Reprinted with permission of the Forward newspaper. Visit www.forward.com.
In the world of Jewish demographics, an accusation that one's survey methods are "biased" is the academic equivalent of a thrown gauntlet.
Or so Edmund Case discovered recently when he challenged a new survey on intermarriage put out by the American Jewish Committee and Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman. Weeks after Mr. Case's op-ed leveling the "bias" charge appeared in the New York Jewish Week, the Internet continues to sizzle with missives among Mr. Case, Ms. Fishman and her defenders.
The feud involves personality clashes, bruised egos and the never-ending debate over whether the organized Jewish community should welcome or rebuff intermarried families. Behind the spat, however, is a deeper debate about the community's reliance on sociological surveys to quantify and define the boundaries of Jewish identity and practice.
Based on interviews with 127 interfaith couples, Ms. Fishman's survey found that 82% of intermarried families reported Christian activities in the home, mainly the celebrations of Christmas and Easter. A key conclusion of the study was that even in mixed-marriage households where the children are to be raised as Jews, Christian elements creep in and the families tend to shift over time from practicing Judaism to practicing a mixture of Judaism and Christianity.
Mr. Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, said he objected to the study because it concluded that holding a Christian holiday meal undermines the Jewish nature of a household and represents the introduction of "substantial Christian elements." He maintained that the survey ignored the possibility that many families take part in such meals in order to spend time with and show respect for non-Jewish relatives. He pointed out that many of the families in the survey insisted that the activities were not "religious."
In the Jewish Week piece, Mr. Case called Ms. Fishman's study "biased" and "predictable" and questioned its sponsorship by the AJCommittee, which recently formed a coalition with other groups to combat intermarriage. "They form part of an orchestrated campaign against intermarriage by a small group of leaders who are unhappy with the lay Jewish community's increasing acceptance of intermarriage," he wrote.
Angry at Mr. Case's characterization of her work as "biased," Ms. Fishman responded by sending Mr. Case an e-mail demanding a public apology. Other academics, including demographer Steven M. Cohen and historian Jonathan Sarna, followed up with their own e-mails, obtained by the Forward, defending Ms. Fishman's research and questioning Mr. Case's judgment and motives.
"Whatever the elective affinity between [Ms. Fishman's] work and the blessed position of her sponsors, I assure you that no other evidence in our profession (social science of American Jews) runs contrary to her central findings," Mr. Cohen wrote in his e-mail. He then attacked Mr. Case's work at Interfaith Family.com. "Why do you promote the blending of Christianity and Judaism, undermining the integrity of each?" he wrote. "Instead, why not preserve the norm that encourages Jews to marry Jews, and then encourage those Jews who fail to marry Jews to...raise their children as committed, active, and knowledgeable Jews?"
Mr. Case demanded his own apology from Mr. Cohen.
"InterfaithFamily.com encourages interfaith families to participate in Jewish life and to raise their children as Jews," Mr. Case wrote. "We distance ourselves from Dovetail and other organizations which encourage families to have two religions in the home. Unless you can point to one single statement that I have ever made orally or in writing in which I 'promote the blending of Christianity and Judaism' or 'seemingly encourage Jews to marry non-Jews,' you should retract those slanderous statements."
As for Ms. Fishman's request for an apology, Mr. Case told the Forward that he didn't mean to imply that the Brandeis professor had somehow cooked the books, just that she and the AJCommittee harbor an intellectual bias that prevented them from evaluating the data in a more positive light. To resolve the issue, the AJCommittee should make the original fieldwork open to other scholars, he said.
Ms. Fishman said that the raw data collected for her study would not be released for several years, until she is finished writing a book based on the research.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, a leading proponent of pluralism, said the debate between those arguing for a more tolerant approach toward intermarriage and others who tend to be alarmist is unnecessary.
"On the interfaith side, all they care about is being nice. The other side only cares about preserving normative Judaism," said Rabbi Kula, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "We should be promoting a larger conversation about what is Jewishness going to look like in a community where the barriers are permeable and identities are fluid."
Rabbi Kula said that it has become a waste of time and resources in recent years to study whether American Jews are living up to a predetermined set of behavioral norms. Organizations such as AJCommittee and the synagogue movements can determine their own groups' membership qualifications, he said. But when it comes to their personal behavior, the majority of American Jews simply don't care what institutional leaders and social scientists have to say.
Mr. Case said that while American Jews may not follow their "leaders," they do indeed care what Jewish organizations have to say: He knows many mixed couples that have abandoned Jewish life because they were offended by some policy or statement condemning intermarriage.
Ms. Fishman said that it is important for social scientists to study Jewish behavior so that communal leaders can formulate a plan for preserving Jewish culture in a Christian society. "If you are interested in preserving this ethno-religious culture, then the only way you can assess what is happening is through the dispassionate study of what is happening," she said.