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Bigger Population Estimate Means Wider Definition of Jewishness

If the United States had 6.7 million holders of a doctorate, and 1 million of these hold a doctorate partly, how many Ph.D.s are there in America? Or, to use another analogy, what’s the meaning of a partly democratic government, or of being partly pregnant?

Few among the leading intellectuals in this country will object to the Pew Research Center survey’s new finding of 6.7 million Jews in the United States — a figure that includes 1 million people who say they have no religion and are partly Jewish. This makes for 5.7 million who are Jewish — by religion or not — to the exclusion of something else. Pew relies on survey data, and most people are sincere when they answer surveys. If they tell you they are Jewish and something else, let us believe them and not force them to give up on that something else.

There are a few million more Americans who say they are not Jewish but do hold Jewish family associations or have some other Jewish background. For some of them, these are meaningful attachments. For many others, Jewishness is not so meaningful. An enlarged constituency evolves day by day; some days some are in, and some days some are out. Many non-Jews do Jewish things; many Jews do non-Jewish things. It may look confusing, but this is the best portrayal of the complex mutations in Jewish identities under way. This is Americanization at its best.

Jewish identity in the United States and elsewhere boils down to meaning. Overall population size trades off with intensity and with relevance of belonging to the Jewish collective. One million more Jews in the United States mean an intermarriage rate that is 10% higher. The more numerous, the more diluted.

Sergio DellaPergola is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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