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Authors Describe Changing Jewish Identity in the U.S. and a Fraying of the Concept of Jewish "Peoplehood”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July - August 2006

In an article entitled “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People?,” Professor Steven N. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, describe the changing nature of Jewish identity in the U.S. and what they portray as the fraying of the concept of Jewish “peoplehood.”  
Writing in Commentary (June 2006), the authors note that, “In 1989, a national survey conducted for the American Jewish Committee found 73 percent of Jews agreeing that ‘caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew’; in 2005, a mere decade and a half later, the corresponding figure had fallen to 57 percent. Young adults, moreover, exhibit weaker attachment to Israel than do their elders. “Nor is it just a matter of Israel. According to the 2000/2001 National Jewish Population Study, younger adults are significantly less likely than their elders to agree strongly that ‘Jews in the United States and Jews around the world share a common destiny’ or that ‘when people are in distress, American Jews have a greater responsibility to rescue Jews than non-Jews.’”  
Responses to the simple statement, “I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” are especially telling. The proportions strongly agreeing drop steadily from a high of 75 percent among those aged 65 or over to a low of 47 percent for adults under 35.  
According to Cohen and Wertheimer, “The late 1980s, a period marked by the first Palestinian intifada, appear to have ushered in a period of creeping disaffection from Israel within sectors of the American Jewish community, and prior levels of support have never since been matched. During the second intifada, which began in 2000, a demonstration in Washington at the peak of the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings of Israeli civilians could muster only a relatively meager turnout.”  
What is true of public displays of unity is also true of levels of giving on behalf of causes that explicitly address the needs of the Jewish people as a whole. The year 1985 — a year characterized neither by an emergency in the Middle East nor by massive emigration to Israel requiring large infusions of aid — saw a total of $656 million raised by American federations of Jewish philanthropy. To have simply kept pace with inflation, this amount should have grown to $1.19 billion by the time of the 2005 annual campaign. Instead, total campaign receipts increased to only $860 million, a shortfall of 18 percent. In this same time frame, the total size of allocations to Israel dropped on an inflation-adjusted basis by almost two-thirds. In the decade 1990-2000, the proportion of Jewish households participating in the federations’ annual fund-raising campaigns fell by a third.”  
Seeking to explain these trends, which they lament, Cohen and Wertheimer provide this assessment: “Several social forces are clearly operating at once. Most of them, ironically enough, reflect well on the openness of contemporary American society and the relatively secure situation of Jews within it. The most blatant is the dramatically higher rate of intermarriage as compared with earlier generations. Of Jews now marrying, nearly half are being wed to non-Jewish partners ... The intermarried tend to have fewer Jewish neighbors, fewer Jewish friends, lower levels of membership in Jewish institutions, less attachment to Israel, and less allegiance to the Jewish people. As for Christians who marry Jews, they tend to understand Jewishness narrowly, as a matter of religious practice and faith rather than as an ethnic identity.”  
Even if American Jews were to view their identity as being largely ethnic, which they do not, the contemporary American society is eroding the ethnic identities of all those who emigrated from Europe. Cohen and Wertheimer write that, “... despite the modish talk about multiculturalism and the requirement to honor ‘diversity,’ ethnicity is in fact a weak and weakening form of identification here. At least among white people of European descent ... Over the past decades, internal solidarity among all American white ethnic groups has continued to fall off ... Most of the once-traditional props of Jewish peoplehood in this country — large immigrant populations, neighborhoods, Yiddish-inflected folkways, a distinctive cuisine — have faded from the scene. American Jews are now regarded, and appear largely to regard themselves, as part of the undifferentiated mass of American whites, not as a distinctive group in the multicultural ‘rainbow,’ a term that in any case mostly encompasses blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Or worse, Jews are portrayed by critics of prevailing American arrangements as partners and allies of the ‘hegemonic monoculture’ — today’s term for what was once known as the (white) ruling class.”  
The authors point out that American Jews now volunteer less than they once did for communal endeavors, and they join Jewish organizations at consistently lower rates. The 2000/2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that the major Jewish membershiporganizations suffered a nearly 20 percent decline in affiliation over the decade of the 1990s alone.  
“Once upon a time,” write Cohen and Wertheimer, “the slogan of the United Jewish Appeal was ‘We Are One.’ Today, the collective rhetoric of Jewish peoplehood is conspicuously soft-pedaled, if not quite abandoned altogether. The United Jewish Communities, the renamed umbrella organization of federations of Jewish philanthropies, now raises funds under the new slogan: ‘Live Generously: It Does a World of Good.’ Rather than appealing to a donor’s sense of group responsibility, the tag line solicits in the name of individual virtue — giving out of the goodness of one’s heart.”  
The authors are not pleased with current trends. They conclude: “Whatever the language in which the idea of peoplehood is couched, it is impossible to believe that many forms of Jewish collective endeavor can survive without it. In the end, the decline of Jewish peoplehood is symptomatic of a decline of morale, of national self-respect ...”

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