An Investigation of Jewish Ethnic Identity and Jewish Affiliation for American Jews

By Kakhnovets, Regina; Wolf, Lily | North American Journal of Psychology, November 2011 | Go to article overview

An Investigation of Jewish Ethnic Identity and Jewish Affiliation for American Jews


Kakhnovets, Regina, Wolf, Lily, North American Journal of Psychology


Previous studies suggest that Jews have been left out of discussion in textbooks on multicultural counseling (Weinrach, 2002), professional psychological journals (Foley, 2007; Robbins, 2000), and multiculturalism in general (Langman, 1995; 1999; Schlosser, 2006). Some possible reasons for these omissions include the designation of Jews as just a religious group, the perception of Jews as just mainstream White Americans, and the perceived high economic status of Jews (Langman, 1999; 1995). However, such assumptions ignore important aspects of being Jewish in America. The label "White" implies a shared set of values, a common history, and the same sense of privilege among all members of the group. Unfortunately though, this kind of categorization may confuse race with culture and/or ethnicity, perpetuating thinking that marginalizes entire groups of people. Over the years, the Jewish people have become so assimilated into the American culture that their unique issues and concerns have been overlooked. This study attempts to address some of the unique concerns of this group by investigating the relationships among Jewish ethnic identity, Jewish affiliation, and well-being for American Jews.

Jews do not constitute a race because being Jewish is not a biological distinction (Casas, 1984). There are Jews of many different races in the world (Langman, 1999). Jews are best defined as an ethnic group because they share a common history, a language, a religion, a nation, and a culture (Casas, 1984). Whereas ethnic identity refers to a person's sense of belonging to a group, self-identification or affiliation is related to participation in activities of the group (Phinney, 1992). Most previous research intending to examine Jewish identity may actually be focused on Jewish affiliation (Himmelfarb, 1980). The current study makes a distiction between these two concepts.

Ethnic Identity Research

Previous studies on the effects of discrimination on individuals' self-esteem and well-being show that members of stigmatized groups do not necessarily have lower self-esteem than members of the majority group (Crocker & Major, 1989; Hoelter, 1983). The members of minority groups face a choice between accepting the majority views of them (which are usually negative) or rejecting these views in search of their own identity. This choice can create a psychological conflict, and thus some members of minority groups develop a negative self-identity and self-hatred (Phinney, 1989; Tajfel 1978). Cross, Smith, and Payne (2002) discussed the concept of "buffering," which refers to the practice of using one's own ethnic identity as a shield against racism or other methods of discrimination from the majority society. Although Cross and colleagues (2002) discussed "buffering" in relation to African Americans, this concept can apply to other minority groups. In fact, Dubow, Pargament, Boxer, and Tarakeshwar (2000) found that higher scores on measures of Jewish ethnic identity were related to more ethnic-related coping strategies for early adolescents. Since one's racial or ethnic identity can serve as a protective shield from the negative views of the majority culture, those individuals who have stronger ethnic identities may be more successful in protecting themselves from internalizing negative messages coming from the oppressing group.

Phinney (1992) found that ethnic identity is correlated with self-esteem measures for high-school students. At the college level, this relationship was still present for ethnic minority students, but not for the White students (Phinney, 1992). Another study found that for college students correlations between self-esteem and ethnic identity were higher for ethnic minorities than for White students (Phinney & Alipuria, 1990). However, Phinney (1992) reported that the White students who attended schools where Whites were in the minority, showed the same patterns of relationship between their ethnic identity and self-esteem as the minority students. …

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