Friday, January 12, 2007

Dennis Prager's Folly

What was Dennis Prager thinking - if he was thinking - when he scored big in the can you top this contest for foolish statements by challenging the decision of Keith Ellison, a new congressman who is a Moslem, to take the oath of office by swearing on the Koran? Prager, ordinarily a very sensible commentator, did say something about America's Judeo-Christian tradition, a familiar cliche when political vacuity is on display. Doesn't he believe in tolerance, in the obligation to respect diversity, an obligation that is vital to the wellbeing of American Jewry? He surely knows that the Bible used by Christians at swearing-in ceremonies is not the Bible used by Jews. I assume he knows that there are religious Jews who object to being sworn, whether in court or elsewhere, their preference being to affirm. Their objection to oath-taking is based on the biblical prohibition contained in the text that Mr. Prager wants all members of Congress to swear on. Should these religious Jews be reminded that they are violating the Judeo-Christian tradition?

Likely, his folly arose from a Jewish sensibility that was aroused because in the recent period there is much not to like about Islam. The unfortunate incident may serve as a catalyst for a serious discussion of how we American Jews should relate to Islamic Americans. We have tons of material on our relations with Christians, Blacks, Latinos, and other religious and ethnic groups. So far as I know, the pages are blank when it comes to our interactions with American Muslims, surely an important subject, if only because the turmoil in the Islamic world is a matter of transcendent concern to Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. We are in for a prolonged struggle with the violent and irredentist forces that are at the center of the mega-story called Islam.

The issue that I am concerned with here is narrower, it being the question of how to relate to Americans who are Moslems. They already are a substantial presence in the U.S. and their number is, I believe, increasing because of immigration, a relatively high fertility rate and conversions. There is a strong prospect that if not soon then down the road, adherents of Islam will outnumber American Jews. Although Islam is not the force that it is in Europe, its role in the U.S. is certain to grow.

While the subject is interesting and has some relevance to what is happening in the Middle East, there's nothing distinctive about the Jewish-Islamic relationship in the U.S. There is nothing that requires much attention, which is probably why little attention has been paid. We do not rub against each other in the same neighborhoods or compete in any significant way. We are just two groups in the vast sea of American ethnicity. No matter what some may want to think, there have thankfully been very few incidents - hate or violence - involving these groups.

The serious issues arising from Islamic actions or attitudes are essentially American issues. This is true of 9/11 and all that preceded it, as well as what we have learned since about terror cells embedded in this country, fundraising for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and, more generally, beliefs that are hostile to our system of liberty and justice.

U.S. Moslems partake of the diversity that is common to all of this country's ethnic and religious groups. There are differences in nationality, commitment to Islamic principles and much else. Almost certainly, there has been some acculturation and perhaps even assimilation, a process that will continue and probably accelerate.

We should expect that whatever the degree of Islamic commitment, these Americans will have a view of Israel and the Middle East that is substantially different from ours. An Islamic congressman will not endorse AIPAC's agenda. We can expect to hear from Islamic notables sentiments that we will not like. These should not be occasions for pulling out our hair because Israel is being criticized. After all, more than a few prominent Israelis and many American Jews have said similar things.

The campus is the one area where Islamic-Jewish interactions have already been tested. The heightened interest in the Middle East and Israel has resulted in the proliferation of courses, programs and departments that focus on this subject. This has meant, in turn, the recruitment of additional specialists in the field, more than a few of whom are imbued with a measure of hostility to Israel accompanying their scholarly credentials. Universities should strive for balance and fairness, a goal that in many disciplines is far more an ideal than a reality. It's unreasonable to think that along with the other baggage they bring, academicians will be bereft of personal preferences and prejudices. Those who teach about Islam and the Middle East have views about Islam and the Middle East.

At times, we ought to protest against the appearance of bias, as when it affects how students are treated in the classroom or in the grades they are given. When we hear about an objectionable statement from an Arabist, usually the best course is to grin - or grimace - and bear it, to recognize that protest will be futile, if not counterproductive, because of the high value accorded to academic freedom. As with all social intercourse, it is not necessary or right to fight against each presumed wrong. Israel advocacy on campus has an important place in our communal planning, primarily as a vehicle for connecting the mostly assimilated younger Jews with their heritage and not primarily as a tool for counteracting everything said about Israel that we do not like.

The optimum we should strive for in our emerging relations with Islamic Americans is separation, not because they are Islamic, but because I believe this is the approach we should take to Black Americans and generally to other ethnic groups. Separation is preferable because closeness breeds expectations that usually cannot be satisfied.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Goodbye to Numbers

Numbers save space and make complicated issues easier to understand. Whether they are accurate is a separate matter, a conclusion based less on skepticism than on the procession of surveys that contradict previous quantitative wisdom. Inherently, statistical exercises cannot be the subject of the familiar joke about the Rabbi who said to each of the conflicting parties who asked him to resolve a dispute "You are right." At the same moment in time there cannot be no more than 5.2 million Jews, the figure reached by the National Jewish Population Survey, and also 6.4 million Jews, the number provided by two respected demographers. Yet, the just-released American Jewish Yearbook for 2006 has one long essay touting the higher number and another article insisting on the lower figure. Bring back the Rabbi.

For what seems like an eternity, American Jews have been bitten by the numbers bug. Likely, we have been surveyed more than all other U.S. ethnic and religious groups combined, the result being that we are more confused than ever about how many we are and who we are. The U.S. Census Bureau regularly reports on racial and religious groups, but not on religious identity. We have relied on our own devices and once we got into the survey business, we haven't been able to let go. In a sense, we count Jews because we want Jews to count. Jewish demography is an offshoot of our ethnocentrism.

In the end, our population surveys, including of local communities, are of questionable reliability because they are based on assumptions and extrapolations and not on actual counting. They are faith-based and their results cannot be proven. They are also compromised by issues that cannot be authoritatively resolved. Counting Jews is more intricate than counting Blacks or Latinos or even white ethnics. While the U.S. Census strives to reach everyone and is invested with the authority to compel cooperation, our surveys are samples of persons presumed to be Jewish, with the responses then subjected to weighing and other sophisticated and esoteric quantitative massaging. All of the numbers that are fed to us are extrapolations.

The process has become more unreliable because surveys are conducted over the phone and there is expanding resistance to anything that smacks of telemarketing. The response rate in our surveys has nosedived, yet this has not deterred our intrepid demographers. They have adapted to this reality by making ever-bolder assumptions and riskier extrapolations. As a result, the numbers we get are largely the outcome of what researchers expect to find in the first place.

These methodological shortcomings may be dwarfed by real-life developments that have wracked American Jewry with intensifying severity. From the demographic perspective - and from much else - Jewishness is no longer an halachic or religious status. We are an ethnic group, a designation that does not resolve issues arising from intermarriage and other powerful indicators of Judaic abandonment. As the household and not the individual is the key tracking unit, we have to grapple with how to reckon non-Jewish spouses and their offspring and what to do about two-religion families and also families with no religion. We cannot exactly figure out where to put persons who are Jewish from birth who have opted out of Jewish life. Given the sociological rather than halachic identification of Jewishness, Jews in hiding - those who though they are Jewish, deny it - are excluded. Also excluded are the indeterminate number who do not know they are Jewish.

The NJPS conducted early in this decade was a serious effort to tackle these issues. It got caught up in a complex methodological and definitional web of its own making and this, plus a multitude of mistakes, did it in. It has served as convenient target practice for the demographers who were not among the cooks who spoiled the broth. Now, Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky have announced that there are 6.4 million of us. Sergio DellaPergola, of Israel, perhaps the most respected name in the field, insists on the lower NJPS estimate. The infighting among our demographers, which can be nasty, is a fascinating diversion.

The higher figure strikes me as the more likely, although it means that a smaller percentage of Jews participate in things Jewish. The higher estimate makes sense because of immigration from Israel and the Former Soviet Union, while emigration to Israel and elsewhere has been low. There is also the statistical impact of the extraordinary increase in life expectancy. Even with our fertility rate dipping below the replacement level, the extra ten to twenty years are consequential.

As the debate among our numbers mavens drags on, hopefully the rest of us will focus on other measures of American Jewish life and not put great faith in surveys that cannot accomplish what they claim.

There are reliable numbers that point in a direction that is far from rosy. Throughout American Jewish life, real numbers indicate diminished participation and interest. This is evident in synagogue attendance. Despite Reform statistics that include persons who are not Jewish even according to that movement's liberal definition, apart from the Orthodox, synagogues and temples on Saturday are more often than not rows of empty seats. Organizational membership is in the doldrums, while involvement in Federation is not what it once was. We know about campus Jewish life and the picture is painful, even though some of the most shocking statistics have been suppressed. The important efforts and achievements of Birthright Israel and other Israel experiences have not reversed the disinterest of the overwhelming number of American Jews in visiting Israel. These numbers cannot be explained away by survey data showing that there are more of us. More of us means that a smaller proportion cares.

Before we celebrate the news that we have one-million or more than we were previously told we have, we should play Taps for those whom we have lost and for those whom we continue to lose.