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  • Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era
  • David A. Hollinger (bio)

About fifty years ago there came to a head an often animated controversy over whether the federal census of 1960 should include religious categories. The census had changed its character from decade to decade, but had always counted people by what were then called, and by the Census Bureau today are still called, "races." Never had the federal census counted people by religion. In the middle 1950s, a time when religious identity was especially popular among Americans—this was, after all, the era of Will Herberg's Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955), which powerfully reinforced the idea that religious rather than racial or class identities were what really mattered in the United States—the adding of religion to the census had wide appeal. The Eisenhower administration, which participated heavily in the Cold War sloganeering that contrasted "godless communism" to the godly United States, looked favorably on the idea. Catholic groups were vocally enthusiastic about it. But Jewish organizations were at first reserved, and then increasingly hostile to it. Between 1956 and 1958, the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations worked hard to stop the plan, especially by lobbying members of Congress. In 1958 the Jewish organizations were able to declare victory. The Eisenhower administration decided it was too controversial.1

I invoke this long-forgotten controversy, the details of which have been carefully set forth by Kevin Shultz, because the concerns voiced by Jewish opponents of the counting of Americans by religion offer a [End Page 1] convenient window on long-term issues regarding the place of Jews in American life, the resolution of which affects the questions I address here: how do we today define the field of American Jewish history, and how does that field now relate to the larger field of American history?

The Jewish organizations of the 1950s did not want religion in the census for several reasons, one of which was a commitment to a strict separation of church and state that had always been important to Jewish organizations. This commitment had been reinforced during the 1940s and 1950s in response to Catholic and evangelical Protestant efforts to mobilize state power in support of religious education, to prohibit the sale of contraceptives, and even to prohibit the dissemination of information about birth control. So prominent were Jews in the litigation advancing church-state separation that the leaders of the ACLU, as Samuel Walker has established, were desperate to find non-Jewish plaintiffs, lest the advance of church-state separation become popularly understood as a Jewish conspiracy.2 But Shultz demonstrates that Jewish organizations were also worried that the inclusion of religious categories in the census of 1960 would draw public attention to the fact that Jews were at once a very small minority and a very visible, undoubtedly powerful presence in the society.3

The Jewish organizations were of course aware that many American Jews did not practice Judaism, but enough did in the mid-1950s to make a religious category almost as certain a way to distinguish the nation's Jewish population as a Jewish racial designation on the census. At issue was the marking off of Jews as a demographic entity in terms that might lend credibility to antisemitic charges that Jews were too influential and, at the extreme of popular prejudice, that they were actually engaged in a conspiracy to take over various institutions and to dominate American politics.

Catholic organizations, by contrast, had long lamented that their very high numbers were not being recognized. Catholics were a bigger deal in American life than the general public understands, Catholic lobbyists insisted. A great thing about the Eisenhower administration's plan, according to these lobbyists, was that at long last attention would be drawn to the underrepresentation of Catholics in Congress, in universities and other institutions, and in households with high income. Both Catholic and Jewish leaders had a certain stake in not making their conflict too stark and vociferous. But their disagreement was real, and Catholics were very disappointed when they lost the struggle. [End Page 2]

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