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.

Just say no

I’ve been working for weeks on a blog post to put all the conversion hysteria in the Jewish world into some kind of context. Yesterday I spent an hour trying to work the latest news from Israel into the whole complicated, world-wide, cross-denominational mess. I realized it’s taking too long and I just need to tell you this:

There’s a bill before the Knesset in Israel to change the Law of Return to bar converts from being integrated into Israeli society as Jews and we have to act now.

At the moment, any convert, no matter who has converted him or her, can make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) under the Law of Return–even people whom the Chief Rabbinate would deny the right to marry a Jew. Israeli law also dodges the problem of excluding people who are Jewish by patrilineal descent through a 1970 amendment that allows relatives of Jews to come on the same basis as Jews.

Now the right-wing secular party Yisrael Beiteinu has put forward a new bill to exclude converts to Judaism from the Law of Return–catering to the Chief Rabbinate, whose officials have declared hundreds of Orthodox conversions performed in the State of Israel invalid. (We’re not even talking about Reform or Conservative conversions done in the US or elsewhere.)

If you think this is pushing Israel toward theocracy, you are dead wrong. At least, if it is a theocracy, it’s not a Jewish one, because declaring converts to have a different status is not based on Judaism. Jewish religion says that a Jew is a Jew and there’s no distinction between converts and people who are born Jewish. This is a scary piece of legislation designed to cut off the rest of the Jewish people from the State of Israel. On JewsByChoice.Org (a fantastic web resource that seems to be back in business!) I found this plea from the Conservative movement to act immediately on the Knesset bill. The Reform movement, through its Zionist organization Arza, is also urging action. 

This is not the solution to the problems of interfaith families in Israel, as Yisrael Beiteinu seems to believe. Jewishness is not a racial category and we can’t resolve our communal differences over how to do conversion by taking from converts one of the major tokens of belonging to the Jewish people. The bizarre and anti-halachic campaign of the Chief Rabbinate to undermine conversions in Israel has had widespread impact here in the Diaspora. It’s time to tell them no.

Abraham Sutzkever

There’s a song that plays in my head whenever I learn that one of my heroes has died.
“They are falling all around me/the strongest leaves on my tree.
Every paper brings the news that/the teachers of my life are moving on.”–Bernice Johnson Reagon

Abraham Sutzgever died at the age of 96 on January 20. Considering that he risked his life to save Jewish culture from the Nazis, that’s pretty remarkable. Sutzgever was a member of the Paper Brigade, a group of Jewish intellectuals in Vilna, Lithuania who defied the Nazis by saving and hiding Jewish cultural artifacts from Eastern Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish archive, YIVO. At the same time, he continued to write poetry.

“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1985 while reminiscing over a glass of French cognac. “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

Sutzkever lived from the founding of the State of Israel until his death in Tel Aviv, editing a Yiddish literary magazine there until 1995. Even though the push in Israeli culture was to forget Yiddish and to teach Hebrew only, Sutzkever kept Yiddish literature and its values alive.

I had missed the initial news of Sutzkever’s death and didn’t understand why  one of my favorite bloggers had posted one of his poems in Yiddish out of the blue. She blogs in Yiddish a lot–I do my best to keep up. We in the succeeding generations continue to take seriously Yiddish speakers’ legacy of courage and creativity. As I researched this post, I found a 21-year-old Youtube user called Ikhveysnit–it means, “I don’t know”–who has been recording the poems of Sutzkever and other Yiddish poets of his generation.

I also found this video–Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, who has also done a lot to keep Yiddish alive, singing a song based on one of Sutzkever’s poems, Unter Dayn Vayse Shtern. The video is Chagall paintings, which is appropriate as Sutzkever saved some of Chagall’s paintings from the Nazis.

Where to Donate to Help Haiti

If you are looking for a way to do something about the massive human suffering of the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake there, there are many organizations providing aid to Haiti that are accepting donations.

A group with a long history in the country is Partners in Health. They provide community-based health care and they know the situation on the ground well. They are also seeking doctors and other medical personnel to volunteer.

Another group with a pre-established presence in Haiti is Médicins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. They have a donation page here.

A Jewish charity doing work in Haiti is American Jewish World Service, which makes grants to other organizations on the ground. You can make similar donations through the social action arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Another organization, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is part of an advocacy effort to allow Haitian immigrants and temporary workers to stay in the US under Temporary Protected Status.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has sent a disaster relief team to Haiti. Israel has a record of expertise in providing earthquake aid in other countries. Several North American Jewish charities have contributed financial support to Israel’s work in Haiti, according to the Jerusalem Post, including American Jewish Committee,  B’nai Brith International,  the Canadian B’nai Brith branch and the Venezuela-based Central American branch of B’nai Brith.

Lighten Up Dude

I have been stewing over how to blog about the Eternal Jewish Family conversion scandal which I have been following on Twitter and on Failed Messiah since it broke. (If you follow the link, you can read the excellent take at Tablet Magazine on the story.) I just didn’t know how to deal with yet another horrible embarrassment for the Jewish people.  But I’m just teasing you–I still don’t know what I can say about this scandal that doesn’t involve a lot of ranting, raving and anthropological jargon.

Nope, today I’m going to write about Krusty the Clown. Remember Krusty, the character on The Simpsons patterned after Bozo the Clown–but Jewish. My former office-mate at the University of Massachusetts used to quote the line, “Krusty the Clown is Jewish?” at me to crack me up. (It didn’t really work, but nice try, Jeff.) Now, according to the Forward, In the next episode of The Simpsons, Krusty is in an interfaith relationship and his rabbi dad is going to officiate at the wedding.

Awesome!

I was sitting here fuming about a story in the Orthodox Jewish Press, Time to Bring Back the Communal Cold Shoulder. The link is there for completeness; I don’t recommend reading the article since it might raise your blood pressure. The rabbi who wrote this story looks back with nostalgia on his upbringing in Brooklyn, where people who violated Jewish law were ostracized. Why aren’t we ostracizing some of “those whose immoral and illegal behavior has contributed to chillul Hashem and to the diminution of respect others have for the Orthodox community and for the Torah itself.” The way they used to ostracize people back in Bensonhurst–and who is the example from his? An interfaith couple he remembers people shunned. (One in which the wife was Jewish, yet, so that the children would be considered Jewish under Orthodox legal interpretation.)

This is why I still have a job. There are still at least some Jewish leaders willing to compare extreme crooks, people who sell human kidneys, sexual abusers and folks who sell treif meat as glatt kosher–to intermarriage. Because they do not have good sense. If that couple had children, are those children Jewish today? Oh, why not do you think?

I have so many angry things to say about people who think interfaith marriage is more dangerous to the Jewish people than having rabbis who are crooks, creeps and criminals, so many hot words on the moral bankruptcy of this kind of position and why it leads to the kind of scandal we’re seeing at Eternal Jewish Family. 

And then you know–Krusty the Clown is Jewish? Heh.

He’s not the first Jew with a mezuzah on his door who had an adult bar mitzvah and then married a non-Jew. Send him our way–we’ve got a listing of synagogues that are welcoming to interfaith families–and cartoon clowns.

Either the Worst or the Best Thing–We Choose

Paul Golin, associate executive director at Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote an op-ed about the recent Birthright Israel study. Miriam Shaviv, a Jewish journalist across the Atlantic at the Jewish Chronicle in London, thinks Golin’s statistics are “not good news”–because they assert that more Jews in North America are intermarrying than she realized.

It may be that the Brandeis Birthright Israel study is methodologically flawed–though frankly, I’m a historian and I often find it challenging to believe in the causal relationships that are set up in sociological studies. One blogger in an interfaith relationship challenges whether this is even the right question to ask. (He also assumes that the funders of Birthright are emphatically anti-intermarriage, but we don’t believe that is so — several of the leading Birthright funders also fund Jewish outreach to interfaith families–including InterfaithFamily.com.)  Oh! Nearly missed my chance to cite the best blog post title ever: Intermarriage Not Cancer–though the author was just pointing to Leyna Krow’s post on the subject that ends with the line, “No need to taint it by claiming Birthright will fix a problem that isn’t really a problem.”

Here’s how I think about this. Either we as a people are in terrible trouble, because we are going to lose the children of interfaith marriage, who won’t be Jews. Or we are about to get a very nice present, because we are going to gain the children of interfaith marriage, who will be some very committed and interesting bicultural Jews.

Right now, we are seeing both things happen. We have some lovely young Jews from interfaith families working in the Jewish community and joining synagogues, and we have some children of interfaith families who are raising their own children as “nothing.” What’s it going to be? More Jews, or fewer? Punish the children because of who their parents are, or enjoy their company over your Shabbat table? Yes, interfaith families will choose–but they are part of our community, and they don’t make their choices in a vacuum.

I can’t say whether Birthright Israel is the one true way to encourage Jewish commitment. I’m a little nervous about putting all of our eggs in a single basket. I think we’ve developed different denominations, theologies and political ideologies–different ways to be Jewish–so that we can all stay connected to one another and pass along our cultural and religious heritage to a new generation. Interfaith families are part of that. We have run a lot of articles from children of interfaith families about their experiences with Birthright Israel. It’s worthwhile to listen to their voices in this discussion.

What Israelis–and Americans?–need to know about intermarriage in North America

Yesterday the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed I wrote, What Israelis need to know about intermarriage in North America.

About a month ago I blogged about the MASA “Lost Jews” ad campaign, which implied that all of the 50% of young Jews outside of Israel who intermarried were assimilated and “lost.” This is a common misconception in the English-speaking Israeli press, and I called it “the most stupid, ill-conceived effort coming out of Israel in many years.” MASA is a great program that brings young adults to Israel for six months to a year, but promoting it as an antidote to intermarriage will alienate the 50% of young adults who have intermarried parents and who might potentially be attracted to the program.

The ad was pulled, reportedly at the direction of Natan Sharansky, the chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel which controls the MASA program. The controversy even generated an article by Associated Press writer Amy Tweibel, which was widely distributed on newspaper websites all over the US, for example, on the San Francisco Examiner site.

Mr. Sharansky, who is a great hero of the Jewish people, reportedly said that it was important for Israelis to better understand North American Jewry, and vice versa. I thought that was a welcome idea, but then I got worried about who would be teaching Israelis about intermarriage in America, and what they would be told. That’s why I wrote the op-ed, because it is critical for Israelis to know that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to loss of Jewish identity and affiliation; that many interfaith couples and families are engaging in Jewish life; and that intermarriage has the potential to increase support for Israel in America.

If the teaching ever takes place, I don’t know if I’m optimistic about the chances for a balanced presentation about intermarriage. I think that the Jewish Agency or MASA are likely to turn to Jewish thought leaders who hasten to view intermarriage as a threat to Jewish continuity. That’s the approach taken by Jack Wertheimer in a recent op-ed in the Forward, Time for Straight-Talk about Assimilation.

I can’t tell whether fundamental attitudes about intermarriage have changed among Jews more generally. The recent case of the Feinbergs, who wrote into their will that any descendant who intermarried would be disinherited, is another example of deep-seated hostility towards intermarriage. My colleague Ruth Abrams blogged recently about the case, and our friend Julie Wiener quoted me in her column for the New York Jewish Week,
Does It Pay to Marry a Jew. Not only were the Feinbergs wrong to think they could deter their descendants from intermarrying, but they likely discouraged their descendants who did intermarry from engaging in the Jewish life that the Feinbergs wanted to preserve. In talking with Julie I expressed frustration at the apparent ongoing unwillingness to see intermarriage as an opportunity. Julie as I recall disagreed, saying the outcry over the MASA ad and its prompt undoing indicated that attitudes had become more favorable. I’m not so sure. What do you think?

Our Antonio

[float=left][/float]I was so thrilled to learn from a recent piece in the Tablet that Antonio Sabato Jr. was actually Jewish! Sabato is best known for his work as the gorgeous Calvin Klein underwear model and actor on General Hospital.  (Photo by Jerry Avenaim used under a Creative Commons license.)

Sabato’s mother, Yvonne, is Jewish but did not discover her heritage until she was an adult. Her mother hid her Jewish identity and sent Yvonne to Catholic school. The family had also moved from Prague to Italy. Antonio’s grandparents and uncle were killed in Auschwitz during the Shoah.

In the Tablet Sabato describes his upbringing as “very liberal, Judaism, and Catholicism. He does hope to visit Israel with his mother. (What a good Jewish son!) For now, Sabato is starring on his own reality series, My Antonio in which his mother helps him find true love.

Who is a Jew? (Do you want your government to answer that?)

Last week, a British Court of Appeals ruled that an individual’s Jewish beliefs, not birth or conversion, determines Jewishness, and that to deny a child admission to a Jewish school due to the circumstances of his birth is racism. This was in response to a British court case in which the parent of a child was denied admission to JFS (formerly known as the Jews Free School), a publicly-funded Jewish school, because his mother’s conversion to Judaism was through an independent progressive synagogue that the Orthodox United Synagogue didn’t recognize. This is the second time that the case has been heard. JFS has said that it will appeal the case to the House of Lords, which functions like the US Supreme Court in being Britain’s court of last appeal.

If the appeals court decision stands, the 97 Jewish schools in Britain, all of which are Orthodox, will have to create new criteria to determine who is eligible for admission into Jewish day schools. A spokesperson from the British Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the United Jewish Communities in the US) told Haaretz that Jewish schools could be compelled to use “faith tests” similar to those done by publically-funded church schools in Britain. These faith tests could include home visits and attendance checks at the local synagogue. I can envision it now, desecrate the Sabbath, get kicked out of school!

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