Survey of American Jewish Opinion
A printed version of the survey has been published and may be ordered (free of charge) from the Center for Jewish Community Studies.
The Advisory Committee on Public Opinion Survey Research includes:

Prof. Rela Mintz Geffen, President, Baltimore Hebrew University.

Dr. Allen Glicksman, Director, Department of Research and Evaluation, Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

Professor Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew University, one of the foremost researchers in the area of Jewish public opinion.

Full Survey Results

Reviewers' Comments

Follow-Up Study
(Sept. '00)


Steven M. Cohen


The Historical Context

Since its beginnings, American society has struggled with defining the boundary, and setting the proper distance, between church and state. Several concerns and impulses underlie this struggle. One concern has been to provide for freedom of religion for the individual and for official neutrality toward alternate churches and denominations. The objective has been to avoid a situation in which the state or its instruments lend more support or legitimacy to some churches than to others, or for that matter to prefer religion to non-religion. Another concern, at least until recently, has been to promote a generalized religious sentiment and involvement in the American population.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution embodied these clearly competing impulses. Its language prohibited Congress from legislating the establishment of religion. At the same time, it also prohibited interference with the free exercise of religion. Balancing these two principles has been an ongoing subject of contention in the society, the political arena, the legislative process, and the courts.

Although contention over these issues is long-standing, it was only in the 1940s that a string of court decisions moved the United States more decisively in the direction of separation of church and state (Wald 1992). In 1947, the Supreme Court extended First Amendment provisions to state and local governments. It then went on to assure that schools, and other government-sponsored arenas, would not appear to favor one religion over another. Its decisions even have precluded favoring the religiously minded over those with no religious interests whatsoever, a position apparently dating back at least half a century. Citing numerous previous court decisions, a friend of the court brief by Jewish communal agencies in 1961 asserted (approvingly) that the court has held that the government is obligated to exercise "neutrality not merely between competing sects and faiths, but also as between religion and non-religion" (Sarna and Dalin 1997:213).

The wall of separation between church and state in the United States is arguably about as high as that found in any Western democracy, except possibly Mexico and France which are influenced by unusual anti-clerical traditions.

The Strict Separationism of American Jews

Not surprisingly, American Jews, in their struggle to win and assure their full acceptance in the larger society, have long placed church-state issues near the top of their political and community relations agenda. How America defines the place of religion and how it understands the status of Christianity and other faiths has obvious direct bearing on how Jews and Judaism fare in the larger society.

Jews' long-standing passion for strict separationism, as the position is sometimes known, is well documented. (The terms "separationism" and "religious accommodation" are used here as antonyms to signify one or the other pole in the church-state dimension. Those favoring separationism prefer a higher barrier between church and state; those favoring religious accommodation prefer a lower barrier.) Certainly since the late 1940s, Jewish organizations and lobbyists have fought vigorously, with minor exceptions, to erect and preserve a large degree of church-state separation. The guiding premise for organized Jewry's thinking on the matter has revolved around concerns about the influence wielded by religiously committed Protestants and, to a lesser extent, by the Catholic Church as well. Absent the protections afforded by church-state separation, many Jews feared that Christian church leaders, in the context of a large Christian majority in the American population, would promote an explicitly Christian character to the American state and its institutions.

However, the classic Jewish support for separationism did not always characterize the stance of American Jewry. Indeed, before the last third of the nineteenth century, Jews were distinguished both by their political impotence and by their desire to be treated "on equal footing" with other legitimate religious groups (N. Cohen 1992; Sarna 1997). As a numerically very small group of relatively recent arrivals, they could hardly aspire to influence significantly the political process, although they did manage to advance the removal of some barriers to Jewish participation in the larger society. Opposed to the views and objectives of atheists and "free-thinkers," nineteenth century American Jews sought merely to assure that Jews and Judaism were accorded the same standing and privileges as Christians and Christianity.

According to Sarna, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, leading Christian influentials sought to declare America a Christian nation (the view was even included in an 1892 Supreme Court decision). These efforts drove Jews into an alliance with more secular, non-religious elements in American society who were long seeking a more thorough and clear disentanglement of church and state. The public schools were the principal arena for the political, legislative, and judicial struggles in this area. Jews, in particular, were concerned that the schools not be used to indoctrinate their children in the culture and tenets of Christianity, or that their children be made to feel unwelcome or unequal in a predominantly Christian environment. Summarizing several court cases beginning with Everson vs. Board of Education (1947), Wald notes:

The critical issue appeared to be the role of governmental authorities -- specifically teachers and other school personnel -- in leading religious ceremonies. When officials take the initiative in leading prayers or reading from the Bible, the state appears to be endorsing a particular doctrine (1992:138).

Protecting the religious neutrality of the schools and other public spaces emerged as a central doctrine of the Jewish defense establishment. It enjoyed broad public support by mid-century among second- and third-generation Jews. Recently arrived both in the upper middle class and in the suburbs, these Jews were still socially segregated in terms of family, friends, neighbors, and even workplace. They were still unsure of their acceptability to other Americans (Sklare and Greenblum 1967). Hence, the fight to maintain a high wall of church-state separation stemmed directly from deeply felt identities and insecurities.

Of course, not all Jews -- even Jews in recent times -- have been enthusiastic about strict separationism. The initial hesitations of Orthodoxy, in particular, grew and emerged into institutionalized opposition to the conventional communal stance. Orthodox attorneys, rabbis, and other spokespeople have regularly taken issue with the rest of organized Jewry. In contrast with the positions of most Jewish communal agencies, they have supported efforts to extend government aid to parochial schools, and to permit the display of religious symbols on public property. They have sought to move public policy on abortion and related matters in directions more in keeping with traditional Christian and Jewish religious beliefs. Indeed, the division among Jews (and others) around these issues has been so sharp that one analyst sees a realignment of American society along cultural rather than religious divisions (Hunter 1992). In Hunter's view, the historic divisions of Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Herberg 1955) have given way to a new axis of social differentiation dividing society into culturally conservative and liberal camps. These new divisions cross once-important religious boundaries, with Orthodox Jews generally lining up with Christian fundamentalists and the Catholic hierarchy, and all the other Jews joined with liberal Protestants, Catholics, and militantly secular Americans. With this said, the Orthodox aside, organized American Jewry, until quite recently, has supported maintaining a high wall of separation between church and state.

Explaining Jewish Separationism

The long-standing support for separationism on the part of non-Orthodox American Jews may be linked to three related larger sentiments or identities: minority status insecurity; liberalism; and secularity. Of course, in the minds of most Jewish supporters of separationism, church-state separationism promotes a more tolerant America and, possibly, a more religious America as well. However, since many others with a less strictly separationist stance also, presumably, value tolerance and religiosity, the question becomes, why are Jews more predisposed to perceive the benefits of separationism.

First, as a religious minority group with a historical consciousness of having been subject to centuries of persecution, American Jews have been eager to secure their integration into American society. Separation of church and state is but a part of a strategy on the part of modernizing Jews to establish a religious "neutral zone" (Katz 1961) where religious and ethnic tolerance is a supreme value. A Jewish community relations official, in one of five personal interviews with elite figures conducted for this study (see details in the methodology section below), expressed this concern in contemporary terms (all quotations have been edited for style):

If we moved away from the separation concept to a society where religion was more a part of public life in a more formal kind of way, it would not be Jewish. School prayers would not be Jewish prayers, school clubs would not be Jewish clubs, the curriculum would not promote Jewish issues, and the funding would not be going significantly to Jewish schools. Yes, they would help a few, but the vast majority would be non-Jewish. When you are a minority religion, you are never going to compete on equal terms with majority religions. You are better off, substantially better off, being able to do things without the state being in the way, or without the state promoting it or trying to do your job for you. I feel strongly...not just in the religion context...I think that the Bill of Rights, generally, helps Jews live as Jews in this country -- a free press, freedom of speech, assembly, those basic protections.

For others, the rationale for separationism focuses not so specifically upon the protection of Jews and Jewish difference, but upon the overall texture of society. Jewish advocates of separationism see it as enhancing a more pluralist and more tolerant America generally, one which logically extends a great measure of freedom and security to Jews as well. One former Jewish community relations agency official remarked:

I am a hard liner when it comes to the separation of church and state. I feel very strongly about maintaining a high wall. Jewish security in the U.S. is not assured by eliminating antisemitism. There will always be antisemitism. The criterion for Jewish security is how Jews as individuals and as a group function in our society, and the extent to which they are able to participate in the workings of our society. That is the criterion for me. The one dynamic that ensures Jewish security is American pluralism, because a pluralistic society assures that you, as a minority group member, can fully participate in society.

Second, Jews' support for separationism is also connected with their liberal worldview and identification with the liberal camp, a segment of the American political spectrum highly supportive of separationism. Jews in the United States have been liberal in part because of their minority status concerns and because of the friendliness of Democrats and liberals to Jews and Jewish inclusion. The historic Jewish position comported well with their more generalized passion for liberalism and their identification with the Democratic party and other liberal institutions and movements (Cohen 1983). For many Jews, being a good Jew meant being a good liberal (Sklare and Greenblum 1967); and being a good Jew and a good liberal also meant being a vigilant separationist. One of the major tenets of the liberal camp is support for separationism and an adversarial relationship with conservatives who are seen as supported by many church leaders. Hence, in this circular world, Jews are separationist in part because they identify so strongly as liberals, and they are liberals in part because they are separationists.

Last, also fueling Jews' separationism is their relative secularity, at least when measured in terms of the frequency of religious service attendance, with probably the lowest attendance rate of any major religious group in the United States. (They are also less likely than other Americans to say they are religious.) In simple terms, the less religious (Americans) are more separationist; the more religious are more accommodationist. On average, recognizing the problematics of applying such measures to Jews, Jews score lower than other Americans on conventional measures of pure religiosity. Hence, they have one less impetus to support religious accommodationism.

In the minds of American Jews, these considerations -- though analytically distinguishable -- may often meld together. One communal practitioner/academician we interviewed remarked:

As a minority in particular, [Jews would not be better off in a more religious society.] I think that the religious values that would shape and that have shaped America are not necessarily Jewish values. And I think that we are more protected in who we are and what we are able to do if religious values do not shape or interfere.

In other words, for this interviewee, a secular society (not just one governed by strict separationist principles) is also a society safer for Jews as a minority group and as a group interested in preserving its values.

Jewish Challenges to Strict Separationism

The views cited above sharply contrast with others we heard. These remarks are from a Conservative Jewish scholar supportive of a nuanced relaxation of America's separationism:

Jews ought to take religious issues and their religious tradition more seriously. If they did, they could formulate responses to American public issues and discuss them in the public square. So doing would enrich American society and simultaneously demonstrate to Jews that their religion really has things to say about things that they normally don't take into account....I happen to believe that religious teachings enrich a discussion and can strengthen the moral character of a society. I believe that if more Americans took their religion seriously, American society might behave in a better fashion.

The position embodied in the foregoing remarks takes into account Jews' concerns as a minority group. However, it argues that, on balance, Jews, Judaism, and America would be better off with "a more balanced" interpretation of the First Amendment:

Just because there are some breaches in the wall of separation does not mean that the U.S. is going to overthrow the Constitution and create a state-sanctioned religion. That is the specter that these [Jewish communal defense] groups keep dangling and it is so extreme. It means that 225 years of history would have to be overthrown in order to have that occur. I am not in favor of that occurring -- nobody is talking about repealing the First Amendment. What I am talking about is understanding the First Amendment in a somewhat looser fashion.

Most specifically, some Jewish Federation leaders have argued for a relaxation of Jews' opposition to government support for parochial school students, perhaps reflecting their immediate concerns with their increasing obligations to fund Jewish day schools. Their position is but a specific instance of a much broader critique of the historic Jewish support for separationism. This critique sees Jews faring better in a somewhat more religious society, or at least one characterized by a more moderate degree of separationism. The words of one interviewee offer a particularly apt articulation of this perspective:

In a more religious society, Jews would be better off because they would be forced to confront their own Judaism. Society is so neutral about pushing the religious dimension out of public discussions that American Jews can get away without taking the religious factor very much into consideration. Jews are often reactive to their society and imitate their neighbors. American Jews might begin to take their religion more seriously if they saw their neighbors taking their religion more seriously.

Is Jewish Separationism Waning?

Certainly, if more American Jews were open to such views, we would be witnessing a retreat from separationism. Can we construct a compelling sociological argument to anticipate such a move? In fact, changes along the three dimensions noted above (minority status, liberalism, and secularity) may well incline today's Jews to move toward a less vigorously separationist position, at least in theory. We may take each dimension in turn, beginning with Jews' minority status.

By almost any measure, Jews are more socially accepted, more successful, and less subject to the insecurities of minority status than they were in mid-century (Silberman 1985). In theory, at least, they ought to be less anxious about acceptance and commensurately more relaxed about expressions of religious sentiment in the schools and in public life in general. (In point of fact, as other surveys as well as this one demonstrate, Jews -- a people who, Abba Eban has quipped, "can't take 'yes' for an answer" -- continue to anguish over American antisemitism. If they are not particularly concerned about its current levels, they worry about its potential for reemergence. The relatively brief period of relative acceptance has not as yet erased a memory of centuries of persecution. Jews may need an extended period of acceptance and high social standing to feel truly secure in America.)

With respect to their identification as liberals, several signs point to a weakening Jewish attachment. First and foremost, the liberal coalition is certainly more fragmented, less energetic, and less influential than it was at mid-century. Second, Jews may be behaving like many other Americans who have undergone a political de-alignment, moving away from partisan and ideological attachment toward disengagement, neutrality, indifference, independence, and new constellations of public opinions. A third consideration flows from the work of Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and others who portray a decline in "social capital," civic activity, and community bonds (Bellah et al. 1985; Roof 1994; Putnam 2000). Jews, for their part, seem less concerned not only with politics, but also with all aspects of public life (Cohen and Eisen, forthcoming). They are less engaged in politics, philanthropy, volunteering, social justice, and communal organizations, be they of a Jewish or non-sectarian variety (Cohen 1998; Cohen, Israel and Fein 2000).

More pointedly, according to a relatively recent review of years of survey evidence covering 1972-1994, the liberalism of Jews' political views is specific to certain domains (Cohen and Liebman 1997). It certainly embraces identification as a liberal (or Democrat for electoral purposes), support for taxing and social spending, liberal views on sexually related matters, and church-state separation (at least as represented by a few available survey questions). However, when compared with Americans of similar education and residential distribution, Jews emerged as no more liberal with respect to sympathy for African-Americans, capital punishment, foreign affairs, civil liberties, and a variety of economic issues.

The third plane concerns the Jewish identity spectrum. As hypothesized, the more religious should seek more accommodationist policies, so as to bring about a society more influenced by religious values. Recent trends in Jewish demography and identity suggest a growth in more religiously oriented Jews (and, therefore, concomitant declines in Jewish support for separationism). In particular, the Orthodox are probably growing as a share of the young adult population (Heilman and Cohen 1989), as are committed Conservative Jews (Cohen 2000). Moreover, the rise in day school enrollment among the non-Orthodox is also noteworthy. It signifies that growing numbers of American Jews are less anxious about their place in American society and more willing to engage in behavior that might have appeared too segregationist, parochial, or overtly religious to their parents' generation. The readiness to send their children to day schools necessarily means that parents are willing to eschew the public schools. In so doing, they are rejecting an institution that has long held great symbolic value for American Jews as a channel of integration and a force for democracy. Theoretically, these larger trends may promote not only greater openness toward government support for day schools, but also greater interest in more religious expression in the public square.

At the same time, at the other end of the Jewish identity spectrum, the substantial rates of intermarriage are linked with growth in the number of marginally identifying Jews among the spouses and their children (Medding, et. al 1992; Phillips 1997). More broadly, several measures of Jewish ethnic connectedness seem to be in decline (Cohen 1998). Insofar as support for separationism is a distinctively Jewish ethnic trait, the weakening of Jewish ethnic ties should reduce separationist attitudes among increasingly integrated and less ethnically distinctive American Jews. A similar phenomenon has been noted with respect to the relationship between liberal political identity and Jewish group involvement (Cohen 1983). The most religious were the least liberal. As religiosity or ethnic involvement declined, liberalism grew. But for Jews whose religious and ethnic involvement were so insignificant that they maintained very few in-group ties, their political views came to more closely resemble the societal center; that is, they were less liberal than many who were at least somewhat Jewishly engaged. Assimilation, or near-assimilation, reduces the chances of exhibiting distinctive ethnic characteristics, be it liberalism in the earlier study or, perhaps, separationism in this study.

Oddly, the opposing tendencies of a growing religious minority and a less ethnically distinctive majority may both be contributing to a decline in separationism.

Questions for Research

The trends outlined above certainly raise questions about American Jews' current orientations toward church-state issues:

  1. In light of the putative changes in Jews' minority insecurity, liberal identification, religiosity and ethnicity, are American Jews still widely supportive of separationism?
  2. To what extent, and in what ways, do they depart from separationism? Surely their views must vary by issue -- what do the variations tell us about their fundamental concerns?
  3. In what manner are Jews' attitudes in this realm linked to the factors of minority status, liberal identity, and Jewish identity?
Attitudes toward church-state separation, though, are only one dimension of the larger issue of religion in the public square. Just as the First Amendment contains two principal clauses, one regarding the establishment of a church and the other regarding the free exercise of religion, so too may we conceive of attitudes in this realm consisting of two dimensions. One relates to the separationist-accommodationist debate. The other relates to the profile and influence of religious values, discourse, leaders, and institutions in American public life. To what extent should these elements inform public debate? To what extent should religious symbols and references adorn America's public life, be it in courtrooms, in Congress, at presidential inaugurations, or on legal tender?

Theoretically, positions on separationism-accommodationism and the profile of religion in public life are distinguishable. In practice, though, one might expect them to be empirically related. In theory, those advocating a more prominent and influential role of religion in America ought to adopt a more accommodationist posture, although certainly some separationists make the opposite claim: that separationist policies allow for a more religious society. Accordingly, we may ask: Among Jews, are the two dimensions, in fact, related -- in which direction, and to what extent? Even if the Jewish public supports separationism, does it also (and necessarily) oppose a high profile for religion and religious leaders in American politics and society?

Exploration of the Jewish public immediately raises questions about the activists in organized Jewish life who have been most prominent in representing American Jewry on church-state matters. To what extent, and in what fashion, do Jewish leaders reflect the views of their putative constituents and how do these views depart from each other? Most elites depart from the public constituencies from which they derive. Generally, leaders are more coherent and ideological in their approach, with the result that their positions are often more extreme than their putative constituencies. If their publics are found to the left (or right) of the society's political center, then the leaders are generally further to the left (or the right) than their corresponding publics. The extent to which these characterizations apply to Jewish leadership remains to be explored. In other words, are Jewish communal leaders like the American Jewish public, but only more so? If the public is separationist, are the leaders even more separationist? If the Jewish public is wary of religious involvement in public life, are the leaders simply more wary?

Last, are the same sorts of considerations which influence the stance of the Jewish public on church-state issues also influence the leaders? Do the leaders arrive at their separationist positions the same way as the public, with the same sorts of perceptions and assumptions?

Methods and Data

The quantitative data for this study derive from parallel surveys of three samples:

  1. A national sample of American Jews.
  2. A national sample of American non-Jews, constructed to approximate the Jewish sample in terms of education and region (two characteristics thought to influence attitudes toward religion in the public square).
  3. A sample of Jewish leaders, specifically, participants in the annual national conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) -- formerly the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC) -- a highly respected and prominent Jewish communal defense agency that for decades has been active in promoting a separationist agenda, among other issues of concern to American Jewry.

The National Sample of the Jewish Public

The survey data of the national sample of American Jews derive from a mail-back questionnaire completed by 1,002 Jewish respondents throughout the United States. The survey was fielded January 24-February 28, 2000, by the Washington office of Market Facts, Inc., a national survey research company.

The respondents belong to the company's Consumer Mail Panel, consisting of about 600,000 Americans who have agreed to be surveyed from time to time on a variety of concerns. Of those, about 14,000 were potentially eligible for sampling for this study in that at least one of the adults was Jewish; of these, we sent questionnaires to 1,400 households. Market Facts drew the sample so as to approximate distributions on the following socio-demographic measures calculated from the 1990 NJPS data: age 65 or over, education, presence of children, geographic region, and marriage type (in-married, mixed married, never married, other).

About 70 percent of the households that received the questionnaire returned them. The high rate of return for this mail-back survey can be attributed to at least two considerations. One is that the company drops from the Panel those who repeatedly refrain from returning questionnaires. According to the Market Facts' professionals, another reason for the high response rate pertains to the content of the study. A survey on Jewish identity and public affairs bears more inherent interest for the potential respondents than do the consumer issues that are generally the topic of the company's surveys.

The households eligible for the survey contained at least one Jewish adult, as previously reported in responses to questions in religious identity in periodic screening questionnaires of each panel member. The 1990 National Jewish Population Study determined that approximately 80 percent of adults who are Jewish also said that their religion is Jewish (Kosmin et al. 1991:5-6). Jews who do not identify as Jewish for purposes of religion (so-called "secular" or "ethnic" Jews) report lower levels of Jewish involvement (i.e., observance, affiliation, in-marriage, etc.). Hence, a survey (such as this) based upon a sample of those who claim to be Jewish by religion under-represents the Jewishly less involved, and slightly overestimates the overall population's levels of Jewish identification.

To what extent does this sample accurately represent the American Jewish population from which it was drawn? To address that concern, we compared the sample with results from the 1990 National Jewish Population Study (see Tables 1, 2, and 3). The major conclusion of that analysis may be stated here succinctly: This sample is somewhat more Jewishly involved and somewhat more educated than American Jews at large. At the same time, it also under-represents the Orthodox who, apparently, are reluctant to participate in a national consumer-research panel. Moreover, compared with the 1990 NJPS results, this sample contains fewer individuals who say being Jewish is "very important" in their lives (38 percent versus 50 percent), but more who attend a Seder (85 percent versus 73 percent). This sample under-represents denominational Jews, and commensurately over-represents Jews without a denominational preference (25 percent versus 13 percent). Otherwise, the levels of Jewish indicators in the sample and the NJPS are comparable.

In light of these offsetting imperfections, it is reasonable to assume that the sample's separationist/accommodationist balance probably very closely approximates that of American Jews at large. In any event, the substantive differences in attitudes on religion in the public square differentiating the Jewish public sample from the two other samples (the non-Jewish public and Jewish leaders) are generally quite large. Accordingly, the minor variations in the results for the Jewish public would hardly change the main inferences and conclusions.

The Demographically Adjusted National Sample of American Non-Jews

The national sample of American non-Jews (N=684) was drawn from the same Consumer Mail Panel as the sample of American Jews. The respondents constituted 76 percent of the 900 Panel Members who received the survey.

Demographically, American Jews are distinguished by, among other things, residence outside the South and high levels of education, factors that may independently influence the attitudes under investigation. To estimate the "pure" impact of being Jewish (net of these demographic characteristics) on the relevant attitudes, we constructed a sample of non-Jews whose educational and residential characteristics resembled those of American Jews. Members of the Consumer Mail Panel fill out initial questionnaires providing their basic socio-demographic characteristics. As a result, Market Facts was able to select a non-Jewish respondent pool whose regional distribution and educational attainment approximated those of Jews in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

These adjustments in region and education produce a distinctive sample of non-Jewish Americans. It is more favorably inclined toward separationism (and to liberalism) than we would find in a sample of American non-Jews whose regional and educational distributions are not intentionally modified. In light of the results below, this sample of non-Jews, when used as a baseline against which to compare the attitudes of the Jewish sample, serves to slightly understate the gaps in such attitudes between Jews and non-Jews.

The Sample of Jewish Leaders

The third quantitative data sample consisted of participants at the annual conference of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (N=111). [Note: "JCPA" in this article refers to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in the U.S. and not the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.] The JCPA serves as a meeting ground for scores of local Jewish Community Relations Councils as well as several major national Jewish defense agencies. In its Mission Statement, the JCPA describes itself in the following fashion. It is a
unique and inclusive partnership of national member agencies, local community relations councils and committees and the federations of which they are a component part or an affiliated agency. It convenes the "common table" around which member agencies, through an open, representative, inclusive and consensus-driven process, meet to identify issues, articulate positions, and develop strategies, programs and approaches designed to advance the public affairs goals and objectives of the organized Jewish community.
Participants in JCPA's annual conference are drawn from around the continent. They consist of a relatively small number of professionals alongside the majority, who are drawn from the more active (and more affluent) volunteer leaders in the Jewish community relations field.

The JCPA probably constitutes that segment of Jewish communal leadership that most clearly represents and maintains organized Jewry's vigorous support for separationism. In fact, a few major Jewish communal figures in the Jewish Federation movement, have publicly criticized the JCPA leadership for failing to revise its historic stances on such issues in light of increased Jewish communal interest in financing Jewish day schools. (Jewish Federation leaders have become concerned about Jewish continuity and Jewish education, as well as, by extension, funding for Jewish day schools.) In the eyes of JCPA supporters, they are the most faithful to the Jewish community's historic separationist positions, and in the eyes of their (largely conservative) detractors, they may be an outstanding example of "unreconstructed Jewish liberals." Thus, the JCPA conference participants, by virtue of their experience, political sophistication, and their agency's deep involvement in church-state issues, constitute a particularly appropriate and articulate sample for this study. They offer the clearest and cleanest examples of the classic Jewish communal leadership in this area.

The JCPA graciously allowed us access to its conference participants. The JCPA placed questionnaires in the delegates' kits. Officials made announcements at major sessions urging delegates to complete the surveys. In addition, a researcher importuned delegates to return completed questionnaires. These procedures resulted in the participation of almost a third of the 350 conference attendees in our survey. The respondents were entirely self-selected, perhaps resulting in a sample more invested in issues of church and state than the full population of JCPA activists. Accordingly, these results should be viewed with caution.

One important distinction between the Jewish public and JCPA leaders concerns several measures of Jewish involvement (Tables 1, 2, and 3). These include self-evaluations of the importance of being Jewish or being religious, synagogue attendance and ritual observance, and association with other Jews, whether as friends or in organized contexts. In all available measures, JCPA leaders outscore the Jewish public. For example, more than twice as many leaders than members of the public claimed that religion was very important to them (50 percent versus 20 percent), replicating similar results with respect to the importance of being Jewish (89 percent versus 38 percent). More than three times as many leaders as rank-and-file American Jews had visited Israel in their youth (47 percent versus 13 percent) or taken a university course in Jewish studies (46 percent versus 15 percent). Just 24 percent of the public claimed to have Sabbath candles lit in their home (an important bellwether ritual) as contrasted with nearly three times as many leaders (68 percent). In short, not only are the leaders much more involved in organized Jewish life, the JCPA leaders are also more Jewishly educated, more ritually active, and more committed to being Jewish (by their own testimony) than are members of the American Jewish public.

Table 1
(in percent)

Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997 1990 NJPS*

Religion is very important in life 20 50 26

Being Jewish is very important in life
38 89 48 50

Attend synagogue monthly or more
24 61 26 27

Closest friends are Jewish
46 91 71 46 49

Spouse is Jewish
73 96 80 81

Spouse of youngest married child is Jewish
48 77 54

* National Jewish Population Study: Sub-sample of adult Jews who identify as Jewish by religion.

Table 2
(in percent)

Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997 1990 NJPS

Attended a full-time Jewish school (day school or yeshiva) 8 13 6 7 8

Attended a part-time Jewish school that met 2 or more times a week
38 41 51 48 39

Attended a Sunday school or other one-day-a-week Jewish school (but not day school or part-time)
28 31 21 22 21

Participated in a Jewish youth group as a teenager
49 66

Visited Israel by the age of 26
13 47

Took a course in Jewish Studies while at college
15 46

Have a Christmas tree (sometimes or more often)
24 4 16 21 23

Usually attend a Seder
85 98 79 87 73

Fast on Yom Kippur
61 88 59 64 63

Have been to Israel
35 93 36 36 33

Usually light candles on Friday night
24 68 28 22

Member of a synagogue
44 89 48 44

Member of a Jewish Community Center (JCC)
12 44 14

Participated in a program at a JCC within the past year
29 74 27 30

Belong to a Jewish organization
27 93 32 34

In the past 2 years served on a board or committee of a Jewish organization or synagogue
17 31 18

Contributed to the UJA/Federation
46 42

Subscribe to a Jewish newspaper or magazine

Table 3
(in percent)

Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997 1990 NJPS

Orthodox* 3 7 10 7 7
Conservative* 34 45 31 34 39
Reform* 35 35 25 38 41
Reconstructionist* 7 6 2 1
Other 25 7 33 22 13

*Includes both synagogue and non-synagogue members. Within any denomination, members and non-members differ considerably.

Note: The sample of the Jewish public, taken from a national consumer research panel, may under-represent the Orthodox.

Question Design

The questions on key attitudes in the survey instrument we constructed derived heavily from three sources:

  1. National surveys on religion in the public square conducted by major national polling organizations.
  2. Previous surveys of American Jews, in particular, one conducted in 1988 by the senior author on behalf of the American Jewish Committee (Cohen 1989).
  3. A review of legal cases under consideration by the Supreme Court, currently or in the recent past.
By replicating questions previously asked of a similar sample, by the same research company, using the same mail-back method, we are able to discern reasonably well whether Jewish attitudes have changed in the last decade or so. Finally, to contribute further both to questionnaire design and to the understanding of the results, we interviewed five elite figures from the worlds of Jewish communal service, community relations, and academia. Their remarks also extensively contributed to the introduction above.

The tables below compare the non-Jewish public, the Jewish public, and JCPA leaders. Where possible, they also present results from prior surveys of American Jews (in 1988 and 1997; Cohen 1989 and 1998). The tables are organized along the lines of several conceptual domains that generally correspond to clusters of items identified by way of factor analysis. Where appropriate, the tables also present mean scores on indices that draw upon many of the preceding items in the tables. The scales were constructed to range from 0 to 100, that is, from low to high.


The Jewish Public Favors Separationism, The JCPA Leaders More So

The major findings of this study emerge clearly in the questions on policies toward religious accommodation (Table 4). Notwithstanding all the appearance of change and ferment in Jewish attitudes with the growth in Jewish religious day school enrollment and the seeming decline in attachment to historic American liberalism, Jews remain far more separationist (or less accommodationist) than other Americans, even those with similar regional and educational distributions. Moreover, their leaders (specifically, activists at the JCPA conference) are even more strictly separationist than American Jews generally.

Table 4
(percent who favor selected policies)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Allowing public schools to display the Ten Commandments 65 38 5

Allowing public school students to say non-sectarian prayers at sporting events
69 28 5

Allowing non-denominational prayers to be read in the classroom
59 20 2

Allowing public schools to set aside a moment of silence each day for students to pray if they want to
84 48 19

Allowing public schools to teach Christmas carols, as long as they also teach Hanukkah songs
77 56 13

Teaching creationism in public schools along with evolution when teaching about the origin of man
63 39 7

Making public school classrooms available to student religious groups to hold voluntary meetings, when classes are not in session
77 53 42 51

Allowing public schools to share their computers with local religious schools
59 33

Providing government aid (vouchers) to families for tuition in private, non-religious schools
40 24 14

Providing government aid (vouchers) to families for tuition in private schools, including religious schools
43 22 11 19

Index of Religious Accommodation
81 53 26

To elaborate on all school-related items in the survey, non-Jews outscored the Jewish public in support for accommodation, and the Jewish public, in turn, outscored Jewish leaders. This generalization applies to items as diverse as prayer in schools, posting the Ten Commandments, providing vouchers for private or religious school tuition, and sharing facilities with religious schools or student religious groups. A few telling examples illustrate this observation: the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools found favor among 65 percent of the non-Jews (others were unsure or opposed), 38 percent of the Jewish public, and just 5 percent of the JCPA leaders. With respect to setting aside a moment of silence for school pupils to pray if they want to, 84 percent of the non-Jews were in favor, as contrasted with 48 percent of the Jews, and only 19 percent of the leaders. The results for the other items were similar.

The issue of school vouchers is probably the most hotly contested contemporary issue in the survey. Support for vouchers is almost twice as high among non-Jews as among Jews, and about twice as high among the Jewish public as among the leaders. For non-Jews, providing vouchers for religious schools elicits more support than for private, non-religious schools (43 percent versus 40 percent), while for the Jewish public the situation is reversed (22 percent versus 24 percent), as it is for the leaders (11 percent versus 14 percent).

To get a summary portrait of intergroup differences, we turn to an "Index of Religious Accommodation" that measures the extent to which respondents favor permitting religious expression in the public schools and elsewhere. We constructed the Index by summing "favor" responses on the appropriate policy-related questions, and then recalibrating the scale to range from 0 (no support for religious accommodation) to 100 (consistent support).

The average gap on such matters between the non-Jewish and Jewish publics (means of 81 versus 53 on the Religious Accommodation Index) is nearly equal to that separating the Jewish public from the JCPA leaders (53 versus 26). In other words, the attitudes of American Jews on the separationist-accommodationist spectrum are about as distant from that of demographically comparable non-Jews (who are far more accommodationist) as they are from Jewish community relations leaders (who are far more separationist).

In the two instances where we have available direct comparisons with the survey conducted twelve years ago, Jewish support for accommodation then was almost, but not quite, the same as it is now. For making classrooms available to student religious groups, 51 percent of the 1988 respondents were in favor as compared with 53 percent now. For providing vouchers for families with children in religious schools, 19 percent were in favor then, and 22 percent today. The movement toward accommodation is too small to be seen as a sign of real change, but it takes on greater meaning when combined with small changes in the same direction reported below for all other available items.

While American Jews are uniformly more separationist than non-Jews on all issues, the varying extent to which Jews accept (or reject) alternative accommodationist proposals provides some insight into their concerns and into the logic that underlies their specific views. In particular, the Jewish public is especially reticent to endorse prayers in the school or school vouchers. The fear of Christian religious indoctrination in the schools has long been a major concern of Jewish parents. The voucher issue touches directly upon a concern for the public schools, long seen as an arena for social integration and education for democracy and tolerance.

In contrast, almost half (48 percent) of the Jewish public favors a moment of silence for voluntary prayer. Most (53 percent), in fact, favor allowing the use of classrooms by student religious groups (even 42 percent of the JCPA leaders favor this idea). Even more (56 percent) endorse the teaching of Christmas carols as long as schools also teach Hanukkah songs.

Why do these proposals win more support than others? One consideration is that Jews adapt to current policy and practice. They more readily accept those breaches of the wall of separation that the courts already have sanctioned. They also more readily resist proposed changes such as prayer (that has been judicially rejected), or vouchers (which at the moment is being hotly debated but not widely instituted).

The moment of silence proposal contains less of a threat of forcible indoctrination than do calls for prayer in schools. Every child would be free to pray, or not, and can utter a silent prayer from his or her own tradition. (Perhaps Jews find some sense of familiarity here in that many Jewish prayers are uttered silently.) The use of classrooms also seems to presuppose a voluntary basis. The use would occur after hours by groups that would want them, consisting of youngsters who would voluntarily choose to participate in the groups -- or not. The Jewish public is not as sensitive as are elite figures to the implications of such a policy for abstract judicial concepts such as "entanglement."

Against this background, the widespread acceptance of teaching Christmas carols seems paradoxical. After all, participation is not at all voluntary, and some carols explicitly celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. However, several ameliorating factors may be at play to make the proposal, as worded, more palatable. First, teaching Christmas carols is a long-standing tradition in American schools, one which many of the respondents themselves experienced and for which they may have developed some tolerance. Second, the schools, among others, have argued that Christmas carols (if not the holiday itself) can be seen as a seasonal, civic activity and not a religious celebration. (One wonders whether public schools avoid teaching the most overtly religious carols.) Third, the survey question included a phrase about also teaching Hanukkah songs. In so doing, it may have evoked in some respondents' minds a notion of putting Judaism and Christianity on equal footing. The equal footing objective has, as noted, served as an alternative to the religiously neutral society as a way of assuring Jewish social acceptance in the United States. Fourth, carols are carols, not prayers. Jews may be more sensitive to outright Christian religious indoctrination and prayers than they are to singing popular, seasonally oriented songs.

Expression of Religion in Public Life: The Jewish Public and Leaders Diverge

Attitudes toward separation-accommodation are related to support for (or opposition to) the expression of religion in public life. Within each of the three samples, church-state separationists were more likely than accommodationists to oppose expanded religious influence in society and the involvement of churches and church leaders in political affairs. Table 5 contains several relevant questions in this domain.

Table 5
(percent who favor selected policies
or agree with selected attitudes)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Democracy in the U.S. works better if Americans are religious. 42 11 19

We need more laws governing our moral behavior.
45 28 3

I am pleased when political leaders publicly affirm their belief in God.
70 30 22

It is good for Congress to start sessions with a public prayer.
71 28 15

Belonging to a church or synagogue makes one a more aware and engaged citizen.
56 48 55

Religion should play an important role in shaping American values.
76 51 54

The influence of religion in American life should increase.
65 30 20

It is okay for a city government to put up a manger scene on government property at Christmas.
80 43 5 36

It is okay for a city government to put up candles on government property for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
79 46 7 37

Index of Support for Religious Expression in Public Life
64 41 33

For six out of nine items, the pattern of responses follows that found with respect to accommodationism in the schools: the non-Jewish public's support for religious influence exceeds that of the Jewish public, followed by the Jewish leaders. Answers to the questions on public display of religious symbols (Christmas mangers and Hanukkah candles) are prime examples. We find support for such display by the vast majority of non-Jews, a large minority of the Jewish public, and hardly any of the Jewish leaders. One of our personal interviewees provided the thinking behind his opposition to public display of religious symbols:

In terms of displays, I am comfortable with where the ADL has traditionally been, which is to object to displays on public squares. I think that the place for religious displays is in churches, synagogues, private homes, and businesses. When it is more public (e.g., government), other people who use those public places are sent a subtle, or not so subtle, message. They walk by this symbol that is not theirs every day and they feel not fully welcome in that building, or they may think that they might not get the same treatment as someone else. It comes down to thinking about how the minority will feel.

Compared with twelve years ago, Jewish support for public display has increased by a small extent, moving from 36 percent approving a manger scene in 1988 to 43 percent now, and, with respect to Hanukkah candles, from 37 percent in 1988 to 46 percent today. These changes, coupled with those reported earlier, suggest, as noted, a small shift toward more accommodationism within the Jewish public.

Non-Jews, the Jewish public, and Jewish leaders are also sharply differentiated along by now familiar lines with respect to whether "we need more laws governing our moral behavior" (45 percent versus 28 percent versus 3 percent respectively). Behind this question are two views of the state that may be called "visionary" and "instrumental." The visionary state, a view held more often by conservatives than liberals, bears responsibility for shaping the moral character of its citizenry. As such, the state is obliged to pass laws to prevent immoral conduct and to educate citizens on proper behavior. The instrumental notion of the state, a view held more by liberals than conservatives, sees the state as avoiding moral judgments. In this view, the state is responsible only for helping individuals realize the values which each citizen determines for him or herself, so long as such pursuits cause no harm to others.

Previous research has demonstrated that Jews are less inclined to support laws governing moral behavior, reflecting their reluctance to make moral judgments about some of these issues (Cohen and Liebman 1997). For example, from the survey we learn (again) that Jews take a less critical view of homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and pornography than do non-Jews. In each case, Jewish leaders are even more tolerant (or "liberal," or even libertine, from the perspective of conservative moralists) than the Jewish public.

Jewish attitudes toward such matters are not merely more relaxed or tolerant. The responses to the question on moral laws suggest that Jews are less inclined to believe that government ought to legislate what they regard as personal morality, a zone that should be free from government interference. Perhaps they hold a more suspicious view of government, one bred by centuries of living under governments that were not their own.

In still other ways, the Jewish public is generally less enthusiastic about the role of religion in American public life than are non-Jews. When asked about their preferences for the growth or decline of the influence of religion in American society, twice as many non-Jews as Jews preferred that it increase (65 percent versus 30 percent, and just 20 percent for Jewish leaders).

Of some interest is that in this area, Jewish leaders' views are not very different from those of the Jewish public. In contrast with their greater separationism, Jewish leaders expressed marginally more support than the public on the following questions (paraphrased):

  • Democracy works better if Americans are religious.
  • Belonging to a church or synagogue makes one a more engaged citizen.
  • Religion should play an important role in shaping American values.
It is in the context of the gaps in separationism reported above that these findings are surprising. With the leaders so much more strictly separationist than the public, and in light of the correlation between separationism and attitudes toward religion in public life, one might have expected the leaders to substantially trail the public in support for religious influence in society. That the leaders' attitudes even resemble those of the Jewish public in this area, let alone surpass the Jewish public in a few instances, is remarkable. Accordingly, although proportionally many more JCPA leaders adopt a strict separationist position, it does not appear to be a consequence of a greater antipathy toward the role of religion in public life.

We also see signs of similar complexity with respect to the participation of churches and clergy in politics (Table 6). Non-Jews, the Jewish public, and Jewish leaders provide very mixed patterns of responses to questions on whether churches, the clergy, and organized religion should be active in the political arena. Jews (both the public and the leaders) are far more inclined than non-Jews to want organized religion to stay out of politics. Similarly, a large gap separates the Jewish public from the non-Jewish public with respect to the appropriateness of the Right to Life movement using religion (42 percent of non-Jews approve versus 15 percent of Jews). A small gap in the same direction emerges in the question on churches and synagogues keeping out of political matters (36 percent of non-Jews and 44 percent of Jews favor this statement). However, on whether the clergy can discuss political matters and candidates from the pulpit, the Jewish public is actually more accepting (30 percent for non-Jews and 35 percent for the Jews).

Table 6
(percent who favor selected policies
or agree with selected attitudes)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders

Organized religion should stay out of politics. 56 88 83

It is okay for the Right to Life movement to use religion in the debate on abortion.
42 15 50

Clergymen can discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit.
30 35 73

Churches and synagogues should keep out of political matters.
36 44 14

Index of Support for Church Involvement in Politics
49 46 80

The JCPA leaders, on these last three questions, endorse organized religion's political involvement far more than the Jewish public and even far more than non-Jews. For example, 73 percent of the leaders approve the discussion of politics by clergy from the pulpit, as opposed to only about a third of the non-Jewish and Jewish publics. On another question, as many as 80 percent of the leaders said that churches and synagogues should express their views on social and political questions, almost twice as many as among the non-Jewish and Jewish public samples.

Among the public (be it Jewish or non-Jewish), separationist policy stances are associated with opposition to church involvement in political life. The JCPA leaders seem to break this association by strongly supporting separationism and also strongly supporting clerical and church involvement in politics.

To be sure, internally, the sample of JCPA leaders evinces the same sort of relationship between the two attitudes. That is, within the sample of leaders, separationism correlates with opposition to churches' political involvement. However, in the aggregate, the leaders are more separationist than the Jewish public, but also are more inclined to legitimate church involvement in political affairs. Accordingly, in this macro context, their strong support for churches' political involvement contrasts with their strong support for separationism.

With all this said, further inspection of the data reveals still further anomalies. The JCPA leaders trail the Jewish public with respect to these items:

  • I am pleased when political leaders publicly affirm their belief in God (for the Jewish public 31 percent agree, versus 22 percent for leaders).
  • It is good for Congress to start sessions with a public prayer (28 percent versus 15 percent)
  • Would like to see the influence of religion in American life increase (30 percent versus 20 percent).
In all three instances, approximately 70 percent of the non-Jewish public agreed, constituting a very sharp gap with the Jews, be they the public or JCPA leaders.

These results flesh out the seemingly anomalous stance of the leaders toward religion in public life. They are, indeed, more committed than the Jewish public to the right of religious institutions and leaders to engage in public life and discourse. However, like the Jewish public, JCPA leaders are unhappy with the actual exercise of that right (in fact, as a group, the leaders are marginally less pleased than the Jewish public over religious expression in the public square).

Jews are Liberal on Social Issues, Leaders More So

The role of religion in public life has figured prominently in issues related to sexuality. Abortion may be the most contentious issue, followed closely by homosexuality and, to a lesser extent, the availability of pornography. Most outspoken religious leaders, or so it probably seems to the public, adopt a "conservative" position on these issues. Any exploration of attitudes toward religion in the public square needs to take into account attitudes toward these issues.

Indeed, on every sexually-oriented public policy item listed in Table 7, we find the same ordering of the three samples' responses seen earlier with respect to separationism. The non-Jewish public is the most conservative, the Jewish public is more liberal, and the Jewish leadership is more liberal still. For example, with respect to whether homosexuality is wrong, almost half (48 percent) of the non-Jews agree, as contrasted with less than a quarter (23 percent) of the Jews, and just 7 percent of the leaders. Support for the general availability of abortion reaches 56 percent among non-Jews, 88 percent of Jews, and almost all (96 percent) of Jewish leaders. (Recall that adjusting the non-Jewish sample for education and residence produced a more liberal sample than the unadjusted national norm. Hence, these results also understate the Jewish/non-Jewish gap with regard to sexually-oriented issues.)

Table 7
("Social Liberalism/Conservatism")
(percent who favor selected policies)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders

It is wrong for adults of the same sex to have sexual relations. 48 23 7

School boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals.
24 6 4

Abortion should be generally available to those who want it.
58 88 96

Abortions should be more difficult to obtain than they are now.
41 10 5

Public schools should be allowed to provide students with information on birth control methods.
74 87 93

Lesbians and homosexuals who have publicly declared their sexual orientation should be allowed to teach in public schools.
48 75 91

Gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry legally.
32 52 56

The public sale and display of pornography should be banned.
69 56 21

Where and how pornography may be exhibited should be regulated.
84 80 69

While the ordering of responses followed that established earlier, the spacing of the frequencies is of some additional interest. The Jewish public's views are much closer to those of the Jewish leaders than they are to those of the non-Jewish public. Recall that with respect to separationism, the Jewish public stands midway between the non-Jewish public (more conservative) and the Jewish leaders (more liberal).

Jews are More Politically Liberal than Non-Jews, Leaders Even More So

The question of church-state relations has been one hotly debated by conservatives and liberals, with the former taking the accommodationist position and the latter supporting a separationist posture. Jews have a deserved reputation for liberalism, based in large part upon their historic support for the Democratic party and upon their identification as liberals, as opposed to moderates or conservatives (Cohen and Liebman 1997).

Consistent with this imagery, the extent of liberalism in the respondents' present or family past (i.e., their parents) follows a by now familiar pattern (Table 8). The non-Jewish public (even this highly educated and relatively non-Southern adjusted sample) least often identifies as liberals, surpassed in turn by Jews and Jewish leaders (19 percent, 32 percent, and 74 percent respectively). We find the same ordering with respect to Democratic party identification (31 percent, 59 percent, and 81 percent). In comparison with surveys of the Jewish public conducted in 1988 and 1997, we find a slight movement in a less liberal direction, one that is not statistically significant but may be substantively meaningful.

Table 8
(in percent)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997

Takes a liberal stand on political issues 19 32 74 33 35

Thinks of self as a Democrat
31 59 81 61 64

Father's usual stand on politics was liberal
10 25 35 23

Mother's usual stand on politics was liberal
15 26 55 26

Further (and perhaps more compelling) evidence for Jews' widespread identification with the liberal camp is found in answers to questions on the impression of selected liberal and conservative groups and movements (Table 9). Favorable impressions for liberal groups are highest among the Jewish leaders, lowest among the non-Jewish public, and intermediary among the Jewish public. For example, for the ACLU, favorable ratings range from 34 percent for non-Jews, to 61 percent for Jews, and 92 percent for the JCPA leaders.

Table 9
(in percent)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Pro-choice movement 61 86 95 78

National Organization for Women
59 77 86 51

58 75 93 49

Americans United for Separation of Church and State
19 36 74

34 61 92 33

National Rifle Association
42 19 18

Right to Life movement
41 13 18

Christian Coalition
35 9 2

Index of Liberal Orientations toward Political Activists*
58 70 79

* Index includes: pro-choice movement (+), NOW (+), NAACP (+), ACLU (+), NRA (-), and the Right to Life movement (-), and takes into account the full range of responses from very favorable to very unfavorable.

Conversely, far more non-Jews than Jews have a favorable impression of politically conservative groups. For example, 42 percent of non-Jews think favorably of the NRA as opposed to 19 percent of the Jewish public and 18 percent of Jewish leaders. The overall index of sympathy for liberal-conservative groups places the Jewish public (with a score of 70) somewhere between the non-Jewish public (58) and the JCPA leaders (79), though clearly closer to the JCPA leaders than to the non-Jewish public. The leaders, in short, see themselves squarely as member of the liberal camp in American politics, while the Jewish public leans more hesitantly in that direction.

The Jewish Public is More Wary of Antisemitism than are the Leaders

The Jewish public more readily perceives antisemitism in American society than do the leaders (Table 10). Just 9 percent of the public agree that, "antisemitism is currently not a serious problem for American Jews," as contrasted with 45 percent of the leaders. Just 31 percent of the public agreed that almost "all positions of influence...are open to Jews," as contrasted with more than twice as many leaders (70 percent). Figures for the Jewish public, when compared to 1988 figures, point to an increased concern with antisemitism. In this regard, we need to recall that several shootings of Jews by lone gunmen took place shortly before the fielding of the survey, and these undoubtedly fueled Jewish concerns over antisemitism.

Table 10
(percent who agree)

Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Antisemitism is currently not a serious problem for American Jews. 9 45 14

Virtually all positions of influence in America are open to Jews.
31 70 25

Further insight into Jewish thinking on antisemitism may be gleaned from perceptions of the extent to which certain religious, ethnic, political, and economic groups in American society are antisemitic (Table 11). With respect to a list of twelve such groups, greater proportions of the Jewish public viewed "many" or "most" of the members of these groups as antisemitic as contrasted with the more relaxed views of JCPA leaders. Some of the contrasts are quite striking. For example, 30 percent of the public see many or most Catholics as antisemitic as compared with just 4 percent of the leaders; for mainstream Protestants the results are similar (23 percent versus 4 percent). Large gaps also emerge with respect to Republicans, big business, Hispanics, and union leaders where about a quarter to a fifth of the public perceives substantial antisemitism as compared with just small handfuls of the leaders.

Table 11
(percent who think most or many
members of the group are antisemitic)


Southern Baptists 47 42

Fundamentalist Protestants
59 52 59

36 23 46

31 25 23

30 4 38

25 12 20

Mainstream Protestants
23 4 34

Big business
22 6 35

21 6 30

Union leaders
20 2 28

7 3 9

6 2 7

Index of Perceived Antisemitism
55 33

The gaps between leaders and rank-and-file Jews narrow considerably with respect to groups at both ends of the perceived antisemitism spectrum. Of note, hardly any members of the public or leadership regard liberals or Democrats as highly antisemitic. At the same time, four groups concern both the public and the leaders. Most worrisome to both samples are fundamentalist Protestants, followed by Southern Baptists, blacks, and conservatives. (For the public, the Catholics run a close fifth in perceived antisemitism.)

The results largely replicate those found among the Jewish public in 1988. Both in 1988 and in 2000, conservative-oriented groups fared "worse" than did the more liberal-oriented. Groups seen as religious and minority ethnic groups evoked high levels of concern among the Jewish public. However, the perceptions of antisemitism for almost all groups replicated declined from 1988 to 2000. For example, in 1988, 46 percent thought that many or most blacks were antisemitic as contrasted with 36 percent in the year 2000. The two exceptions to these trends entail conservatives and Republicans; for both these right-of-center groups, perceptions of antisemitism by Jews became more widespread.

The ordering of the groups (with more conservative groups seen as more antisemitic), the liberal political leanings of the respondents (Jewish public and Jewish leaders), and their stances on separationism are all related. For Jews, a more liberal worldview is associated with greater faith in liberals as friendly to Jews and more support for separationism as a protection against potentially antisemitic, conservative, Christian influences in society. The more conservative worldview is associated with more perceptions of hostility among liberals, relatively less among conservatives, and a more accommodationist position.

In general, among the Jewish public and JCPA leaders, perceptions of antisemitism are linked to support for church-state separation and a diminished presence of religion in society. But the specific groups associated with antisemitism is an important part of this story. The analysis distinguished four sorts of groups (or groups of groups), listed here in declining order of perceived hostility to Jews:

  1. Religious groups (Southern Baptists, Protestant fundamentalists, mainstream Protestants, Catholics).
  2. Ethnic groups (blacks, Hispanics).
  3. Conservative groups (conservatives, Republicans, big business).
  4. Liberal groups (liberals, Democrats, unions).
Among the Jewish public, only variations in perceptions of antisemitism among the religious groups and the ethnic groups correlate (r=about .25) with separationism or attitudes toward religious influence in public life. For the JCPA leaders, the same relationships were limited to attitudes toward religious groups. In other words, concern with the potential hostility of religious groups (among the Jewish public and leaders), as well as ethnic groups (among the public), is associated with support for separationism and opposition to religious influence in society.

Liberalism, and Other Explanations for Jewish Attitudes on Religion in the Public Square

American Jews are both more separationist and more uncomfortable with religious influence and prominence in society than are demographically similar non-Jews. What explains these differences? What factors differentiate Jews on these matters internally, and, by extension, to what extent do they explain the gaps between them and their non-Jewish counterparts?

To pull together the various threads of argument outlined above, we performed multivariate regression analyses for the Jewish public and the non-Jewish sample. The analyses focused sequentially on three dependent variables: accommodationism, support for religious influence in public life, and support for clerical involvement in politics. To recall, the separationism index pooled the items in Table 4 pertaining to school-related policies and practices. The religion in public life index drew upon attitudes in such matters as preference for religious influence in society, opening sessions of Congress with a prayer, and being pleased when public leaders affirm their belief in God. (The items are those appearing in Table 5, excluding the two questions on the public display of holiday symbols). The third index comprised two questions on the appropriateness of clerics discussing political candidates from the pulpit and whether churches should keep out of political matters (see Table 6).

For Jews and non-Jews, we examined the impact of three variables:

  1. Religiosity (measured by religious service attendance and by the extent to which one regards oneself as religious)
  2. Liberal political identity (self-described orientation as in Table 8, and attitudes to activist groups in Table 9)
  3. Liberal social attitudes (e.g., toward homosexuality, abortions, etc.; see Table 7)
With regard to accommodationism, both measures of liberalism are inversely associated with accommodationism for both Jews and non-Jews -- liberals are less accommodationist (more separationist) than conservatives. For non-Jews, but not for Jews, the more religious are more accommodationist. For Jews, religiosity bears no relationship with support for religious accommodation or church-state separation (a theme elaborated upon below). With regard to religion in public life, liberalism operates again in the same direction for both groups. Those who are more liberal (be it with respect to their political identity and leanings, or with respect to social issues) are less supportive of a high profile for religion in public life. Moreover, for both Jews and non-Jews, the more religious (in terms of worship attendance and self-description) are more inclined to favor religious expression in public life. With respect to the legitimacy of clerical and church involvement in politics, both liberal measures are of little relevance, but religiosity again operates in the expected direction: the more religious are more supportive of church and clerical engagement in politics.

Table 12
(entries are standardized regression coefficients)

Support for religion in public life Support for clerical involvement in politics
Population: Non-Jews Jews Non-Jews Jews Non-Jews Jews

Religiosity .21 -.04 .46 .28 .22 .24
Liberal identity -.25 -.26 -.20 -.19 .01 .09
Liberal social views -.18 -.19 -.26 -.28 -.08 .09

Viewing the results synthetically, we may say that religiosity influences non-Jews' thinking on religion in the public square in an entirely predictable fashion. In addition, so do political and social values. Liberalism, among both Jews and non-Jews, is associated with greater support for separationism and less enthusiasm about the influence and presence of religion in the public square. The only significant variation between Jews and non-Jews in the processes influencing attitudes toward religion in public life entails the impact of religiosity. Among Jews, the more religious are certainly more supportive of more religious presence in society. However, the more religious Jews are not more accommodationist, as we might anticipate, if they were following the patterns exhibited by non-Jews. Rather, religiosity bears no statistical relationship with accommodationism/separationism.

The somewhat peculiar relationship between religiosity and separationism among Jews suggests the need to explore the relationship between Jewish involvement and the critical attitudes more closely. To do so, we constructed a scale of Jewish involvement drawing upon several items, and resulting in five categories: the mixed married, those with low ethnic involvement, those with moderate ethnic involvement, those with high ethnic involvement, and the religiously involved. Admittedly, this categorization is not neat, but it does reflect critical and useful distinctions in Jewish involvement in the population.

We defined the intermarried as those with a spouse who is currently non-Jewish. The vast majority scored in the low level of ethnic involvement as described immediately below.

We measured ethnic involvement by summing the following items: having mostly Jewish friends, not having a Christmas tree, attending a Passover Seder, fasting on Yom Kippur, belonging to a Jewish organization, serving on a Jewish agency's board or committee, making a donation to the UJA campaign, and reading a Jewish periodical. We defined low, moderate and high levels of ethnic involvement as corresponding respectively to the ranges of 0-2, 3-5, and 6-8 on these eight items.

The religiously involved were those who met two criteria. They scored in the high range on ethnic involvement. In addition, they scored positively on all the following items: regard being religious as very important; regard their being Jewish as very important; belong to a synagogue; Shabbat candles lit in their homes; and attend synagogue services more than monthly. This most involved group comprises about 5 percent of this sample, one that, as reported earlier, under-represents Orthodox Jews, and certainly under-represents the most traditional Orthodox Jews.

Much as one would expect, increasing levels of Jewish involvement are associated with both greater interest in religious influence in society and greater acceptance of church and clerical involvement in politics. Of some interest are the scores of the mixed married on the three attitudes under investigation (separationism, opposition to religious influence in society, and opposition to clerical involvement in politics). These scores closely approximate those of the non-intermarried (they are in-married or non-married) with low levels of Jewish ethnic involvement. Not surprisingly, since the intermarried generally score low on ethnic involvement, they share the same attitudes on religion in the public square.

Returning to the main issue in these findings, generally (among Americans) and among Jews, support for religious influence in society goes hand in hand with support for accommodationism in public policy. In fact, for Jews, the correlation between the two attitudes is rather strong (r=.49) for public opinion research. Logically, if A is positively related to B, and B is positively related to C, one would expect A to be positively related to C. In our case, if Jewish involvement is positively related to support for religious influence (as it is), and if support for religious influence is positively related to religious accommodationism (as it surely is), then we would expect Jewish involvement to be positively related to accommodationism. In other words, the more Jewishly involved should be more accommodationist (i.e., less separationist). In fact, quite the opposite is the case: the more Jewishly involved are less accommodationist (more separationist).

Table 13
(entries are mean scores on indices that range from 0 to 100)

Jewish Involvement Accommo-
Support for religion in public life Support for clerical involvement in politics Number of cases

Religious 41 51 77 47
High ethnicity 49 44 53 225
Moderate ethnicity 52 39 45 395
Low ethnicity 61 38 36 155
Mixed married 60 38 40 167
  Total 53 41 46 989
JCPA Leaders 26 33 80 111
Non-Jewish public 81 64 49 684

As Jewish involvement increases, from the intermarried at one end to the most religiously involved at the other, support for accommodationism almost steadily decreases (that is, support for separationism increases). Using the accommodationism scale that ranges from 0 (totally separationist) to 100 (totally accommodationist), we find the highest scores among the intermarried (60) and those with low ethnic involvement (61). The scores decline as we move to those with moderate ethnic involvement (52), those with high ethnic involvement (49), and the most religious (41).

These findings demonstrate that separationism is very much a Jewish ethnic trait. The more deeply one is embedded in the group, the more one is likely to harbor the distinctive attitudes of that group. Alternatively, Jews with fewer ethnic ties, in a sense, move to the general societal average, one that is decidedly less separationist and more accommodationist.

The findings also demonstrate that the JCPA leaders are reflecting their circumstance as very involved Jews. In a sense, their separationist views may be seen as an extension of the views of the most ethnically and religiously involved Jews in the public. Their extraordinary high levels of support of the legitimacy of clerical involvement in politics approximates the views of the most Jewishly involved members of the public (mean scores = 80 and 77 respectively). The JCPA leaders, in these two respects, are situated where one would expect in light of the levels and directions of results among the Jewish public. With respect to separationism and support for clerical involvement, the JCPA leaders are like the most involved members of the Jewish public, only more so.

Summary and Conclusions

Compared with non-Jews with similar levels of education and regional distribution, American Jews (the public sample) differ in the following ways:

  1. More Jews than non-Jews support church-state separationism in schools and other public arenas.
  2. Fewer Jews than non-Jews support the expression of religion in public life.
  3. Fewer Jews than non-Jews favor the involvement of religious leaders and churches in political life.
  4. Fewer Jews than non-Jews take traditional stances on several issues of sexual morality.
  5. More Jews than non-Jews report liberal political and cultural orientations, both currently and among their parents.
  6. For Jews and non-Jews, support for separationism is associated with opposition to religious influence in public life.
  7. For non-Jews, personal religiosity is associated with greater support for religious accommodationism in schools and elsewhere, as well as for the increased influence of religion in society. For Jews, religiosity is unrelated to accommodationism, but is directly related to support for the increased influence of religion in society.
  8. For both groups, liberal political identity and social attitudes are associated with more separationism and less support for religious influence in society and for clerical involvement in politics.
  9. For Jews, separationism is related to concern with antisemitism among Christian religious groups and ethnic groups, with those more wary of such groups more likely to support church-state separation.
  10. Among Jews, the scant comparative data suggest a slight retreat from separationism; i.e., slightly less opposition to religious influence in society.

Jewish Leaders versus the Jewish Public

The JCPA leaders differ from the Jewish public in their more vigorous support for separationism. The gap between leaders (at least these leaders, from an agency known for its vigorous advocacy of a high wall of separation between church and state) and their public is especially pronounced. If the Jewish public is separationist, the JCPA leaders are profoundly and almost uniformly separationist. At the same time, we must recall that separationism grows with Jewish involvement. Clearly, it is most pronounced in the public among those who are most Jewishly involved. The JCPA leaders are an even more ethnically involved group than the Jewish public at large. Their views on separationism reflect their significantly higher levels of Jewish involvement.

Compared with the Jewish public, one that is wary of religious involvement in public life, JCPA leaders more readily endorse the legitimacy of religious involvement in politics. At the same time, even more than the Jewish public, JCPA leaders are displeased by the actual expression of certain religious symbols and behavior in public (e.g., opening congressional sessions with a prayer).

JCPA leaders, as compared with the Jewish public, are much more religious, more decidedly in the liberal camp, less concerned about antisemitism, and rather outspoken in their support for the legitimacy of religious influence and participation in the public square. They come to a strong support for separationism despite their personal religiosity, despite their principled support for religiously informed discourse, despite their endorsement in theory of church and clerical involvement in politics, and despite their relaxed attitude toward American antisemitism. Why the JCPA leaders remain committed to church-state separation as a deeply held principle demands explanation.

The voices of some of those holding these positions, drawn from our interviews, address this issue. They come from high-level professionals with years of experience at three different major Jewish community relations agencies:

You can be very pro-religion, believe very deeply in the importance of religion in society, and at the same time think that the best way to preserve or promote that is by keeping the state away. Not only is church-state separation beneficial for the state, but it is beneficial to the religions as well. You do not want taxpayer's funds coming into your school because you do not want them looking over your shoulder to see what you are doing, second-guessing you and questioning your curriculum if you are a religious institution. You do not want religion taught in the public schools because public school teachers are not qualified to teach it and certainly are not qualified to teach lots of different religions.

I think it is important to protect the autonomy of churches....I do not think that religion will maintain its freedom if it becomes tied to state subsidies.

As a general proposition, I think religion is a good thing. I am a person of faith myself, and I see no incompatibility between being that and one of the last of the unreconstructed 1960s liberals. I think that is a good thing. We have a values crisis in America; there is no question about that. I think that religion has a lot of answers, and the best way for religion to deliver those answers to you and me and everybody else is for it to stay out of public square and let it do its thing.

All three sets of remarks demonstrate sympathy, if not commitment, for the influence of religion in and upon public discourse. These are not, in the least, anti-religious voices. All see religious institutions as fragile structures which could be perverted or undermined by overly close connections with the state. All see a diminished impact of religion upon the state were religious institutions to accept state largesse, or, more generally, were the separation of church and state to be weakened or narrowed.

In fact, Jewish separationists have long regarded support for separation and for the expression of religion as not at all contradictory, but rather as mutually supportive phenomena. At least since 1947, Jewish communal leaders engaged in struggles over church-state issues

emphasized the establishment clause of the First Amendment, rather than the free exercise clause, as the best guarantor of religious freedom and religious equality. They assumed that the two clauses were "two sides of the same coin," expressing the unitary principle "that freedom requires separation" (Sarna and Dalin 1997:228).
Apparently, leaders of the JCPA (and other agencies with similar positions) have long held a set of related propositions, derived from their reading of the First Amendment, that sees separationism as in harmony with strong Jewish commitments (in line with the patterns in the Jewish public) and with support for the free exercise of religion in American public life. On another plane, as we have seen, the most religiously and ethnically involved members of the Jewish public are, at the same time, the most separationist and the most accepting of clerical involvement in politics. That JCPA leaders also adopt these positions, in light of their own high levels of Jewish involvement, is not at all that surprising.

Elites are clearly capable of producing and maintaining logical connections that are absent in their publics. Moreover, those who are recruited to leadership in these agencies arrive with the understanding of the agencies' historic positions. Presumably, leaders self-select. After many years of involvement, they also learn to adopt the logic that connects support for religious involvement in public life with separationism in church-state policy.


This study was prepared with the assistance of Judith Schor, CUNY Graduate Center, and the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center. The author gratefully acknowledges the extensive comments of Charles Liebman on earlier versions of this report, and also thanks Leonard Fein, Alan Mittleman, and Jonathan Sarna for their helpful comments.


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Appendix: Full Survey Results

Reviewers' Comments

Follow-Up Study (Sept. '00)

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