Students of American Jewry confront an interesting paradox: a sociological literature filled with forebodings about a group whose history, by all relevant measures, has gone very well indeed. I exaggerate, of course; sociological writings on America’s Jews contain much more than forebodings of disaster. Yet it does seem true that a whole line of sociologists, among whom I would have to place myself, have been uneasy about the Jewish future in the United States. What has the course of events done to sustain or refute those fears?

My own involvement with these matters began in the early 1940’s. I was then a member of Avukah, the American Student Zionist Federation, and the editor of its newspaper. To be involved in Avukah was to be something of a social scientist as well as a political activist. For Avukah prided itself on the degree to which its political positions were based on a social-scientific analysis of the condition of American Jewry. Avukah did not concern itself with the prospects for Jewish culture or Jewish religion: to the Avukah theorists, these were only emanations of economics and politics, and it was to economics and politics that our hard-headed, somewhat Marxist analysis of reality was applied.

At this time the United States was (barely) emerging from the Depression, and to the extent that it was doing so its emergence could be ascribed to preparations for war. There was widespread discrimination against Jews, which meant radically diminished opportunities for entry into medical schools and elite undergraduate colleges, for employment in leading law firms, for appointments to hospitals or university faculties. Anti-Semitic meetings were regularly conducted on the streets of New York and Boston; Jews were beaten up. There were thus reasons, aside from Zionist ideology, for the theorists of Avukah to conclude as we did that the situation of American Jews was perilous. According to our analysis, the threat of fascism and the existing reality of anti-Semitism meant that Jews could never be safe or realize their full potential in the United States, at least as long as they did not possess a “non-minority” center in Palestine.

In this, as history has demonstrated, we were wrong. Yet in the early 1940’s we were hardly the only ones preoccupied with the issue of anti-Semitism in the United States. This was, basically, the subject of the most authoritative work on American Jews in the prewar period, Jews in a Gentile World, edited by Steuart Henderson Britt and Isacque Graeber (1942). And after the war as well, the major sociological work undertaken by American Jewish organizations similarly dealt with anti-Semitism. This was the series of studies conducted under Max Horkheimer by the American Jewish Committee and under Kurt Lewin by the American Jewish Congress. The most prominent and impressive of these studies was The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor Adorno and others (1950). The greatest disaster in Jewish history had just occurred; what, the social scientists wanted to know, had caused it? What were the roots of anti-Semitism? What if anything exempted the United States from falling prey to it?

The research for these studies was conducted under the overall guidance of refugees from Europe; American social scientists worked on them, but often in a subordinate capacity. The prognosis was not optimistic. According to The Authoritarian Personality, anti-Semitism stemmed from a basic character structure linked to the competitiveness and pressures of capitalist society. Since no one expected this form of society to change soon (not in the United States, at any rate), the same authoritarian personalities would continue to emerge, with their irrepressible tendency to blame their problems on others. Owing to a complex history, these others were more likely to be Jews than anyone else.

One of the variants of this theory, developed by Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, went beyond the competitive pressures of modern life to point to social change itself as a source of hostility to outgroups. Downward social mobility led to anger and resentment; upward social mobility had similar effects. One outlet was anti-Semitism.

During the McCarthy period, these theories were very popular, and sociologists and historians made use of them to explain the McCarthy phenomenon itself. Their articles and studies were collected by Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter in The New American Right, and later, in a revised edition by Daniel Bell, in The Radical Right. David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, and I contributed to these anthologies. We noted that there was nothing anti-Semitic about McCarthy and his colleagues—indeed, there were quite a few Jews among his entourage and his supporters. But social-psychological analysis suggested that this was only a modest variation from the norm. Jews, we concluded, were on the whole correct to fear the anti-Semitic potential of McCarthyism.

It is now thirty years since the McCarthy phenomenon, and new Rights have arisen in place of his radical Right; indeed, an administration is now in power that is supported by the newest radical Right. To judge by the November 1984 election returns, Jews are still suspicious, and still fearful. Nevertheless, there is no clear relation between the rise of this Right and anti-Semitism. The Authoritarian Personality and the fears it actualized and anticipated are now, for the most part, history.

Thus, one great expectation, that anti-Semitism would play a significant role in American politics, has been falsified. This is not to say the issue could not appear again, but we have seen a shift in the last forty years from a period when there were figures on the national scene who were quite openly anti-Semitic to one in which anti-Semitism generally gets into politics by way of a charge that one’s opponent has not been sufficiently denunciatory of someone else accused of anti-Semitism. By the standards of Jewish history, anti-Semitism as a political force has never been so reduced as it is in the United States today.

One demonstration of this fact is the very large number of Jews who run for high office, without a hint that anti-Semitism is a factor in their winning or losing. Indeed, over the past few decades a substantial change has occurred in the number and kind of elected Jewish officials. Fifty years ago, the chances were that a Jewish Congressman represented a predominantly Jewish constituency. There are very few such constituencies today, but there are more Jewish Congressmen and Senators than ever. They get into office the same way other people do, and their Jewish background seems to play little role in affecting their political careers.



If political fears have not been realized, neither have economic fears. During and after World War II, social scientists expected another great Depression. The last one, after all, had never been really beaten; unemployment remained high until World War II. The prevailing view was that Jews suffered most in economic depressions. They were concentrated in small businesses—and businesses fail in a depression. They had only recently gotten footholds in law firms and other sorts of places—last hired, they would be first fired. Economic analyses of the Jewish economic future in the 1940’s and 1950’s were thus almost uniformly gloomy. Almost uniformly, they failed to predict the remarkable economic rise of Jews in the past four decades.

In the 1960’s, at the height of the postwar period of unparalleled prosperity, social scientists rediscovered poverty in America. One would think that, the facts of Jewish affluence being what they were, the Jewish community would have blessed its good fortune and resolved to help those less well off. In large part that is what the community did do. But Jewish organizations also busily began to seek Jewish poverty in America; and sure enough, they found it. American Jews, after all, were on average an older population, and old people in retirement had difficulty maintaining their former incomes. Thus one could find a surprisingly substantial number of Jews in poverty. Later it was realized that while many old people are poor, they also have fewer needs, and even a poverty-level income may not mean for them what it does for a family with young children. In any case, the one great success of the War on Poverty was the almost total abolition of poverty among the elderly, thanks to increases in Social Security and Medicare—so the fear of widespread Jewish poverty proved similarly unfounded.

In the later 1960’s a more serious concern arose over the Jewish economic future: affirmative action and reverse discrimination. Most Jewish organizations opposed a strict statistical basis for allocating positions in higher education and in employment—quotas—as a matter of principle, but there were pragmatic considerations as well. Jews were already “overrepresented” in the institutions that were becoming battlegrounds of affirmative action. They formed 10 percent of college professors, more like 20 to 30 percent in the elite academic institutions; they represented probably 10 percent or more of medical students and law students nationwide, 20 percent or more in the elite institutions. If it were to be generally conceded that each ethnic/racial group should be represented proportionately in such institutions, what would happen to the overrepresented? The situation in law and medical schools raised the sharpest worry: and it was thus the De Funis and Bakke cases that brought out Jewish opposition. (When, with the Weber case, the litigation reached skilled labor, most Jewish organizations declined to become involved: that was not a Jewish problem.)

Was the worry misplaced? Since Jews make up less than 3 percent of the nation’s population, the logic of affirmative action certainly pointed in the direction of hurting Jewish interests, or rather the interests of individual Jews. But 50 percent of the country is also female, and females were one of the groups designated as beneficiaries of affirmative action. Thus, if one wanted to draw up a balance sheet, one could argue that Jewish women were as much helped by affirmative action as Jewish men were hurt, or helped even more than Jewish men were hurt.

In any event, if affirmative action meant a decline in the number of Jews admitted to elite institutions, this was, in the main, scarcely evident. Moreover, law and medicine and teaching do not exhaust the range of economic opportunity in America. Many a son—or daughter—of a prosperous Jewish doctor, lawyer, businessman, or professor was now becoming interested in journalism, or the arts, or the burgeoning field of management. The simple diversity of Jewish occupational choices worked to mitigate the effects of affirmative action in specific areas.

Thus, affirmative action did not turn out to be that great a threat to Jews—or so I would now conclude. Rather, it was (and remains) a threat to our traditional American conception of justice, in which the standard of measurement is the individual, not the group. In a larger perspective, a threat of this kind certainly has consequences for Jews, as it does for all citizens, but not for Jews more than others. So far, then, this particular fear is another one that has not been realized.



We come to a third area, the demographic and religious future of American Jewry. The first sociologists of ethnicity in American life, the scholars at the University of Chicago whose major figure was Robert E. Park, believed that, for Jews and for other groups similarly situated, the removal of discrimination and the abatement of prejudice would issue in a gradual movement toward assimilation. When there was more interaction among groups, distinctive practices would decline and common habits would increasingly prevail.

In the 20’s and 30’s, when Park was writing, assimilation was not necessarily a bad word for many Jews. Reform Judaism, which was a strong force in Jewish life, was much closer to liberal Protestantism in its practices and attitudes than it is today. The Jewish labor movement, which concerned itself solely with improving the material condition of Jewish workers, was another force for assimilation. As for the anti-assimilationists, whether religious or Zionist, they did not yet have on their side the powerful negative argument of the failure of assimilation in Germany. Thus the major work on American Jews to be produced by the Park circle, Louis Wirth’s The Ghetto, was unabashedly assimilationist. Distinctive Jewish practices, Wirth posited, were backward and medieval, and they would and should change under the influence of interaction with other Americans.

If it seemed reasonable to expect that Jews would become less different, and less “Jewish,” over time, it was also to be expected that there would be fewer Jews. Jewish birth rates were surprisingly low; one could not rely on mass immigration on the scale of the first two decades of the century; and (by the 1960’s) studies began to show an extremely high rate of intermarriage. This, too, was predictable. If Jews were no longer going to City College and Hunter but Harvard, the University of Chicago, and UCLA, they would be meeting more non-Jews. Similarly as they entered occupations not dominated by Jews.

Expectations of assimilation were thus matched by expectations of fewer Jews. Indeed, over the last decade or so, concern with intermarriage and the demographic future of the Jewish people has replaced the old concern with political anti-Semitism and economic discrimination. The work of sociologists like Marshall Sklare, Steven M. Cohen, and Calvin Goldscheider reflects this shift. But there is not yet a consensus of opinion on what the future holds. If it was once thought that decline was inevitable, we are now hearing an intriguing counterargument. As Calvin Goldscheider and Alan Zuckerman frame the issue in their new book, The Transformation of the Jews:1

Every indicator reveals how Jews have become modern and American in the 1980’s. Rapid and high levels of modernization, large concentrations of Jews in a context of ethnic and religious pluralism distant from immigrant status, raise the question of how these structural changes impinge on the community as a group. Does change imply the assimilation of Jews and the demise of the Jewish community? Are there new forms emerging that extend, replace, and redefine Jewishness? Along with the dramatic changes and transformations, are there emerging patterns which are the bases of new forms of Jewish cohesion?

Our evidence for answering these questions is not very good. We do know enough now to dismiss the easy answer that adaptation to the United States means the simple decline of Jews and Jewishness; but we do not know enough to settle the question of what kind of Jews, and what kind of Jewishness, will survive.

Let us begin with the easier part of the problem: how many Jews will there be in the United States? The answer seems clear: fewer than there are now. The Jewish proportion of the American population peaked at 3.6 percent in 1927. If Jews had maintained that percentage, there would be two million more Jews in the United States than there are today. Jewish birth rates are very low. And immigration, which has historically helped maintain the Jewish population, cannot, in the nature of the case, be very large. If the vitality of a community is based on its numerical strength, as it is in part, all this is quite troubling.

But there are other sources of vitality. Political influence, for example, does not depend on numbers alone; certainly no one would argue that Jewish influence was greater in 1927 than it is in 1985, despite the proportionate decline in the percentage of Jews. And as I have already noted, there are far more Jews elected to Congress today than in the past, when Jews were proportionately more numerous. Then, too, quality may count more than quantity—quality in terms of the numbers of highly educated Jews, Jews in important professions, wealthy Jews.

Nor are the figures on intermarriage completely unambiguous. Something like one-third of Jews marrying today marry non-Jews. This was once taken as a clear loss, but more recent studies have suggested that almost as many people are brought into the community through intermarriage as are lost to it. Many non-Jewish spouses convert, many children of intermarriages are raised as Jews. If these figures reach close to 50 percent, the net result may be a wash.



When we come to indices of Jewish cohesion—involvement in the community and its concerns—the matter becomes more complicated still. We know that as Jews move from the immigrant generation to the second generation to the third generation, the numbers identifying with traditional Jewish practices and allegiances decline, and so does the intensity of their commitment. Not that the measures of decline are all self-evident. For instance, the fact that there is no longer a vibrant Yiddish press does not necessarily signify a diminution of Jewish commitment. Jewish communities have led their lives in many languages, and if American Jews now overwhelmingly speak English, this does not by itself mean that they are less Jewish. By some measures, indeed, there is a higher degree of Jewish identification today than ever before—witness the rising proportion of children attending all-day Jewish schools. Still, one would need to know more in order to determine the significance of this, and specifically one would need to know the objective: is it to get away from poor public schools, to provide an identity that parents do not feel self-confident enough to provide themselves, or what?

Consider, too, the commitment to Israel, which is often cited in sociological studies as an index of Jewish identity. Israel has become the center of American Jewish life, and provides a focus for that life that did not exist, let us say, in the 1920’s. Indeed, it did not even exist to the same degree during the first twenty years of Israel’s life. In that period, strangely enough, Israel appeared to need less from American Jews, who devoted more of their energies to institution-building here in the United States, as the Jewish community moved en masse from the inner cities to the suburbs.

Since the Six-Day War of 1967 Israel has engrossed a larger and larger portion of American Jewish concern. (It has also become an ever larger issue in external and internal American politics generally.) We have many surveys reporting what American Jews think of Israel, and all demonstrate how close they feel to it. But this raises another question, which has been of concern to Jewish scholars and community leaders: just what does Jewish life mean to American Jews if so much of it is wrapped up in Israel?

One of the surprises of the last ten or fifteen years has been the rise of Holocaust studies and the widespread concern with the meaning of the Holocaust. Why it took American Jews twenty years or more to start thinking about the Holocaust is a curious and not easily answered question. Perhaps what aroused them was the sudden peril to Israel in 1967, and again in 1973. Perhaps it was the coming of age of the children of Holocaust survivors, or the influence of Elie Wiesel. Whatever the explanation, the Holocaust certainly has come to occupy a central position in American Jewish consciousness. Can it, however, provide an agenda for Jewish life? This seems doubtful.

Steven M. Cohen and Goldscheider and Zuckerman point to new forms of Jewishness in the United States. The abandonment of many traditional religious practices has gone hand in hand with a surprisingly easy acceptance of Jewish identity among young Jews. Jewishness is no longer something embarrassing or demeaning, something to be hidden by denial, by taking a non-Jewish name, or by an aggressive aping of non-Jewish behavior. All this is true. But “identity” is a peculiar term, pointing simultaneously to the essential center of a person and to the question of whether he has an essential center. More Jews do attest easily to their Jewish identity today. But what does this mean?



The framework of American society does not require a simple, undifferentiated American identity. Every American, it seems, is expected to be more: a Jew or a Christian, an Italian or a Pole, a Texan or a New Yorker, and so on. In that respect, to be a Jew, particularly when the pejorative associations of the term have declined, is an easy thing. The fact that today’s young Jews are less embarrassed about their Jewish identity does not mean, however, that that identity is a very weighty one, or exercises great influence over their behavior. It is likely to exercise even less over the behavior of their children.

I myself believe that even if by some measures—Jewish day schools, programs of Jewish studies, Hanukkah candles—the level of identity and cohesion seems high, the main tendency is in the other direction. I think in the end Park was right, even if overhasty in his projection of how long the process of assimilation and acculturation would take. My generation looks quite different from that of my parents, as the generation of my children looks quite different from mine, and the generation of their children will be different still. How different? More of them will be the products of intermarriage, and therefore their ethnic and religious identity will be less a given and more a matter of choice. In that respect, they will more closely resemble other Americans, who can pick and choose among identities.

We have been told that Judaism in America is in a line of historic continuity and represents no decisive break with the past, that it is different but still the same. In my judgment this argument is too optimistic. Less and less of the life of American Jews is derived from Jewish history, experience, culture, and religion. More and more of it is derived from the current and existing realities of American culture, American politics, and the general American religion. What this means for the future is that Jews will survive, yes, and perhaps even continue to identify themselves as Jews, but that little by way of custom, belief, or loyalty will be assumed as a result of their identity as Jews.

That, at any rate, is how I would interpret the current evidence concerning Jews and Judaism in the United States. The sociologists who have persistently feared for the American Jewish future may thus have feared for the wrong reasons; but I believe they have been right to be fearful.



1 Reviewed by David Singer in the July COMMENTARY—Ed.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link