There’s been much reaction to the Pew poll in regards to denominational viability, affiliation, and attitudes toward things such as Israel, the Holocaust, God, and religion. Interestingly, Zionism has been replaced by “caring for Israel,” which is in some ways similar, though there are important distinctions. Zionism represents a systemic Jewish experiment in identity, language, culture, and politics, while “Caring for Israel” is largely an emotional category that is often not founded on a deep knowledge of Zionism, nor on a realistic understanding of the complex make-up and nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state—including its many internal challenges.
What I found most fascinating, however, were the categories “People of Jewish background” and “People with a Jewish affinity.” The first includes those “who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish but identify with a religion other than Judaism.” In contrast, “People with a Jewish affinity” are those with no Jewish parent and who aren’t Jewish by religion, yet consider themselves Jewish. Reasons for this include the fact that Jesus was Jewish, because of Jewish ancestry generations ago, a Jewish spouse, Jewish friends etc.
In terms of numbers, Jews by religion or no religion make up 2.2% of the U.S. population, but if you add “People with a Jewish affinity” it rises to 2.7%, so that this category of people who are not considered Jews by the Jewish community but identify as Jews is nearly 25% of the Jews by religion or no religion, those we conventionally call “Jews.”
The fact that there are so many Americans who identify in some way as “Jewish” while not being Jewish is fascinating. In a world where very recently being “Jewish” was a liability and anti-semitism was palpable, the number of non-Jews today who identify as Jewish seems historically distinctive. We could, perhaps, point to the so-called “fearers of heaven,” an undocumented community of Hellenes in late antiquity who lived in large Jewish population centers, apparently lived partially as Jews, and had some status in the Jewish community.
But today’s non-Jewish Jews aren’t identifying as such because they live in Jewish enclaves, but because identifying as “Jewish” has become an asset and fashionable; it’s no longer a liability. The impact this community will have on the Jewish community remains to be seen.
*Read more from “Pew and the Jews: ‘So What?'”, an RD special feature on the Pew survey.