Why Pew Center's Findings Tell Us Nothing About Where the Jews Are Headed

You can read anything you like into the results of the exhaustive poll — anything except the future.

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In this Nov. 11, 2009 file photo, an ultra Orthodox Jewish man pauses in front the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
In this Nov. 11, 2009 file photo, an ultra Orthodox Jewish man pauses in front the Al-Aqsa Mosque.Credit: AP

What the world doesn’t need now is another analysis of the Pew Research Center’s exhaustive report on “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society.” Nothing of course would be easier, as the report offers a wealth of statistics to cherry-pick and reach whatever conclusion serves your agenda best. Do you want to pillory Israeli Jews as Arab-hating racist ethnocentrists? Roll right up, there’s plenty of fodder here. Are you more inclined to portray the Jewish state as a proud and vibrant democracy? No lack of figures to work with there either.

So after reading the 237-page report, a dozen media commentaries and having spoken with Israeli experts grousing about how the Pew pollsters work flies in the face of decades of local research and their methodology is all wrong, I’ll save you the time and give you my one assessment. If anyone needs to recall the limitations of political polling, we are being served almost daily reminders of them now in the U.S. primaries season. But as poor as the pollsters are at accurately indicating how people intend to vote, they are even more hopeless at giving us a real understanding of what people actually believe.

Voting at least is a clear choice — you put down the name of a specific candidate or party. And in the end, the actual voters will go to the polls and we’ll have the real results. But take the classic question from any religious belief survey – do you believe in god? How can you even begin to take seriously a statistic that says X percent believe in god? Is it God with a capital G? The God? A god? He-god or goddess? The god of the Jews or of all (wo)mankind? Do you believe in God and his representative on earth as well? And if you’re in the column of the non-believers, does that mean being 100 percent certain there’s no one up there? Non-believing but secretly hoping there is some higher power the moment your child goes in for an operation? Atheist? Agnostic? Skeptic?

Whether or not you believe in god is the easy question. Identity and loyalty are even more difficult to gauge.

Are you Jewish? What does it mean to be Jewish? Can you stop being Jewish? Are you more Israeli than Jewish? Is there such a thing as being half-Jewish? Was Jesus Jewish and can a Jew love him? Jewish-American or American-Jewish? Do you have dual or triple loyalties? Should Jews be Zionists and isn’t anti-Zionism just a code-word for anti-Semitism? And let’s not even start with what you do on Seder night and your feelings towards bacon.

I’m a Jewish-Israeli British-European ex-modern-Orthodox nearly-but-not-quite-atheist critical-Zionist. Which box do I tick?

Nearly two decades of reporting and writing about Jewish and Israeli identity haven’t equipped me with the answers, just a growing pile of question marks. I’d like to say that the question mark is the real symbol of Judaism, much more relevant than the hexagram. But Jews are not the only seekers and too many Jews anyway prefer an exclamation mark or full-stop. I do know that statistics, no matter how well-researched and minutely detailed are woefully inadequate to even begin describing what anyone believes in and why.

You could argue that in one respect at least, it’s easier to poll people’s religious beliefs and affiliations than their political choices. Most humans stick more or less with the lot they were born into, and if they do shift at some point, it tends to be a once-in-a-lifetime conversion or apostasy. Political preferences tend to be much more volatile, especially in multi-party democracies like Israel. There is some truth to this, but it comes with a major qualification – the decision to move from party to party takes place at one moment of truth every few years. Political and behavioral scientists have a pretty good understanding of the process and motivations leading up to that moment. And then there’s a clear action of casting a vote, which can’t be interpreted in any other way. What we really believe in and why, will always remain a mystery, even to totally atheistic scientists who dispute the existence of such a thing as a soul. And though voting patterns can change every election cycle, while religious faith remains for generations, great tectonic-theological shifts, when they do occur, are too deep for the superficial instruments of the statisticians to discern.

And the plates are moving right now beneath our feet.

The comfortable dichotomies of Jewish demographics and sociologists and Israeli political science are crumbling at the foundations. The seemingly religious-rightward trend of Israelis masks at the same time a deep and burning frustration towards the current establishment alliance of politicians and rabbis, a feeling shared by secular and religious Israelis alike, which is only being held back now by the apparent omnipotence of Benjamin Netanyahu and the weakness of all his rivals. Sooner or later, the thin structure at the top will crack, and Israeli society, the relations between the communities within it and the neighboring Palestinians will change in unforeseeable and irrevocable ways. This upheaval will either be fueled by, or serve as another trigger for the revolution already underway in the Haredi community, where access to information and a steady erosion of the rabbinical hegemony is already allowing thousands to leave the closed confines and redefine their lives and beliefs. The stream of departure from rigid ultra-Orthodox life will broaden to tens and then hundreds of thousands, in Israel and abroad.

The grim demographic certainties of Diaspora Jews are also much less clear. The predictions that in America unaffiliated and intermarried Jews would all ultimately assimilate and lose any shred of a Jewish identity didn’t foresee that many would still find a million new cultural, social and political ways to be Jewish, even if those aren’t recognized by any Jewish establishment. It is manifesting itself in what playwright and blogger Rokhl Kafrissen calls “dynamic yiddishkayt,” and can sometimes take the most bizarre forms. As Peter Beinart pointed out this week in Haaretz, on some American campuses those leading the anti-Israel campaigns are doing so as Jews. It doesn’t matter that the BDS movement they represent is both immoral and clearly linked to anti-Semitism, many of those espousing it believe they are doing so as Jews and because they are Jews. Unwittingly perhaps they are allying themselves with the haters of Jews, but that can also count as another from of Jewish identity.

In Europe, the continent of the Jews’ destruction, small pockets of Jewish rebirth and renaissance are appearing, especially towards the east, in places where the Holocaust was supposed to have wiped out all remnants — as fast as the overblown waves of panic of a new anti-Semitism are sweeping through the communities of Western Europe. Even in Russia, which communism and then the great emigration of the 1990s was supposed to have emptied of self-identifying Jews, more communities are evolving and in recent years the estimated size of the Jewish population is growing.

The doomsayers, who have been prophesying for decades that in the Diaspora all non-religious Jews will disappear within a generation and that Israelis are doomed to become a xenophobic and fundamentalist Spartan society, will continue to find ample statistics and reports to prove their narratives. But beyond the numbers, great chunks of Jews, individuals and groups are on the move, their destinations unknown. As the wider world around us is questioning national, ethnical and religious identities and tearing itself apart between old certainties and new bewildering opportunities, we are doing the same, and coming up with fascinating and contradictory new answers. As good at the researchers of the Pew Center are at what they do, they can’t see inside us or into our future.

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