NEW YORK — Judaism may no longer be the No. 2 religion in the United States — and it's losing ground.
The long-anticipated demographic change was highlighted last week with the release of a new study estimating the Muslim population in the United States at 7 million. If true, it would mean that American Muslims already outnumber American Jews, whose population is estimated at 6 million.
Christianity, of course, has by far the largest number of followers in the United States.
Jewish leaders say the change represents both challenges and opportunities. Muslims may be adversaries to Jews in framing America's policy in the Middle East, but they also are potential allies in efforts to strengthen the separation of church and state and to defend the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
"The days when Jews were seen as the premier non-Christian religion are behind us," said Jonathan Sarna, Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
The new population estimate — one piece of an extensive study that is part of a larger research project on religion in America — has been met with skepticism.
In a recent New York Times article, the director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University suggested the true estimate of Muslims is closer to 4 million to 6 million, but is "pushing up."
The 7 million estimate is based on the assumption that for every Muslim associated with a mosque — some 2 million according to the study — there are 3.5 other Muslims.
Critics also point out that some of the Muslim organizations that sponsored the study, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have an incentive to pad the numbers because they are trying to increase their political clout in Washington.
A spokesman for CAIR did not return calls from JTA.
Regardless of the exact totals, no one disputes that the American Muslim population is growing and will eventually outnumber the American Jewish population, which — due to intermarriage and relatively low birthrates — is shrinking.
"We're heading toward a situation very soon, if not already, where Muslims will outnumber Jews," said John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International, a polling firm that has conducted studies of both the Muslim and Jewish communities.
American Muslims are not all Arab or even, necessarily, sympathetic to their co-religionists in the Middle East.
According to the new study, 33 percent of mosque members are of South Asian origin, 30 percent are black and 25 percent are of Arab descent.
Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, said, "I'm sure the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans spend more of their time thinking about local issues that affect their lives — schooling for children, housing, employment, quality of life in the U.S." — than about the Middle East.
"The critical question here is to distinguish between the growing American Muslim community on the one hand and certain anti-Israel Arab and Muslim organizations that have been seeking to make political inroads in Washington and in communities around the United States," Raffel said.
As members of minority religions and ethnicities, Jews and Muslims share certain interests, some Jewish leaders say. Neither group wants Christianity to be seen as the national religion, and both have specific religious needs — such as dietary laws and holidays — that they want respected.
The potential for Jewish-Muslim cooperation has largely gone untapped, but there have been some alliances at the local level.
At Dartmouth and Oberlin Colleges, joint kosher-halal dining facilities have been established.
David Gad-Harf is executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit, a community where Muslims already outnumber Jews. Detroit has the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East.
While most of Detroit's Arab Muslims live in Dearborn — in a different county from the suburbs where most Jews reside — a growing number of South Asian and Bosnian Muslims are moving to Jewish neighborhoods, Gad-Harf said.
Despite the renewal of Mideast violence beginning in late September, several local Muslim groups have made overtures to the Jewish community, Gad-Harf said.
"There's growing interest among Muslims in establishing relations with the local Jewish community, and we're very pleased by that," he said.
"The next phase will involve finding concrete opportunities to work together, for example, on state legislation that affects the rights of religious minorities and making sure that school systems are sensitive to the needs of students and teachers who are religious minorities," he said.
As for the Middle East, "we agreed to disagree and everyone agreed it was in our best interest not to focus on it," Gad-Harf said.
It is harder for national organizations to avoid the Middle East — and relations between national Muslim and Jewish groups have been weak, if not hostile. Jewish leaders complain that even when the peace process was on track, Muslim groups rebuffed overtures and allowed extremist voices to speak for Muslim Americans.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recalled his disappointment seven years ago when Detroit Muslim leaders turned down an invitation to an ADL conference for a session honoring a black civil rights activist.
After the signing of the Oslo accords, "the American Jewish community did a quantum leap in assessing their views of Arafat" and the Palestinians, Foxman said, "But the Muslim-American and Arab-American community wasn't involved in any change at all."
For their part, Muslims have argued that Jews are quick to apply the "extremist" label to Muslims who criticize Israel or express sympathy with the Palestinians.
Muslim-Jewish tensions flared in 1999 when Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, was nominated to serve on a congressional commission on terrorism. Al-Marayati was considered moderate by national Muslim groups and many L.A. Jewish leaders.
Several Jewish organizations, including the ADL and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, protested the appointment, saying Al-Marayati had condoned terrorist acts against Israel. Al-Marayati's nomination was withdrawn.
Muslim groups accused Jewish groups of misrepresenting Al-Marayati as part of a "witch hunt" to exclude Arabs and Muslims from government policy-making positions.
Al-Marayati could not be reached for comment.
Some observers say Jews would be wise to invest more energy in strengthening relations with American Muslims.
The Jewish community should "single out the South Asian community and make an effort to ally with them in the hopes that this will later have positive implications for our relationships with other elements within the Muslim population in this country," Sarna said.
Others say the increased Muslim demographics should motivate American Jews to be more active in their advocacy for Israel.
"We've gotten complacent and stopped doing the things they're doing — the ABC's of lobbying, advocacy, impact and influence in state capitals and Washington," Foxman said.
Jewish leaders also point out that the American Jewish community has always been more influential than its numbers indicate, and will still be able to make its voice heard even if outnumbered by Muslims.
"If you look just at numbers, the Jewish community shouldn't have been as successful as it has been," Foxman said. "What we made up in numbers is the level of advocacy, financial support and getting the vote out. All that is as important, if not more important, than the crude numbers."