Monday, November 2, 2009

There's a Jewish Opinion You Say?

Every time I read an article that states that "American Jews feel this way about X" I grit my teeth. What balderdash! It is 100% impossible to state that all American Jews feel any way about anything. For one thing, "American Jews" means absolutely nothing. That's right, absolutely zip.

If someone is using the term "Jew" to include all those who self-select as Jewish, then we have our first problem. There are elements among the various Jewish organizational hierarchies who define who is a Jew differently. Some will include only those whose mothers were recognized as Jewish. There are some who will include those whose fathers were Jewish but whose mothers were not. There are some who will include those who converted k'halachah, meaning through an Orthodox conversion. There are some who will recognize any Jewish conversion proffered by any branch of Judaism. And yes, there are some who have "chosen" to be Jewish, with no official going through channels. So self-selection is one problem. And yes, there is a problem with some of those "branches" of Judaism.

Generally speaking a sociologist would say there are three branches of Judaism extant in the US: Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed. But even this statement doesn't tell the story. Among the Conservative and Reformed Jews there are different divisions, with differing outlooks on what Judaism and Jews are and should be. And no, all those branches do not make nice with each other, nor do they speak with one voice. And then there is the Orthodox.

Go ahead, try and define Orthodox. You're not going to be able to do it without running into dozens of differing and competing definitions, all claiming to be "the" definition. And then there are those for whom Orthodox is not "Jewish" enough a term. There are enough different divisions within Orthodoxy to set your head spinning, and no, they don't all feel the same way about a whole lot of issues in the US. Orthodox Jews speak with one voice? In whose dreams?!

So if the Reformed don't all speak with one voice, and the Conservative don't all speak with one voice, and the Orthodox don't all speak with one voice, and if the three divisions don't all speak with one voice together, then please define for me what it can possibly mean that "All American Jews believe..."

What got me so hot and bothered? I was contacted to answer a few questions by someone supposedly polling the NY Jewish community. The purpose of the poll was to gather information and statistics about how likely NY Jews would be to desire/support certain social initiatives that were being considered. I asked how they got my name. I figured it had to come from a shul list or a list of tzedaka contributors or something like those. Wrong. The pollsters were culling names from the phone book, choosing those whose names were "Jewish" sounding, and then asking the recipient of the call if they were Jewish. Those who answered "yes" were then asked to respond.

Right. And on the basis of statistics gathered in this way someone was going to say "NY Jews feel this about X." Joel Best got it right in titling the name of one of his books "Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics."


Anonymous said...

Do polls that refer to how Blacks view an issue, or how men or women view an issue or different age groups or income groups or christians bother you as much? Each of those groups are just as diverse, and probably even more so, than the category of "jews." The problem is not the questions but the interpretation and use of the results. If the results don't show a concordance of views, that tells the pollers that either the demographic chosen is not a useful one for the particular issue or that within the demographic there are many different opinions.
Notwithstanding all the different sects/branches of judaism and views within them, there still is the common factor of jewish identity, being a minority and rejecting the majority religion. I have no problem with researchers looking at that to determine if those factors affect opinions.

ProfK said...

In a word, yes, I am bothered when pollsters make "all" statements about large groups of people. As a J-blogger I picked Jews as being a group I have some knowledge and concern about. I could just as easily have picked the man/woman divide, or the older/younger divide. Even pollsters are flummoxed and keep away from the "All Christians believe" statement for the most part, because with 34,000 to 38,000 different sects/denominations of Christianity, whole slews of which wish the others had fallen into the sea and drowned, such a statement would be laughable.

Re "The problem is not the questions but the interpretation and use of the results," sometimes the problem with a poll is that the questions were designed with a specific result in mind, to skew the answers given, and yes, sometimes the problem is with the interpretation and use of the results, and sometimes it is with both.

Re "there still is the common factor of...rejecting the majority religion," this is a perfect example of how language can be used to manipulate poll results (and everything else as well). Here's the thing: I have not rejected the majority religion (whichever one of the thousands of christian denominations that might purport to be)BUT I have chosen to be and/or am Jewish, a wholly different thing. There is a serious perception difference between saying Politician X rejected the Democratic Party and saying Politician X is a Republican.

Statistics are pervasive in our society and, particularly when such statistics come with "all" statements, they need to be looked at with a far more discerning eye than is usually the case.

Anonymous said...

Except most polls are not reported as "all women think X" or "all jews say Y." They usually say something like of those [women/ baby booomers, whatever] surveyed, 60% like smooth peanut butter, 20% like chunky, 20% hate peanut butter and 10% have no opinion." When results are reported as "all" or "most" then people should be very skeptical, as they should be when there is no information about sample size or selection method or even the questions asked (to make sure they are not leading).

Anonymous said...

If you are correct that there is no such thing as the opinion of American Jews and that it means zip, then aren't politicians wasting their time by paying attention to any jewish views and to organizations by AIPAC or Agudath that purport to speak for American Jewry on many issues, and aren't jews wasting their money donating to such organizations? Please tell the politicians and government officials to ignore the jews because there is no such thing as an American Jewish opinion, since some favor gay marriage, some don't, some are to the left, some to the right, some favor a two state solution, some want the u.s. to nuke the entire middle east, etc.

Anonymous said...

It's not just pollsters and pundits who overgeneralize. I have heard jews do the same thing, such as when they say things about nonjews or about jewish beliefs and practices. For example, I've heard people say "jews don't believe in evolution" or "jews don't believe in organ donation," or "jews don't believe in birth control," when what they really should be saying is that certain branches teach those things and there is a wide range of views and beliefs.

ProfK said...

Anonymous 10:17,
Re "there is no such thing as the opinion of American Jews and that it means zip," my objection is to saying "all American Jews." Lobbying groups such as those you mentioned have a philosophy/purpose supported by those who are their membership. By all means, donate money to those groups who are doing what YOU believe to be the right thing. Just don't say that all Jews believe exactly as you do. I am staunchly pro-Israel, which already puts me outside of the mainstream of some Jewish groupings. Yes, I'll raise my voice in support of Israel, and yes I hope that my voice will be heard, and heard louder than those groups that are not pro-Israel. But you don't hear me saying that all Jews are pro-Israel.

Anonymous said...

ProfK: I love your posts, but I don't think that the "pro/anti Isreal" example is a particularly good one. I think the overwhelming majority of jews are pro Israel -- they just disagree on what that means. Some people believe that being pro Israel means supporting settlements, others think settlements impede the process, some think peace is impossible, others think a two state solution can lead to lasting peace. The problem is that some pro-Israel jews label other jews as not supporting Israel merely because they think that there can be a peaceful solution. It sounds a little like the tactics that were used to label those who wanted the U.S. to get out of Viet Nam or who opposed the war in Iraq as anti-American. Calling people anti-Israel will just turn them off and impede dialog -- as well as give the false impression to others that big chunks of jews are "anti-Israel."

ProfK said...

I stand corrected. I am pro-Israel, first in the sense that I believe that it has a right to exist and as a free and self determining country. In that I am in opposition to the Neturyeh Karta and others of their ilk. In that sense you would be correct that most Jews (not all) believe that Israel has a right to exist. It's the how of that existence where things start to get sticky.

Note: I don't call those people whose opinions on the how and what of peace in Israel that differ from mine as anti-Israel. I've been known to throw out "misguided" or "uninformed."

Eva said...

I live in a community that is pretty much split between chassidim and MO and MO right. Some years ago the question of school vouchers was raised. The Jewish split was obvious to us in the communities. The spokespeople for the chassidim came out solidly against the vouchers. The leaders of the MO areas came out publicly in favor of the vouchers.

So what did the media report? One paper had an article in which "Jews are not in favor of vouchers" appeared. Another one had an article in which "Jews are in favor of vouchers" appeared. Depending on which paper you read you were goinig to think that either all Jews were in favor or all Jews were against vouchers.

At an open forum one frustrated politician said "so which is it? are you in favor or against the vouchers?" The correct answer was some in favor, some against.

Jack Steiner said...

Ask Orthodox and Reform Jews to describe the other groups and you'll find all sorts of interesting descriptions that aren't all that accurate.

It is hard enough for Jews to keep it straight, let alone anyone else.

Knitter of shiny things said...

Just one quick comment, it's "Reform" and not "Reformed." (Reformed is actually a branch of Christian churches that took part in some reformation or another.) Back when I was Reform, I would get slightly annoyed when people referred to me as Reformed, (especially when it was people who should have known better and interacted with me as a Reform Jew on a regular basis and I would correct them and they would insist on calling me Reformed) though perhaps it was just a personal thing. I suppose the majority of Reform Jews a)probably don't read your blog, since not many of them are also involved in Orthodox Judaism/the Orthodox community and/or b)are used to being called Reformed Jews and don't really mind it. But I figured I would point it out anyways.

ProfK said...

Thanks for the information--making a note to use the correct term in the future.

ProfK said...

Thanks for bringing up the media. Anonymous said: "Except most polls are not reported as "all women think X" or "all jews say Y." They usually say something like of those [women/ baby booomers, whatever] surveyed, 60% like smooth peanut butter, 20% like chunky, 20% hate peanut butter and 10% have no opinion." Unfortunately, this is not how most polls are reported.

Some polls may have their results published in journals or special interest publications in their entirety. The general print/audio/visual media rarely bother to publish all the figures that were come up with, unless a specific figure bolsters a position being taken. Generally, the media report by saying "A poll of______ showed that most/all/the majority support/don't support X. Sometimes they tell you who took the poll or did a study; sometimes they don't. They certainly don't give you sampling sizes or any other pertinent information. Depending on what you want to believe or are susceptible to believe, most people reading that general statement swallow it as "true." How many people bother asking themselves how many people constitute "most" or "majority"?

Take this example, taken from a daily newspaper. "The majority of those who will contract the H1N1 flu will fall into the birth to 21 age group." How big is that majority? A whole lot of people in other age groups who are breathing a sigh of relief, since they aren't really likely to get the flu. Maybe. What if majority was 51%? Would you breathe so easily? What if majority were 60%? What if it were 75%? What if it were 90%?

Allen said...

I've mentioned before that I am frequently asked at work what the Jewish opinion on something is, solely because I'm obviously, to my work mates, Jewish.

I've begun countering this question with What is the Catholic,Protestant, what have you opinion on the subject? Usually the questioner answers "Well I can't speak for all Catholics..." I then tell him/her that I can't speak for all Jews either.

One person once answered me that Jews are known to be very clannish so how can I not know what the clan believes. If he only knew.

SuMMy said...

I took a simple poll of two jews and asked them "should the media be reporting a generalized Jewish opinion?"
25% said yes
25% said no
25% said the media is biased they shouldn't be reporting on jews
25% said my rabbi said i shouldn't talk to people without black hats
25% said my rabbi said i shouldn't talk to males

The other 46% said "who is considered a jew?"