Does Fear of Intermarriage Equal Xenophobia?

Shmuel Rosner, the correspondent for Ha’aretz who covers the American Jewish community, continues his ongoing series of discussions relating to intermarriage in America. Previously, he’s interviewed our own Ed Case and Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage author Sylvia Barack Fishman and written about Steven Cohen’s study Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews.

His newest correspondence is with Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor and one of the most prolific demographers in the American Jewish world. He and Arnie Dashevsky recently authored an essay in the 2006 American Jewish Year Book debunking the widespread notion that the American Jewish population was only 5.2 million; according to their survey of nearly 600 local demographic studies, the actual number is more like 6 million.

Whenever Jews talk about demographics, intermarriage is bound to come up. True to form, one of Rosner’s readers submits the following question to Professor Sheskin:

I often come across articles addressing the “problem” of Jewish intermarriage. On one hand I understand why there is concern over intermarriage rates. On the other hand I find it repugnant. I know “Jewish” is both an ethnicity and a religion. I think most people (maybe I’m naïve) would agree that worrying about intermarriage between ethnic groups and/or races is distasteful. For some reason it isn’t seen as nauseous to worry about intermarriage between religious groups. Why do religious concerns get a free pass here? Isn’t it just plain old out-group hostility and xenophobia?

Best, Rich

Here is Professor Sheskin’s response:

The purpose of my “interview” is not to examine American Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage. What we do in our demographic studies is to measure the extent to which intermarriage has occurred and the extent to which it affects the Jewish community.

Certainly, American Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage have changed, as it is the rare family that has not had an intermarriage and it is rare that someone does not have close friends who have intermarried.

I am unabashedly in favor of having a strong American Jewish community. I feel this way for two reasons. First, as a Jew, I believe that for those people who are Jewish, their identity serves them in many positive ways, providing (for those who need it) a source of spiritual guidance, a feeling of being part of a group, and, perhaps most importantly a set of shared ethical values. Second, as an American, I want a strong American Jewish community because, through a combination of factors, American Jews have contributed so much to America. I want America to be strong and to be a leader in the world and having a strong Jewish community, I believe, adds to the greatness of America.

Every individual Jew is going to meet and marry (if that is what they want!) someone. That person, in an open society, may be Jewish or non-Jewish. I would hope that the Jewish identity of people would be strong enough that finding a mate who can share in that identity is important. In fact, in looking at data on the types of singles programs attended by Jews age 18-64, we find that the vast majority who attend singles programs are attending Jewish singles programs. So, to many, they want to find a Jewish mate with whom the can share the Jewish part of their lives. The same way that a baseball fan might want to find a mate that shares that interest.

The problem for the Jewish community is that whether there are 5.2 million of us, or 6.4 million of us, we are few in number. Maintaining the Jewish community in many smaller communities in particular, relies on our ability to maintain our institutions. This requires things like membership, attendance, and donations. Unfortunately all of our studies show that intermarried couples are significantly less likely to join, attend, and give. While some intermarried couples do participate in the community, and I believe that the community should be welcoming to those who do, the plain fact of the matter is that most do not and most do not raise their children as Jews.

I do not think that concern about intermarriage is racist or nauseous, or any other word of that nature. We should applaud whenever two people fall in love to the extent that they want to spend their lives together. But the overall effect on the community of a high intermarriage rate is not good for the Jews. And it is not, in the long run, good for America.

It is interesting that Professor Sheskin doesn’t explain why fear over intermarriage isn’t “plain old out-group hostility and xenophobia.” He simply says that it isn’t.

This illustrates, I think, one of the reasons why the American Jewish establishment is so unpersuasive in its arguments against intermarriage. For the less-affiliated, more secular kind of people who are more likely to intermarry, diatribes against intermarriage are often going to sound like “out-group hostility and xenophobia.” If the Jewish community wants these people not to intermarry, or to raise Jewish children after they’ve intermarried, then the language needs to be positive, not negative. It needs to argue for the value of living a Jewish life, of observing Jewish rituals, of affiliating with a Jewish community. Look at the most successful religious movements in modern America, the evangelical Christian movements. Evangelicals don’t attract followers because they tell them the evangelical community is shrinking, they attract followers because they persuasively argue the value of becoming evangelical.

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