More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Jewish Americans say they will participate in a Passover Seder this year, a ritual feast that commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the Israelites were emancipated from slavery in ancient Egypt. This Friday night after sundown, as they move through the Haggadah, the text that sets forth the order of the Seder, celebrants will read aloud the classic line: “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”
One of the most significant findings of the 2012 Jewish Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, is the centrality of a general commitment to social and economic equality, which upholds that specific text.
These values were present in direct questions about values that are essential to Jewish identity and political beliefs. They are also plainly visible in American Jews’ opinions on a range of policy questions. When asked which single quality is most important to their Jewish identity, for example, nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews name a commitment to social equality-twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent).
When asked which Jewish values were in important in shaping their political beliefs and activities, at least 8-in-10 cited “pursuing justice” (84 percent) and “caring for the widow and the orphan” as somewhat or very important in shaping their political identity. Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means “healing the world,” and “welcoming the stranger,” a central Jewish value woven throughout the Passover story, were only slightly less influential, with 72 percent of American Jews reporting that each value was somewhat or very important to their political beliefs and activity. A smaller majority (55 percent) also say that “seeing every person as made in the image of God” is somewhat or very important.
These values also appear in American Jews’ opinions on a range of public policy issues, particularly economic policy. Two-thirds (64 percent) of American Jews agree that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Although a majority (52 percent) of American Jews report that they would not be willing to pay more in taxes to fund federal programs that help the poor, a majority (52 percent) of Jews in the highest income category, those with household incomes of $125,000 a year or more, say that they would be willing to pay more taxes. And more than 8-in-10 American Jews favor a proposal commonly referred to as “the Buffett Rule,” which would increase the tax rate on Americans earning more than $1 million a year.
This does not mean that American Jews are anti-wealth, nor are they anti-Wall Street. To the contrary, nine-in-ten say they admire people who get rich by working hard. More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) American Jews also believe that Wall Street makes an important contribution to the American economy.
The survey indicates, however, that Jewish Americans care deeply about whether economic opportunity is available to all. A strong majority (73 percent) – including strong majorities across all income categories – believe that the economic system in the U.S. favors the wealthy. Fewer than 4-in-10 (37 percent) say that the American Dream (the notion that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead) still holds true, while 45 percent of American Jews believe that the American Dream once held true but does not hold true anymore, and 1-in-10 say it never held true.
Translating values into political beliefs and public life is a tricky business. Even though most American Jews agree that social justice forms an important basis for their political beliefs and actions, the Jewish community nevertheless contains significant demographic, political, and denominational differences, which the 2012 Jewish Values Survey report explores in greater detail. But it’s clear that as most American Jews recline at Seder tables this Friday night, they will bring with them – and hear in the stories and songs of the Passover celebration – these commitments to social and economic equality.