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I wish Naomi Schaefer Riley had consulted with us, or at least looked at the resources available on InterfaithFamily.com, before the Washington Post published her story, Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too.
My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place – and available to be scrutinized?
It seems that Riley’s article was prompted by the notorious Reyes case in Chicago. We’ve blogged about that extreme case several times. It’s not fair to generalize to all interfaith marriages, however, from a case where the husband converts to Judaism, the couples splits up, and the husband then takes their child to church trailed by TV cameras.
Last August we published a report on a study by Janice Aron, Interfaith Marriage Satisfaction Study Yields Answers and More Questions. Her conclusion:
The study found absolutely no difference in marital satisfaction between people who were married to partners of the same faith, and people married to partners of a different faith.
It is commonly reported that the overall divorce rate in the United States is 50%. Young people are doubtless aware of that, but thankfully they continue to marry. As a practical matter, which Riley recognizes, young people in love are probably not going to be dissuaded from pursuing their interfaith relationships by calculations of a higher risk of divorce. I think it is unfortunate, though, to have yet another negative pall cast over intermarriage.
The Gaza flotilla incident overshadowed the controversy in the Jewish media over Peter Beinert’s recent essay, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. I understand Beinert’s central thesis to be that young American Jews feel conflict between their liberalism and Zionism because of the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians, resulting in less support for Israel. This thesis makes sense to me and is consistent with what I’ve heard among an admittedly small sample of young Jews. I wasn’t planning on commenting on the essay, because Beinert himself doesn’t talk about intermarriage as part of the phenomenon. But that changed and I feel compelled to comment.
Foreign Policy got eight “experts” together, including Steven M. Cohen, and he reiterated his view that the “primary driver” undermining Israel attachment for young Jews is not Israeli policies, but instead is intermarriage. “Younger Jews are far more likely to marry non-Jews, and the intermarried are far less Israel-attached than those who marry fellow Jews — and even non-married Jews. Intermarriage reflects and promotes departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’ of which Israel attachment is part.”
My fundamental problem with Steven Cohen’s research reports is that he lumps all intermarried people together and compares them to all in-married people. Because a not insignificant percentage of intermarried people are, sadly, not engaged Jewishly, the comparison invariably shows less Jewish engagement among the intermarried. But if one looks at intermarried people who are engaged Jewishly, the differences are much reduced. This framing has a very serious policy consequence. If one thinks of the intermarried as not Jewishly engaged, why try to engage them? But if one thinks of Jewishly engaged intermarrieds as seriously engaged, why not do more to try to engage more of them?
Fortunately there are other leading sociologists and demographers who have taken issue with Cohen’s approach. In this case, Leonard Saxe and Theodore Sasson from Brandeis, writing in Tablet, credit Beinert’s thesis:
Saxe and Sasson refer in their piece to their earlier paper, American Jewish Attachment to Israel: An Assessment of the “Distancing” Hypothesis, in which they question Cohen’s overall approach and in particular write that “there is some evidence that Israel attachment actually increased among the intermarried during the period 2000-2005, perhaps an indicant of the strengthening Jewish education of this group.”
InterfaithFamily.com conducts two surveys a year around Passover/Easter and the December Holidays. In our 2009 Passover Easter survey we asked about attitudes towards Israel. We concluded that the Jewish partners feel as connected to, and are as supportive of, Israel as American Jews in general; their non-Jewish partners are nearly equally supportive of Israel, but feel much less connected – a not surprising difference, that we suggested could be overcome by sponsoring subsidized travel to Israel for interfaith couples and families. Of course if you follow Steven Cohen’s logic you would say that would be a waste of money.
I particularly object to Cohen’s use of the term “primary driver.” What exactly does that mean? It sounds like it means that intermarriage causes distancing from Israel. How would that work? A young Jew changes his or her attitude toward Israel because he or she marries someone who is not Jewish? Isn’t the opposite effect as likely to occur – the non-Jew who may previously have not had any reason to feel attachment to Israel suddenly loves someone who does? I have contended in the past that intermarriage may in fact increase the support for Israel among Americans. If the Jewish partner feels attachment to Israel, then not only the partner who is not Jewish, but also the non-Jewish parents and siblings of that partner, now have a reason to care about Israel that they didn’t have before — a close family member who cares about Israel.
Usually sociologists and demographers take great pains to distinguish between causation and correlation. It is rare – if it ever happens – for a sociologist to identify a causative factor of an attitude or behavior. But saying intermarriage is a “primary driver” for distancing from Israel sounds exactly like that.
I believe that “liberal” Jews – in the sense of non-Orthodox — do have serious issues with Israeli policies that they feel conflict with their “liberal” – as in political – views. Blaming this problem on intermarriage is counter-productive, destructive, and a serious mistake for any Zionist who like me strongly supports the need for a Jewish state in Israel.
Like many others, I have been distressed this week by recent events in Israel. This blog is meant to address issues relating to interfaith relationships; the ins and outs of Israeli government policies, how best to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, etc. — those are issues on which we don’t claim expertise and on which InterfaithFamily.com as an organization does not take a position.
That being said, I believe that the criticism of Israel’s enforcing the Gaza blockade has not been fair, and the perception of Israel has been skewed as a result — including possibly among the interfaith couples and families about whom we are concerned. US Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) had a compelling exchange with Chris Matthews on yesterday’s Hardball on MSNBC which I want to share with our audience. The interview is pasted in below; it can be found at this link, starting at approximately 4:00 into the segment.
I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by Brad Hirschfield’s piece in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, “Who Gets Religious Custody in an Interfaith Divorce?” Rabbi Hirschfield was writing about the Reyes divorce, the case of the Chicago couple whose public battle over their child’s religious upbringing made the news several times. He wrote, among other things,
I suppose I’m surprised because Hirschfield has Orthodox rabbinic ordination, and I therefore didn’t expect him to take such a relaxed attitude toward syncretism. Though he’s writing in a high register and maybe what he’s referring to is the kind of thing we often see in interfaith families: sharing of life cycle rituals and holidays with relatives from other faiths.
Hirschfield goes on to point out that the priest who agreed to baptize Ela Reyes without her mother’s permission was acting unethically, which was a very interesting insight.
[float=left][/float]I’ve been waiting for this! Susan Goldberg, who has written some beautiful and moving pieces for IFF, edited a book, with Chloë Brushwood Rose, called And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. The book has been available in Canada for some months now, and is finally being released in the US. If you live in New York and this is an issue dear to your heart, you should go to the book release party, Tuesday June 8 at 7PM at Bluestockings.
I read the excerpt on the publisher’s website–the introduction and first chapter–and it is great!