The Pew report and antisemitism in the US

A major study done in the US 50 years earlier reported a 25% rate of Jewish intermarriage in the US. The Pew reports a rate of 70% – an almost three-fold increase.

April 3, 2017 22:07
4 minute read.
A ROW of more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones is seen after vandals attacked a Jewish cemetery ne

A ROW of more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones is seen after vandals attacked a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis, February 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In recent months there was a public explosion of unexpected antisemitic events against Jewish institutions all over the United States including Jewish centers, schools, synagogues and cemeteries. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Before it was disclosed that the bulk of these incidents were the work of an apparently disturbed young American Israeli in Ashkelon, there was extensive discussion regarding the reasons for this “wave of antisemitism” in the media in both Israel and the US.

Much of it centered on the recent US elections, the role of President Donald Trump, his political adversaries – some of whom are Jewish – and antisemites who supported his presidential campaign. A more plausible explanation was that the growing polarization in the US between the major parties and their supporters has helped create an atmosphere conducive to the release and expression of antisemitic sentiments and activity.

What should be noted here is the vigorous, unprecedented response of the organized Jewish community in the US. It successfully generated a condemnation of these events by government agencies both national and local.

It also elicited pledges from those bodies to actively pursue and punish those responsible for these activities, subsequent to which they would help evaluate the quality of the dangers that the recent explosion of antisemitism posed to the Jewish community.

It is not that antisemitism does not exist in America; we will need to continue to monitor its appearance as we have been doing. In this instance, however, the campaign against antisemitism was the result of a flawed perception of the American political reality.

The response of the organized Jewish community in this instance stands in very sharp contrast to its response to the Pew report completed several years ago by the Pew Foundation, one of the most prestigious non-Jewish research foundations in the US. It is a monumental study of the American Jewish community. A major study done in the US 50 years earlier reported a 25% rate of Jewish intermarriage in the US. The Pew reports a rate of 70% – an almost three-fold increase.

Among its other findings are that approximately 25% of young Jewish adults in the US today have very little or no connection with the official Jewish community, marking an implicit erosion in the effective role and membership of other Jewish communal bodies and a steady leakage of membership out of the Reform and Conservative movements.

When I met with the editor of the Pew report soon after its publication, he reported that the Pew Foundation had decided not to attach any recommendations to its report. Wise decision. Determining the best approaches to counter the rising rate of intermarriage and the report’s other findings should be the responsibility of the organized Jewish community. Yet despite the enormous discussion that the Pew report generated, there has still been no massive coordinated, communal programmatic plan or even a serious effort in the US to deal with that report’s findings.

The one visible response has been for some segments of the Jewish community to advocate becoming more attentive and welcoming to intermarried couples. This has been followed by decisions in the Reform movement, and very recently in the Conservative movement as well, allowing non-Jews to become members of their synagogues.

Most recently I even read of a recommendation to allow people to join the Jewish community without conversion.

All groups are sociologically defined by the membership criteria and the boundaries they establish for their members and others. By either diminishing or seriously dissolving either of the above, it is probable, even inevitable, that the group will be weakened.

That is what makes the contrast between the strong, determined response of American Jewry to its encounter with the recent explosion of antisemitism and its earlier response to the self-immolation documented in the Pew report so compelling and sorrowful. The large elephant stomping in the courtyard of the American Jewish community is the systematic neglect of American Jewish communal organizations which have, to date, neither recognized nor dealt with the sociological conditions so accurately reported in the Pew study. This concern needs to also encompass the growing number of young adults who are disconnecting from the organized Jewish community, many of whom will ultimately disappear from the Jewish people.

It is reasonable to expect and enlist the valuable aid and assistance of the State of Israel to join the massive effort required to deal with this challenge before which many of our current concerns pale in importance. The ultimate responsibility for this endeavor, however, must rest with the American Jewish community – to organize an international conference, not on antisemitism, as was suggested in a recent article in The Jerusalem Post, but for sustaining a viable Diaspora, the most critical challenge confronting Diaspora Jewry.

The author was executive vice president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, where he served the global Jewish community for more than four decades until retiring to Israel. He holds a PhD in sociology and an MSW in community organization.

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