One doesn’t need to be a terribly astute observer of American politics to see that race is one of the most contentious issues in the country. The violent clashes between police and protesters in Minneapolis and beyond following the appalling death of George Floyd, a Black man asphyxiated by a White policeman after being pulled over on suspicion of using counterfeit money, is just the latest episode in a long history of terrible incidents involving African Americans in the US.
Perhaps this context goes some way to explain an extraordinary recent spat in American Jewry about how many “Jews of Color” (ie Blacks, Hispanics, mixed-race, other non-Whites) there are in the American Jewish population.
The issue has its origins in a 2019 report published by a group of Stanford University academics entitled Counting Inconsistencies, which estimated that 12-15 per cent of American Jews are Jews of colour. More pointedly, it argued that most recent Jewish community studies have neglected to investigate race or ethnicity at all, and have thus systematically undercounted non-White, non-Ashkenazi Jews thereby causing them to be sidelined within the Jewish community. Their findings have been heralded by various Jewish activist groups, community leaders and social scientists for shining a light on a marginalised minority and, some claim, for exposing the implicit racism present in previous demographic work.
But the controversy kicked off when two highly regarded veteran Jewish scholars, Professor Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami demographer, and Dr Arnold Dashefsky, a University of Connecticut sociologist, published an op ed based on a much more detailed academic article they have written. In it, they dispute the quantitative assessment in the Stanford study, and argue that the true proportion is actually six per cent.
Cue outrage. A slew of articles variously condemning Sheskin and Dashefsky for their “lack of empathy and understanding,” their “dismissive” and “patronising” work “rife with microaggressions” and full of “incredulous claims.” One commentator argued that it was “appalling” that they chose to publish their article at all, and implied that it was “an act of White supremacist violence” and “indicative of the fear that resides in many White-dominated spaces.”
Just to be clear, Sheskin and Daskefsky’s claim of six per cent is based heavily on the most recent national study of the American Jewish population, conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013. This is one of the most robust studies of Jews ever undertaken anywhere, due to the expertise of the research team, the sampling methods used, the quality of the questionnaire, and the eye-watering budget underpinning it. If one is looking for accurate socio-demographic data on the contemporary American Jewish population, that’s where you start. And, rather inexplicably, it barely featured in Counting Inconsistencies.
But actually it’s not easy to determine the “true” proportion. With a current intermarriage rate of about 58 per cent, the boundaries around who is and who is not Jewish in the US are becoming increasingly blurred, and therefore both the numerators and denominators used in these types of calculations are highly contested. Depending on who is counted in and out, the American Jewish population could number anything from 5.7 to 12 million. Political pressures to be inclusive compete with demography’s need for internationally standardised definitions. And the Pew study actually points to this complex reality when it breaks down its six per cent finding to show that four per cent of “Jews by religion” are non-White, compared to 12 per cent of “Jews of no religion.”
Statistically, the latter group is far less Jewishly engaged or committed than the former. Of course, that might be because some American Jewish organisations exclude Jews of colour in some way, but it also might be because many non-White American Jews, like many White American Jews, exclude themselves from Jewish communal life simply because they don’t find it terribly engaging. Either way, analysts like Sheskin and Dashefsky are hardly the problem; they are simply trying to do the maths.
But the whole episode disturbs me because of its well-meaning, but ultimately misplaced anger. It demonstrates that many — including Jewish political activists, community leaders, and indeed qualified academicians — cannot read and assess a fairly basic set of numbers about a population they know and love, without imposing their political opinions on the results and maligning the talented and respected statisticians who generated them. When identity politics so distort the ability to measure reality, everyone loses — academia, the Jewish community, and, worst of all, the most marginalised groups who, frankly, deserve better.
Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR).