We Jews Are a Peculiar People

Results of a Pew Survey Attest to Jewish Difference

By Leonard Fein

Published July 29, 2011.
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It will not come as a surprise if I suggest that we Jews are a peculiar people. For all the talk of escalating assimilation, we remain, in important respects, quite different from most other Americans. I report here on a massive survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a survey of 35,000 Americans that conveys substantial information on the broad array of America’s religious groups.

First, some demographic findings: Jews comprise but 1.7% of adult Americans. Note, however, that the third largest grouping (16%) of Americans identifies itself as “unaffiliated,” and it is possible that Jews are over-represented in that category. In addition, most American Buddhists (.7% of all Americans) are American-born converts to Buddhism, and there is at least substantial anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of them are (were?) Jews. Among those who say they are Jews, 41% say they are Reform, 31% say they are Conservative, 10% say they are Orthodox and the balance are “other.”

Education: Among all adult Americans, 16% are college graduates and 11% — a grand total of 27% — have some post-graduate education. Among Jews, those numbers are 24% and 35%, for a total of 59%, an astonishing difference. But, surprise, our figures for college and post-college are dwarfed by Hindu Americans: 26% have college diplomas and an additional 48% have some graduate work.

Income: 18% of Americans earn over $100,000 year — but among Jews, that figure rises to 46% (and among Hindus, to 43%). It is, however, important to acknowledge the other end of the income distribution: 14 % of Jews earn less than $30,000 and another 11% between $30-50,000.

Geography: 41% of us live in the Northeast, compared to 19% of the total population.

Now is when we get to the really interesting stuff, the ways we part not demographically but dispositionally and ideologically from others.

So, for example, homosexuality: Half of all Americans believe that “homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society.” Among some religious communities, that figure drops substantially — Evangelical churches (26%), Mormons (24%), Muslims (27%) — while others are more welcoming — Catholics (58%), Mainline Protestant (56%). Jews, however, score 79% approval, right up there with Buddhists at 85%. Here it may be important to note that the data is almost four years old, and we do not know how volatile it is. (Attitudes towards homosexuality are a likely instance of that.) As with a few of the matters detailed below, events in “the real world” may have caused significant shifts, one way or the other, in people’s dispositions.

The range of response is much narrower on the question of whether “the government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.” There, the national average is 62% — it’s 67% for Jews — and the range is from a low of 57% (evangelical churches) to a high of 79% (historically black churches). Jews are more inclined than most others to believe that “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost” and to hold, by a substantial margin, that “it’s best for our country to be active in world affairs.” And, whereas 43% of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases,” 84% of Jews endorse abortion, 40% in all cases, 44% in most.

Forty-eight percent of Americans completely or mostly agree that “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.” For members of evangelical churches, that number drops to 23%, and for Mormons all the way to 21%. Among Jews, however, it rises to 77%.

I leave to the side most questions about specific religious belief — life after death, heaven and hell, the authorship of the Bible, frequency and utility of prayer and more — and urge the interested reader to go to here for the full report. But I can’t resist one of this set: Are “angels and demons active in this world?” Sixty-eight percent of all Americans agree or mostly agree that they are, including 88% of Mormons, 79% of Muslims and 87% of members of historically black churches and of evangelicals. For Jews, the number is 21%. (Fourteen percent of Americans completely disagree that angels and demons are active in our world; among Jews, 52% completely disagree.)

Seventy percent of Jews seldom or never read scripture outside of religious services; for Americans in general, that figure is 45%. (I report the Jewish number with a straight face but with a heavy heart.)

With regard to politics, whereas the population as a whole includes 37% who are conservative, 36% who are moderate and 20% who are liberal, Jews split 21% conservative, 39% moderate and 38% liberal.

What to make of all this? Being neither a demon nor an angel, I am loathe to hazard an interpretation, beyond the observation that we evidently march to a different drummer. Or, since American Jews amble more readily than they march, and ambling with drummers is sort of passive-aggressive, perhaps we forgo percussive accompaniment altogether. Fiddler, anyone? Clarinet?

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