). A total of 60 percent feel some commonality with Israeli Jews. And it’s notable that Orthodox and Conservative Jews feel a marked sense of commonality, while the Reform feel it a little less, though still strongly. But those not affiliated with any religious stream, or who self-identify as Jews “not by religion,” are at the bottom of the commonality scale. Of the latter, only a third feel some kind of connection.

In general, American Jews mainly feel connected to Jews who are similar to them. That is quite natural, but not ideal. Let’s look at the Reform, for example: 93% of them feel that they have something in common with other Reform Jews, but less than 40 percent feel connected to Orthodox Jews. And of these, only nine percent feel they have a great deal in common with the Orthodox. And how many Orthodox feel they have a lot in common with the Reform? It just so happens that the percentage is the same. Nine percent. Here’s the number that should make the headlines. Here’s the number that expresses the Jewish ideal – at least as the author of this article sees it. I’m Orthodox, I’m Reform – it doesn’t matter what I am – I have a lot in common with all Jews.

That’s how it ought to be, but, again, only nine percent feel this way. Basically, Reform Jews feel they have more in common with Muslim Americans than with Orthodox Jews. Jews who don’t belong to any religious stream feel they have something in common with Protestants to the same degree they do with Conservative Jews. Here an ideological question emerges: Do we have an interest in Jews feeling a stronger sense of commonality with other Jews than with non-Jews? In my view, the answer is clear, and affirmative. I’m a nine-percent Jew. The same nine percent – Reform and Orthodox – who feel a strong sense of commonality with each other. But clearly many American Jews (and probably Israeli Jews as well) don’t share that feeling. If someone has an idea of how to go about it, I’d try to convince those Jews. To bring them into my own little camp.

Percentage of US Jews Who Feel Commonality (a Lot or Something in Common) with Other Groups
Reform Conservative Orthodox Israeli Jews Muslims Protestants Evangelicals
Reform 93 67 39 60 43 43 20
Conservative 85 91 66 77 41 51 30
Orthodox 50 63 91 91 30 18 18
Not affiliated with any stream 58 37 24 39 33 31 17