Jews receive and merit attention, in this case 12 pages of it in a “Special Report” in the Economist.
According to the report, there are 13.58 million Jews in the world, which is fewer than there are Southern Baptists (15 million to 16 million) in the United States, where there are 5.275 million Jews.
Both of the two “populations” choose to make news and do make news, so Sightings could not overlook them when sighting public religion.
Picking out a few high spots in the magazine is difficult, but we’ll point to some which have a bearing on controversies in U.S. life.
First of all, in the United States, Jews currently share the fix or fate of moderate or liberal faith-groups of all sorts; namely, they experience decline.
Compare “mainline” Protestantism and non-Mexican-American Catholicism. All three suffer from membership bleeding into another religious group spotted by demographers, namely “Nones,” as in “None of the above.”
The magazine quotes Stephen Cohen of Reformed Judaism’s Hebrew Union College: “The unchurched are growing, the religious surge has peaked. The winds of America are blowing in a more secular direction, especially in the blue [Democratic] states, where Jews live. Blue states are Jew states.”
Sightings pointed out recently that Southern Baptists and other conservative churches are also seeing some seepage to the “Nones.”
But the Economist focuses on another topic, especially when it comes to Israel. That is, on Orthodoxy, and especially hyper-hyper-Orthodoxy, nurtured by Russian Jewish migrations to Israel and New York.
It prospers in Israel, which is suffering economically by the growth of the haredim, most of whom do not choose to be employed, so that they can devote themselves to Torah study, and also from social unease, thanks to growing resentment of the draft-free status of young haredim.
The system which allows both causes great stress in Israel, and something has got to and is going to give, Economist writers and others say.
Many U.S. Jews continue to support Israel, but the numbers who are disaffected and critical here as they are in Israel, grows.
“As their attachment to Judaism weakens, so does their commitment to Israel,” but they find other ways reflexively and reflectively to be and feel somehow Jewish.
Meanwhile, strongly pro-Israel politicians command media and political attention. Arnold Eisen of Jewish Theological Seminary: “Honest discussion about Israel is largely shut down… Some rabbis will speak their minds, but people don’t want to fight and there is a disinclination to argue about Israel.”
The editors see reactionary Orthodoxies still winning over moderate movements. No surprise here.
In the six-year, five-fat-volume study of militant fundamentalisms I co-directed (with R. Scott Appleby) for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we found everywhere, in all religions, that it was not conservatism that was growing but extremism based less in history-based traditions but in fear, reaction and aggression.
As I read the Economist and other such literature, I think of an observation by Harold Isaacs, which we paraphrased as we looked at Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and other militancies: “Around the world there is a massive convulsive ingathering of peoples into their separatenesses and over-againstnesses to protect their pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat of others who are doing the same.”
To its credit, the Economist does justice to the many things in Judaism that are other-than-extreme.
For a rounded picture, read it.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.