Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast?

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.

This is an interesting finding because it seems to herald a new trend in the psychological research in this area. There is a body of research supporting the idea that homogamous marriages tend to be happier than heterogamous ones, but some recent research like mine finds no difference. Perhaps this is the trend of the future. I am hoping it means Americans are becoming less suspicious about, and more accepting of, other religious views. Perhaps the more heterogamous our society becomes, the more we are forced to re-examine our assumptions about others.


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.

Young American Jews, Israel, and 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:
“When [Beinert] writes that under the Netanyahu government lines are being crossed and Zionism increasingly seems at odds with liberalism, he expresses the sentiments of an influential segment of the American Jewish intelligentsia. The tension between American Jewish liberalism and the policies of the current Israeli government is real, and the prospect of substantial alienation in the future cannot be dismissed.”

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.

Israel Is Being Unjustly Criticized

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.


Rep. Frank Interviewed on MSNBC
June 2, 2010

MATTHEWS: Let’s turn now to Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.  Congressman Frank, what do you — this is — how do you find objective truth in the Middle East?

FRANK:  You know, first of all, we ought to be very clear that the blockade has not simply been an Israeli blockade. It’s been an Israeli/Egyptian blockade. And I think that’s very important, because I do think the Israelis have a legitimate concern about being unfairly blamed and double standards.

By the way, I don’t remember quite so much worldwide outrage when the North Koreans sank a South Korean submarine and 46 people were killed. There are people now very upset about Israel on a much more ambiguous situation as to what could and should have happened.

We had an unprovoked attack by North Korean on a South Korean submarine, 46 people killed, and a great deal of silence and — and — and equivocation.

Look, you have this fundamental problem with Israel, for them. They gave up Gaza voluntarily. I was one of those who for a long time was arguing they should. What happened was, Gaza was then occupied by a group of people who think Israel shouldn’t exist and who are in fact on our terrorist list for good reason.

Now, what you then have is a blockade. And the argument is, well, there were no weapons in this shipment. But a blockade that allows some things in and not others has to maintain control over the ports of entry, so you can know what is in or not.

Given that, I think it was irresponsible of the pro-Hamas people who organized this set of ships to go in there to do that, and obviously understood the potential for violence. That does not mean that everything the Israelis did in this situation was right. When military people are in a situation where they have to use force, as they had to do here, not everything will be done well. Not everything will be done correctly. I do agree it would be in Israel’s interest to have an independent inquiry, appointed by Israelis.

By the way, the Israeli government, the Israeli judiciary, has a very good record of holding the Israeli government to account. The Israeli Supreme Court has been much tougher on the Israeli government on security matters than the U.S. Supreme Court has been on our government, or the French or the others have been.

MATTHEWS: I know.

FRANK: So I think in interest to have — to look at specifics. But the context is relevant, that Egypt and Israel both said, look, we have terrorists running a piece of territory here. We do not trust them to be peaceful. And we’re going to monitor what goes in.

I agree things could be done better. But in this particular situation, I think it would be in everybody’s interest for there to be an independent inquiry, which Israel has shown itself capable of having internally, to figure out who did what, when. But the basic concept — I do believe — put it this way, if Hamas were in Canada, America would have a tougher blockade than Israel has.

MATTHEWS: I hate it, congressman, when I completely agree with somebody, but I do. The only question to add to that is what’s the international community, the smart people in Europe that are watching it — don’t they see the movies we see? Don’t they see, in this particular situation, the Israeli IDF guys getting beat up on that ship? Don’t they see it?

FRANK: One more thing, Chris — and it’s true, this is causing — the blockade hurts people in Gaza. And by the way, again, it was an Egyptian/Israeli blockade. So let’s be clear. The Egyptians, for their own reasons of self-preservation, were doing this. Blockades hurt people. The blockade of North Korea hurts North Koreans.

I remember when we were fighting Apartheid in South Africa, being told by Ronald Reagan, who vetoed the sanctions bill — you remember this, Chris. And we overrode Ronald Reagan’s veto to impose tough sanctions, economic, on South Africa. And the Reaganites said to us you’re hurting the poor black people of South Africa. And Nelson Mandela later stood in the Capital of the United States and said, thank you for doing that, because you need to put pressure on them.

So again, if the blockade can be done better, I’m not an expert on that. Yes, humanitarian aid should get in. Food should get in. The Israelis say it has been. If there’s a dispute there, let’s work to make — to increase it. And an inquiry — look and say what we’ve done with the American military. You put military people in a position where they have to use force and it’s not going to be done perfectly.

But on the fundamentals, on the right to a blockade, again, we have to go back to the fact this doesn’t happen in the West Bank. It happens in Gaza because a terrorist group that’s opposed to Israel’s very existence took physical control from the elected government at the time, the president, who won the parliament and have used it as a base of attacks.

MATTHEWS: You know what? I think when you let the Europeans judge Israel, you’re not letting them be judged by a panel of their peers. It does seem a totally prejudicial situation. Go ahead, one last thing.

FRANK: About Turkey and Iran, unfortunately — and getting sanctions against Iran is very important. I’m willing to show a little slack to the Chinese for that that. But the Turks and the Brazilian just undermine our efforts to deal with Iran a couple weeks ago. So turkey can’t blame this, and the Turks should not have been allowing themselves to be used in this situation by Hamas. But the Turks can’t blame this for the fact that they’ve already been out of sync with us on Iranian sanctions.

MATTHEWS: Well, they’ve got an Islamic government. Thank you so much, Islamist government, perhaps. Thanks you very much, Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Religious Custody

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,

So Ela Reyes will do what more and more people, including the children of multi-faith families, are learning to do—appreciate that they are part of multiple religious communities and figure out how to honor that reality.  Some will “choose a side,” but one hopes without rancor toward the ones not picked.  The ability to affiliate with one tradition while genuinely respecting those who follow others is one of the central issues in contemporary public culture….Some will claim multiple memberships, not unlike those who hold dual citizenship in two countries.  Others will create new traditions by fusing the multiple faith traditions which inform their life. While these options may cause some discomfort, it’s worth remembering that they reflect genuinely positive realities that benefit us all, and which virtually none of us would give up.

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.

And Baby Makes More

[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!