Sometimes it seems we’re all drowning in numbers. Politicians debate the deficit while eyeing the polls. Computer wonks boast of all the bits in their latest chip. Generals and journalists tussle over the speed of our soldiers’ advance to Baghdad and the number killed en route. And everyone’s trying to count California gubernatorial candidates.
We at the Forward have tossed around a few numbers of late, from Jewish births to intifada-related deaths. We do it because it matters. Numbers can capture a truth in a stark way that words often can’t, helping us understand where we are and, perhaps, where we need to go. But incorrect numbers can set us racing in the wrong direction.
Earlier this month a Jewish population survey was released by United Jewish Communities and ignited a furor. Initially the fuss was over the survey’s population total of 5.2 million, 5% fewer than in the last such survey in 1990. Headlines around the world trumpeted a dwindling Jewish population. We said the reports weren’t true, that the survey hadn’t shown a decline, but that it had presented the numbers in a way that made it appear so.
We criticized the UJC and its researchers for actions that threaten to start a panic for no reason. We noted that such false alarms had happened before, notably with the publication in the 1990 survey of a 52% intermarriage rate — a number now acknowledged, a decade later, to have been inflated and misleading.
Well, we wanted to get a discussion going, and it seems we’ve succeeded. Judging by reactions so far, most readers were relieved to learn the real numbers.
For a few folks at UJC, though, it seems the important question isn’t whether the numbers are right, but whether we were fair in describing their motivations in publishing what they did. Some nasty things are being said, based largely on a misreading of what we wrote. As things heat up, the debate threatens to be diverted once again from important questions of Jewish identity and communal policy to mud-slinging over who said what about whom.
So let’s set things straight. For the record, we didn’t say — and we don’t believe — that the new survey deliberately undercounted the population in order to shock Jews or for any other reason. We did say that the 1990 intermarriage figure was consciously inflated. The 2000 population undercount resulted from a series of technical mistakes.
The UJC’s outside review of its new survey, reported by Nacha Cattan on Page 5, shows a series of unintended errors, including the likely undercount. As we wrote, the researchers knew their population estimate might be low and couldn’t be compared to the higher 1990 estimate. We believe they decided to publish the two numbers side by side, effectively implying a population decline, for bureaucratic reasons, not with intent to deceive.
As to the 1990 survey, why it inflated the intermarriage rate has been a favorite guessing game among academics and communal insiders for a decade. The most popular scenario was that they wanted to shock Jews into greater observance. Well, defenders of that survey insist they had valid scientific reasons for including those non-Jews in their intermarriage calculation. And frankly, they make a plausible case. We may have been too rough on them.
The fact is, however, that within weeks after the 1990 figures were published, it was clear that the public was misinterpreting them and that the error was making waves — tidal waves. For more than a decade the organization refused to correct the misimpression. Privately the researchers insisted the public response wasn’t their business. Publicly they attacked the critics. And the sponsoring organization looked on as its published report spawned an urban myth. It took 12 years to straighten out the numbers.
It would be a shame if the publication of the new survey reignited that sorry process.
What’s lost in all the vitriol is the wealth of valuable information contained in the two surveys. Three-fourths of all American Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated, light Chanukah candles and attend a Passover seder. Four-fifths of Jewish children receive some religious education. And survey after survey has shown that 95% of American Jews say they’re proud of being Jewish. Millions of American Jews are waiting to be led and inspired. That’s what we should be talking about.