Letter from a Changing America

Letter from a Changing America

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from a Changing America
April 14, 2004

A couple of years ago, my son Michael was asked to play on a travel soccer team in Westchester. When I called the coach to learn more about the team, this was his memorable reply: "Look, it's an interesting group of kids. There are several old American types on the team. You know, Irish, Italians, and Jews. And there are several new Americans, like Latinos, Africans, and Asians."

We Jews may see ourselves as relative newcomers to this country, but clearly there are those who practically associate us with the Founding Fathers. I suspect the Irish and Italians would be equally surprised by their new establishmentarian status. Yet given the lightning speed of socio-demographic change in America these days, this should not be all that shocking.

As we consider the challenges facing Jews, there are so many immediate and pressing issues-Israel's elusive quest for lasting peace and security, the drumbeat of radical Islam, the menace of international terrorism, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism-that some may think it an exercise in folly to talk about the long term, but we would be woefully remiss if we didn't.

America is changing rapidly. If American Jews don't grasp the significance of these changes, then we just might be left in the dust one day, notwithstanding our remarkable success to date. This would have serious consequences for Jews worldwide. After all, America has played a unique role in the life of the Jewish people, particularly in the postwar era. That role, simply put, is irreplaceable, but it is by no means guaranteed. We can never afford complacency, nor assume confidently that today's policy-say, toward Israel-will necessarily be tomorrow's.

Change in and of itself is not something to fear. Go back fifty years in American history. Some may wax nostalgic over what they believe was a simpler and more harmonious period in our nation's life. In some ways, perhaps, it was. But it was also a time when America was only belatedly coming to grips with the shameful racial divide, as the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring that segregation of public schools "solely on the basis of race" denied black children equal educational opportunity. It would be many more years, though, before the last vestiges of legalized racial discrimination-the "Jim Crow" laws-were removed from the books, especially in the Southern states.

(I remember vividly my parents' first trip to Florida, by car, in 1959. When they returned to New York, practically all they could talk about was their horror at the sight of separate drinking fountains, toilets, and accommodations for whites and blacks all along the route south of the Mason-Dixon line.)

In fact, it was only in 1954 that the Pentagon announced that all-black military units, standard fare as recently as World War II, were a relic of the past.

And consider some of these statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau:

Just 69 percent of black children ages five and six were enrolled in schools in 1954, compared to 96 percent in 2002.

Fifteen percent of blacks age 25 and over were high school graduates in 1954, compared to 79 percent in 2002.

And whereas only 2 percent of blacks age 25 and over were college graduates 50 years ago, the figure was eightfold more by 2002.

Meanwhile, in the United States Congress half a century ago, the roster was two black members of the House, one Latino senator and one congressman, and 11 Jewish members of the House and one Jewish senator. Today, by comparison, in the 108th Congress there are 39 black House members (including two delegates), 25 Latinos (including one delegate), and 11 Jewish senators and 26 Jewish House members. And this is not to mention a meteoric rise in the number of women.

For Jews generally, the 1950s was a relatively good period, but only a decade or so earlier American Jews had discovered the severe limits of their political clout in their inability to persuade the Roosevelt administration to take earlier and more vigorous action to help Europe's Jews. And while President Harry Truman had shown great courage and devotion to principle in extending diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1948, the Jewish state would have to wait fourteen years before the U.S. authorized the first sale of military equipment. Moreover, it would only be in 1970 that the glass ceiling was shattered and a Jew was named to lead an Ivy League college (Dr. John Kemeny at Dartmouth). Many communities, including the town I live in today, were notorious for their vigorous efforts to restrict the purchase of homes by Jews. And it would not be until 2000 that a major political party would nominate a Jew to its presidential ticket, and an observant Jew with a wife named not Hillary or Laura but Hadassah at that.

To appreciate more generally the changes at hand, the total U.S. population in 1954 was just over 160 million, 87 percent of which was classified as white, 10 percent as black, and just under 3 percent as Latino. (Asians were statistically insignificant.)

In 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population had risen to 282 million. Of this number, 69 percent were white, 12.7 percent black, 12.6 percent Latino, and 3.8 percent Asian. Quite a contrast!

So much, by the way, for the political philosopher Montesquieu's prediction, in 1721, that "the population of the earth decreases every day, and if this continues, in another ten centuries the earth will be nothing but a desert."

Not only is America's population growing, principally through immigration (11 percent of the current U.S. population was born in another country), but so is the world's. And since most of the global growth is taking place precisely in those countries least able to provide a promising future for their citizens, migration trends are likely to continue.

Thus, by 2050, according to current projections of the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population is expected to reach 420 million. The breakdown will be 50 percent white, 24.4 percent Latino ("of any race"), 14.6 percent black, 8 percent Asian, and 5.3 percent "other."

Another way of looking at the changes at hand is through religious affiliation and practice.

We have come a long way from the America described in Will Herberg's 1955 classic, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. At the time, 67 percent of Americans identified as Protestant-primarily members of mainline denominations-25 percent as Catholics, 4 percent as Jews, and 4 percent as "other" or "none."

Within the Christian population today, the number of Catholics has grown, largely due to immigration from Latin America. But many Latinos, nearly one-quarter according to a recent survey, identify with evangelical churches.

Indeed, evangelical Protestants now appreciably outnumber mainline Protestants. While American Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians are declining in number, groups like the Assemblies of God, Pentecostalists, and Southern Baptists have experienced rapid growth. So, too, have the Mormons.

Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Taoists, barely visible in America twenty years ago, are today a presence.

Meanwhile, Jewish numbers are, at best, static.

The American Jewish Identity Survey of 2000, conducted by the City University of New York Graduate Center, estimated 5.5 million American Jews, of whom just 51 percent identified their religious affiliation as Judaism. Some 1.4 million indicated a religion other than Judaism, while another 1.4 million responded that they were secular or non-religious.

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, sponsored by United Jewish Communities, reported an estimated Jewish population of 5.2 million, of whom 4.3 million had "strong connections."

But it's not just about numerical trends.

America is an increasingly religious country. According to Harvard professor Diana Eck, "'We the people' of the United States now form the most profusely religious nation on earth."

Or, in the words of the Washington Post, "America is the most religious country in the developed world." While church attendance has fallen sharply in what some observers now call "post-Christian, secular" Europe, it continues to rise in this country. If only 4 percent of Swedes attend church weekly, the comparable number in the U.S., according to the paper, is 44 percent. (Another survey reported the overall weekly church attendance figure at closer to 30 percent.) And whereas just 13 percent of the French said religion was very important to them, more than half of Americans replied affirmatively.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff recently wrote that "a new Great Awakening is sweeping the country, with Americans increasingly telling pollsters that they believe in prayers and miracles, while only 28 percent say they believe in evolution."

In a National Opinion Research Center survey conducted in 2000, 35 percent of Americans, including 45 percent of Protestants and 53 percent of blacks, agreed that "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally." Moreover, a Pew Research Center study earlier this month revealed that the number of Americans who believe that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus has risen to 26 percent today, and especially disturbing, that 42 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Latinos believe this to be true.

By way of comparison, a 2003 Harris (Lou, not David) survey found that "Protestants (90 percent) are more likely than Catholics (79 percent) and much more likely than Jews (48 percent) to believe in God." The same survey found that African Americans are more likely to believe in God (91 percent) than other ethnic groups, with Latinos second (81 percent).

A Pew study on religion (2002) reported that 67 percent of those surveyed believe that "the U.S. is a Christian nation," while 25 percent disagree, and 48 percent, including 71 percent of evangelicals, believe that "the U.S. has special protection from God."

At the same time, reflecting the depth of support for religious pluralism, "84 percent believe that a person can be a good American even if he or she does not have religious faith," according to the Pew study.

I suppose that includes the fellow in the New Yorker cartoon who says to a couple he meets at a cocktail party, "I don't belong to an organized religion. My religious beliefs are way too disorganized."

A third way of looking at the shifts in America over the past five decades, aside from the ethnic and religious changes, is through the lens of the Electoral College.

Americans move. On average, the experts say, we change our place of residence every five years, more often than not in the direction of the Sun Belt.

Whereas 62 percent of the U.S. population lived in either the Northeast or the Midwest in 1900, by the year 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 58 percent lived in the South or West. Many Jews, of course, have followed these trends, creating fast-growing communities in places like Boca Raton, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Diego.

In 1952, there were 531 votes in the Electoral College. New York had by far the largest contingent, 45. This elevated not only the state's importance in presidential elections, but also that of the Jewish vote, since Jews formed a markedly higher percentage of the state's population than they did elsewhere. Pennsylvania and California each had 32 votes. Illinois had 27, Ohio 25, and Michigan 20. (Florida had 10, the same number, incidentally, as Kentucky and Louisiana.)

Compare that with 2004. California has 55 of the current 538 votes, or more than 10 percent. Texas ranks second with 34. New York has decreased from 45 to 31 votes. Florida has jumped from 10 to 27 and will soon overtake New York. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan have all dropped substantially. On the other hand, states like Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, and Washington are growing in political strength.

And speaking of elections, what is the single best predictor today of a voter's political preference? Many say it's the degree of religious observance. The more likely an individual is to attend religious services, the more likely that person is to vote Republican, and, conversely, the less likely to attend religious services, the more likely to vote Democratic.

What does all this mean for American Jews?

First, our percentage of the American population, which peaked at nearly 4 percent, is declining and may not be much more than 1 percent by midcentury, barring unforeseen developments.

Second, other groups, whose numbers and political savvy are growing, will be seeking a greater share of what is ultimately a finite political pie. Eighteen-year veteran New York congressman Steven Solarz lost his seat in the 1992 primary, partially as a result of redistricting to create a new "safe" seat for the Latino community.

Third, the natural inclination of other groups, be they Latino, Asian, African, Arab, or Caribbean, will be to exert influence on those domestic and foreign policy concerns of greatest importance to them. As one example, there could well be some shift in our global orientation in the decades ahead, given the rapidly growing Latino and Asian populations here.

Fourth, whether Jews are entirely comfortable with the trend or not, the growing religiosity of Americans is a fact we must contend with, as it has profound political, social, and cultural implications for the country, and for minority communities like our own.

And fifth, the center of gravity of political power is shifting. Southern and Western strategies are increasingly the name of the game. Our work is cut out for us in those states where our numbers are small or our organizations not as strong as elsewhere. As individuals, we need to be deeply involved in both political parties and at all levels. And if we once took pride when candidates for office, at least in the New York area, learned a few words of Yiddish, today and long into the future it's going to be Spanish.

Does all this mean that Jews are doomed to eventual political irrelevance? Absolutely not. Our impact on decision-makers and public opinion has never been determined by numbers alone, but by many factors. And our experience at the American Jewish Committee is that many ethnic and religious communities seek, for a variety of reasons, to collaborate with Jewish organizations.

Nevertheless, American Jews will have to become even more adept at the field of interethnic and interfaith diplomacy, building ties with other communities based on mutual understanding and mutual interests and, for our part, a high comfort level with Jewish values and issues. Coalitions are the name of the game, and they require both acute sensitivity and well-honed skills of negotiation and compromise.

While the American Jewish Committee has further bolstered its historically extensive intergroup engagement in recent years-including a series of regional training workshops, a Spanish-language Web site, new programs with the Haitian, Indian, Korean, and Turkish communities, and stepped-up links with a range of religious groups-the Jewish community overall appears to have pulled back from the field. That constitutes a strategic mistake. This work must be pursued, indeed intensified, on the national, state, and local levels, as we have interests to protect on all three levels.

Some American Jews contend that we've reached a point of such unprecedented success and access that we don't really need to be concerned about what other groups, especially those currently on the margins, think. That's shortsighted in the extreme.

We must constantly cultivate friends committed to such bedrock issues as the special U.S.-Israel relationship and the proper balance between religious freedom and church-state separation. And as the country's population surges and diversifies still more, we have an immense stake in ensuring that America's remarkable experiment in democratic pluralism and tolerance continues to prosper.

To borrow a phrase, forewarned is forearmed, or at least it ought to be.

I wish to thank Adam Janvey, AJC's Senior Fellow, for his assistance in gathering data for this letter.

Date: 4/14/2004
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC