the problem of self identification

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  • December 28, 2010

A recent arti­cle on Foward​.com high­lights a demo­graphic study by Leonard Saxe that offers some new insights on the national Jewish pop­u­la­tion and might even con­tra­dict some of the gen­er­ally-accepted-as-gospel research on the mat­ter. In the Forward arti­cle, Saxe talks about the sticky prob­lem of “iden­ti­fi­ca­tion”:

Saxe’s results present a para­dox. While the find­ings show a higher num­ber of Jews than pre­vi­ously thought, Saxe found that engage­ment in Jewish life has decreased. Even among those who iden­tify as Jewish “by reli­gion,” he found a major­ity do not belong to syn­a­gogues, do not par­tic­i­pate in Jewish life cycle events or have not vis­ited Israel — all indi­ca­tors, accord­ing to Saxe, of engage­ment in the Jewish com­mu­nity.

It’s as if there are more peo­ple will­ing to call them­selves Red Sox fans, but fewer peo­ple actu­ally attend­ing the games,” Saxe said.

Two ques­tions:

1. Is it pos­si­ble that Saxe is just look­ing at the wrong indi­ca­tors? Sure, if you say that only peo­ple who go to Fenway truly iden­tify as Red Sox fans, you’ll have a lim­ited num­ber. But what about peo­ple who watch on TV? Or who wear a Red Sox cap in pub­lic, or who don’t really like base­ball but if forced to take sides would root for the Sox over the Yankees? And what about peo­ple who assert their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as mem­bers of Red Sox Nation in ways that we haven’t thought of?

In other words, it does­n’t make sense to me that peo­ple would choose to iden­tify them­selves as Jewish in some abstract sense while at the same time doing noth­ing to actu­al­ize that sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Saxe has to be miss­ing some­thing. Maybe his indi­ca­tors are too old-school estab­lish­ment. They can’t be truly doing noth­ing, can they? (Which leads me to…)

2. If this siz­able num­ber of American Jews are — despite my dis­be­lief — indeed doing noth­ing tan­gi­ble to actu­ally assert their per­sonal sense that they’re Jewish, then why bother count­ing them?

It’s why polit­i­cal poll­sters take care to talk to likely vot­ers. Lots of peo­ple may feel fondly for President Obama, and they may even iden­tify them­selves as “Obama sup­port­ers.” But all those peo­ple won’t get the guy elected in 2012 unless they go and vote for him. If they don’t do any­thing to help get him elected (and that can mean stuff other than vot­ing: rais­ing money, talk­ing to friends, staffing a phone bank, explain­ing to your crack­pot neigh­bor that Obama was born in this coun­try), then they don’t really mat­ter.

(And maybe that’s even more true with Judaism, where faith alone won’t cut it.)

So if all these peo­ple don’t do any­thing Jewish, why does it mat­ter if they self-iden­tify as Jews or athe­ists or Rastafarians or Red Sox fans?