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.” 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.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.