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O My America: 150 Million Jews!

December 1, 2015

8315950_origA FRIEND OF MINE who works in the civil and human rights field in New York recently asked a class he was teaching what percentage of America they thought was Jewish. Their answers ranged from 20 percent to over 50 percent.

The students themselves, would-be social workers and organizers, were a mixed lot, about 70 percent of them white. Their race and ethnicity did not seem to affect their answers. There were even two half-Jews in the class, who also gave preposterously high estimates of America’s Jewish population. (And yes, my friend said, they all understood percentages.)

This is not the first time I have been told about people’s grossly inflated ideas about Jews in the U.S., who number between 2 and 3 percent (depending on how you count Jews) of the country’s 321 million people. For all the discussions I’ve had with Jews about whether we are really and truly white, the reality is that we are widely perceived as the white majority! What in the world is this phenomenon about?

“Their professors are mostly Jewish,” explained my friend, “and the people they see on television and in the movies are Jewish — or at least my students think they’re Jewish.”

Is that it? Jewish high-achieving and visibility?

“Plus,” my friend says, “I’m teaching New Yorkers. A lot of white people in New York are Jews.”

But a lot of New Yorkers are Italian, too, and I doubt if his class would say that half the white people in America are Italian. And a lot of New Yorkers are Chinese, but I doubt if his class would guess that half of America is Chinese...

HOWEVER I EXPLAIN to myself this bizarre misapprehension about Jewish numbers in America, I am disturbed by it. It implies that the many people (college-educated!!) who resent the American power structure are resentful of Jews; that the many who resent white racism are thinking that Jews are racist. Maybe they think Uncle Sam is Jewish!! And they must believe that Jews reproduce like hamsters, given that a third of our people were killed by the Nazis only sixty years ago.

So I took my own poll this morning: I asked myself to estimate the size of various ethnic groups in America, without giving it much thought. Here was my completely off-the-cuff list, in which I didn’t even aim for 100 percent:

English background, 36 percent; Irish, 12 percent; German, 30 percent; African-American, 12 percent; Hispanic, 17 percent; Italian, 9 percent; Scandinavian, 7 percent; Chinese, 4 percent.

Then I looked up the reality.

According to Business Insider, Americans of German ancestry are the largest group, more than 49 million strong, or 15 percent. (I doubled their numbers, I would guess, because of cockeyed associations I make between far-right politics and German Nazism.)

People of African background are the next largest, over 41 million strong, or 12.8 percent. (Bingo! I knew this because they are the most clearly defined, much-written about and oft-measured ethnic group in America.)

The Irish come next, with over 35.5 million, or 11 percent. (I don’t know how I came so close.)

Mexicans come after that, with 31.8 million, almost 10 percent. But if you lump together all Spanish-speakers (which I did but shouldn’t), including Puerto Ricans (nearly 4.6 million, 1.4 percent), Cubans (nearly 1.8 million), Salvadoran (nearly the same in numbers as the Cubans), and Dominican (1.4 million), there are about as many Americans of Spanish-speaking background as there are of African background. (Still, I exaggerated their numbers, perhaps based on electoral predictions that I’ve read and on my having spent a fair amount of time in California, which is 38 percent Hispanic.)

TO MY SURPRISE, there are only 26.9 million Americans of English ancestry, or 8.4 percent, although if you count “British” instead of “English” and include Scotland (5.7 million) and Wales (1.9 million) as countries of origin — and Scottish-Irish (5.7 million), too — the numbers get up to 40 million, or 12.4 percent. (I exaggerated their numbers by 300 percent; I think I readily associate “white” with “WASP.”)

Italians log in next at 17.6 million, or 5.5 percent. (I added a few percentage points; they’re concentrated in the New York area, and so am I. Plus I eat a lot of pizza.)

Polish come in next at 9.7 million, or 3 percent (but I didn’t even think of them, or any Central Europeans, in my off-the-cuff counting, as though we Jews finally had left them all behind in Europe).

Norwegians number 4.6 million, Swedish 4.2, Danish 1.4, for a combined Scandinavian total of 3 percent. (I have no idea why I exaggerated their total in my mind.) Chinese? Only 4 million, including Taiwanese. (I grew up with Chinese friends, but I still carry images of Chinese people in swarms, which perhaps caused me to exaggerate.)

OF COURSE, the Business Insider article did not list the Jewish population (though two of its three authors have Jewish-sounding names), because in America, Jewish is a religion, not a peoplehood or ethnic group. So where are our six million embedded, among the Poles? The Russians? Puh-lease.

And there it is, my own catalog of prejudices. Save one: However I might interpret the meaning of America’s (college-educated!) grossly exaggerated sense of Jewish numbers, the whole exercise leaves me with the nightmarish image of 150 million (or so) American Jews yelling at each other about Israel...

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.