Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Intermarriage Crisis is a Scam

Another day, another skirmish in the Jewish continuity wars, this time with a partisan slant.

So, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz made some remarks a few weeks ago at a Jewish event within her district. Conservative media pounced on her speech, particularly comments in which she called intermarriage and assimilation 'problems.' Looking at the coverage of her comments, it's pretty clear that the whole thing is mostly a light breeze blown into a tornado within the right wing echo chamber. I don't think most of those covering it really care about the issue one way or another, they're just looking to score points against the woman right below Nancy Pelosi on the Republican Most Frothed Over list.

DWS's comments also got some traction within the Jewish media, as there's little better click bait than intermarriage. Intermarriage: Good or Bad for the Jews? is a perennial headline. On one side: the vast majority of American Jews who either marry non-Jews or have close family members who are intermarried. On the other side: A handful of Jewish communal elites who have chosen to isolate intermarriage as a 'danger' to the health of American Judaism and who frame it as a phenomenon which can be stopped or slowed in isolation. The 'on the one hand' 'on the other' presentation gives the appearance of balance, when in fact,  the astronomical rates of intermarriage demonstrate that intermarriage is THE reality of American Jewish life and is a product of patterns of Jewish American life going back decades.

The soi-disant 'serious' Jewish conservative media has taken the DWS kerfuffle as an opportunity to flog two dead horses - so called liberal weakness and the danger of intermarriage, wrapped up in the eminently hateable Chair from south Florida. After her remarks came to light, DWS had to walk back her condemnation of intermarriage. That just made them angrier. And gave them another chance to advance their master narrative: Liberals are hampered by their fear of giving offense. They are unable to protect the Jewish community because of their adoption of the values of multiculturalism and pluralism. Liberals refuse to call out the dangers of intermarriage. Ergo: Liberals are destroying the Jewish future.

L'moshl, writing in Commentary, Jonathan Tobin says:

Intermarriage is so prevalent that the intermarried and their loved ones are now so ubiquitous throughout Jewish life that they form a powerful interest group. Since many if not most of them have now come to regard advocacy of endogamy as an insult, it has become next to impossible for communal organizations, especially those umbrella groups like federations that revolve around fundraising, to broach the issue. Instead, they prefer to speak of it as an opportunity rather than a dilemma, a foolish position that ignores the stark statistical evidence provided by Pew that shows the children of intermarriage are far less likely to get a Jewish education or raise a Jewish family than those who marry other Jews. The result of this silence is that the issues discussed by Pew are not being addressed in a way that gives the community any chance to even slow, let alone reverse, the demographic trends.
Intermarriage is so prevalent that the intermarried and their loved ones are now so ubiquitous throughout Jewish life that they form a powerful interest group. This is the way they talk about you. This is the kind of rhetoric used to talk about the majority of American Jews. You are not fellow Jews, you're a sinister 'special interest group.'

But the majority of American Jews aren't a cancer on Judaism or a feared Fifth Column in our midst. They are our loved ones, friends, family, and they are making the choices that are to be expected from a Jewish community which has so thoroughly adopted the American values of individualism, egalitarianism, monolingualism and consumerism. As I've said this many times before, the Americanization of American Jews was pretty much fait accompli by mid-century. It is the reason that, in addition to intermarrying, American Jews have shockingly low Jewish literacy rates. 48% of Pew respondents did not even know the alef-beys. Why is no one up in arms about that? Why was the reaction to the 1991 NJPS (the one where the rates of intermarriage finally came into the spotlight) to give all American teens an identity making vacation, instead of subsidizing comprehensive Jewish education?

I don't know. I'm not a billionaire. Personally, I think isolating one symptom of Americanization, and framing it as the most urgent problem of our time, is the height of irresponsibility on the part of our leaders. 

Jonathan Tobin, and many, many like him, think that at this late date, all you need to do is hector American Jews into marrying each other and the 'intermarriage crisis' can be overcome. Like, no one thought to hand out the pamphlet on making Jewish babies and now Liberals, with their PC nonsense, are too pussy to do it. This is the intermarriage 'crisis' narrative at its most politicized, and most useless.

Indeed, why this focus on intermarriage at all? In her recent book Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism Dr. Jennifer Thompson* argues that leaders focus on intermarriage because doing so creates a false sense of insider-outsider discourse. We can clearly see by the actions of intermarried Jews that they are on the outside of the normative Jewish community. But, she argues, what makes an intermarried Jew so different from (or worse than) the average in-married Jew who has no Hebrew literacy, does not keep kosher or shabes, and has little connection to the Jewish institutional world? Thompson's fresh, outsider perspective forces us to ask some tough questions about targeting intermarried Jews and the way we use them, and the intermarriage 'crisis' to construct ourselves as 'good' (or better) Jews.

The obsession with intermarriage strikes me as bizarre. Not just bizarre, but sadly ahistorical. American Jews are American and must be reckoned with as Americans with American values, intermarried or not. To do otherwise is to make a lot of self-important noise, but accomplish nothing.

*Full disclosure, Dr. Thompson is an old friend of mine whose work I respect very much.


  1. This lack of comments is hard to understand...

    1. I can only assume that everyone agrees with my argument. Also, that they don't understand my new commenting policy.

  2. I'll take up your challenge for comments! I'm being lazy though, and reposting what I wrote on FB--This is the smartest thing about intermarriage I've read in a long time. Thank you. The idea that "the intermarried" are part of some sort of conspiracy would be laughable if it weren't so pervasive. I've left many a Jewish institution because of a tacit assumption that because I have intermarried parents (and perhaps also because I didn't go to day school), I can't know anything about Judaism, or all my knowledge comes from my academic study. As an addendum, I'd add that the lack of and option for both "intermarried parents" and "raised Jewish" on surveys like Cohen's compounds the problem, rendering folks like me invisible.

    1. I didn't see your comment on FB, so it's news to me. Thank you for sharing your reaction!

  3. If the conservatives (theological and political) represent "authentic" Judaism, we're better off assimilating into oblivion (assuming their premise that intermarriage is a threat to Jewish continuity is correct).

  4. From a purely genetic perspective we need more intermarriage. Ashkis are supposed to get genetic counseling before marriage. Why? Because we are so inbred that we are at risk for a couple DOZEN serious inbreeding-related recessive genetic diseases. Even the Amish aren't that bad off.

    My sisters married other Ashkenazim. All of the kids have been diagnosed with at least one of the characteristic Eastern European Jewish genetic conditions. Thank G-d none is a fatal disease.

    We're doing the equivalent of boinking our first cousins if not our siblings. It has to stop.

  5. thanks for speaking for us Rokhl!

  6. Hi there! Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. I'd like to ask what role halakha might play in all of this? What role can it play, and what role should it play? I suppose my real question is: how do you think people who live halakhically should deal with halakhot regarding marriage/intermarriage? Should people work to create a halakhic ceremony for marriages between Jews and non-Jews, though the majority of the halakhic world would not accept it as halakhic?