Saturday, October 29, 2016

Where Do Statistics Come From?

The 2013 study Pew survey of American Jews served up some sobering statistics, most notably, that the intermarriage rate for American Jews was now over 70%.

There were lots of other statistics contained therein, like that almost half of American Jews didn't even know alef-beys. For some reason, that statistic barely got any play. But the intermarriage number... hoo boy. 

Now, three years later there's lots of talk about the meaning of these numbers. Lots of 'three years later' blather, and now, I'm one of the blatherers! See, some things do change! 

Over at Haaretz I wrote about how the intermarriage 'crisis' is more of an opportunity for certain establishment types to make themselves seem important at a time of communal danger.  If you've been reading my blog, you won't be terribly surprised to see what I have to say on the subject. I want to understand why the intermarriage numbers are framed as a crisis above, and independent of, the dismal state of Jewish education and literacy in the U.S. Why is 'intermarriage' more crisis-worthy than the many other dismal dimensions of American Jewish life? 

I looked to the sociological theories of Rogers Brubaker for a clue. Brubaker studies ethnic conflict and the way that 'groups' are called into existence by what he calls 'ethnopolitical entrepreneurs.' What if the 'intermarriage crisis' frame is a kind of ethnic conflict used by those entrepreneurs to increase a feeling of 'groupness'? After all, nothing coheres a group more than heightening previously unseen boundaries (and fear of crossing them).

A few weeks after the Pew report hit in October 2013, many of us got an email from the Forward, subject line 'Does the American Jewish community have a future?'

Dear Friend,
By now, you probably have heard the statistics: 32% of Jews under age 30 say they have no religion, and the majority of those without religion have Christmas trees. Fully two-thirds of the Jews with no religion are raising their children without any Jewish identity at all. As historian Jack Wertheimer told the Forward, “It’s the story of a community contracting.”
If young Jews were choosing some kind of secular engagement over a religious one, Jewishness itself would not be at risk. But even ethnic and cultural identifiers are disappearing. America’s full acceptance of its Jewish citizens has led many more to leave their Jewish identity entirely behind.

"The statistics" mentioned in this email didn't just happen. They were called into being by the institution now using them for fundraising - Jane Eisner was the catalyst behind the Pew Foundation taking on the 2013 survey. In January of that year she wrote an editorial calling for a Jewish marriage agenda, saying that whether her kids (my generation) would marry, and if so, would they choose to marry Jews, was what kept her up at night.

Now, I don't know if Jane Eisner's kids will marry Jews, and I'm not that worried about it. But if you got that email, chances are you've at least given it some thought because those who shape the cultural conversation, Eisner and the Forward, and Jack Wertheimer, prominently (though not exclusively), missed no opportunity to hammer home the looming demographic dangers. (Dangers they themselves are involved in uncovering.) 

Luckily, Eisner and the Forward presented both problem and solution (signed by Forward publisher Sam Norich):

What is to be done? The Forward has been out front in raising that question and looking for answers. For us, it’s personal – we feel a direct responsibility to our community and its continued vitality. If you share that feeling, I hope you’ll join us in sustaining our ongoing discussion of the Jewish future. Stay informed. Participate in the debate. And take an active part in supporting the Forward’s continuing role by making a donation. Your membership contribution makes it possible for us to keep the spotlight on the defining issues of our community.

I think it can be true that Jane Eisner (and Sam Norich, and everyone at the Forward) cares deeply about the future of Jews while at the same, also true that they have interests that diverge dramatically from those of average Jews and that as ethnopolitical entrepreneurs, they have an investment in groupmaking that does little to nothing to solve the problems they claim to be tackling and a lot to do with making themselves, and their institutions, be seen as essential to American Jews.

We need information about the American Jewish community and the Pew study was a crucial (if deeply flawed) opportunity to take a snapshot of where we are. That's a good thing. But taking a minute to understand how statistics get made, and why, can also be a crucial part in planning for the future. And, as I point out in my Haaretz piece, it's the past that got us to the future, and it's too important to ignore in the present.

No comments:

Post a Comment