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.

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.

8 thoughts on “Young American Jews, Israel, and Intermarriage”

  • I absolutely agree with Mr. Cohen.  The truth is hard to accept.  That being said I also agree with Mr. Case that there many interfaith marriages that are succesful.  We just have different opinions on why.  Most individulas who intermarry don’t care about the religion they were raised in so their children grow up without any religious beliefs.  Good for them.  The majority of observant Jews, Christian, Muslims, etc. will marry within their own group because they know how important it is to have a spouse who share their beliefs, especially when it comes to raising children.  I don’t have negative feelings toward Jews who intermarry.  It’s great to live in a country where we have the freedom to choose that option.  I just strongly feel that Judaism will only survive if we encourage and support our young people to marry within the tribe. 

  • I have to echo Sam’s comments here. As a Jew in an interfaith relationship who has always been deeply engaged in Jewish life (like Sam I teach Hebrew school, I tutor Hebrew, and I’m semi-observant, celebrating holidays and Shabbat, keep kosher) — the one factor that causes me to disengage with Israel is negative attitudes in the Jewish community towards intermarriage and towards non-Jews in general (which are in even stronger in Israel — and I’m also an Israeli citizen, mind you!). I read everything I can about intermarriage, and every scathing article that blames intermarriage for Jewish disengagement makes me want to disengage more. I feel very much pushed away from the Jewish community in general by these sentiments, and if it weren’t for organizations like (and my own deep connection to my Jewish identity), I might have completely disengaged by now. Also, I’m not a social scientist, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that causation in the above study can’t be proven.

    I also find the premise of many of these studies measuring Jewish engagement to be quite biased and dated. For example, why does level of connection to Israel still count as a factor to be measured in Jewish engagement, when many Jews (yes, especially young Jews) have strong Jewish identities unrelated to Israel? I happen to be critical of Israeli policies while simultaneously feeling a strong emotional connection to Israel as my birth place and as where much of my family lives. I don’t see a contradiction there, and I embrace the complicated nature of my feelings toward Israel.

    But the thread that connects me to both Israel and Judaism in general starts to fray when I hear condemnations of intermarriage. That’s why Jewish leaders and thinkers need to be much more careful about how they talk about intermarriage — they are turning otherwise well-meaning and Jewishly engaged Jews away (that’s the type of causation that I believe can be proven!).

  • Dear Ed, Steve and Sam:

    Sam: there are rabbinic programs that accept intermarried rabbinic students — Jewish Renewal, the Humanistic Jews and other independent ordination programs. If you would like more information, please contact me at:

    Ed and Steve: I don’t think there is any real mystery as to why interfaith couples and adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage are turning away from Israel. Israel treats interfaith couples and descendants of intermarriage very badly.

    For example — on May 26th, the Chief Rabbinate announced that all Jews seeking to marry legally in Israel — which means they must go through an official Orthodox rabbi and a marriage registrar — must show that their parents were married by an Orthodox rabbi.

    Anyone whose parents were not married by an Orthodox rabbi will be referred to a rabbinic court, where they must, if possible, produce their mother and maternal grandmother.

    The court is empowered to investigate the person wanting to get married and declare them “not Jewish,” if the court believes that their ancestry is deficient or their conversion insufficiently Orthodox.

    Now who is this law targeting? Not Israeli secular Jews with two Jewish parents who will merely find the proceedings enraging, but ultimately a nuisance. Not interfaith couples, who cannot be legally married in Israel unless one of them converts.

    The law clearly is targeting the adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage and converts.

    To add insult to injury, the person hauled before the rabbinic court is apparently required to pay for the court costs, even if that person is declared “not Jewish,” and forbidden to marry a Jew in Israel.

    Here’s the news link from the Israeli newspapers:

    This new ruling has been ignored in the news media because the flotilla coverage drowned it out.

    Robin Margolis

  • I want to Steven Cohen’s points, both as a social scientist and as an intermarried Jew.

    I still don’t understand how Steven can jump from the correlations he’s described to a causal link from intermarriage to lesser commitment to Israel. If A and B are correlated it can mean four things: A (directly or indirectly) causes B, B (directly or indirectly) causes A, A and B are both caused by something else, or it’s just a statistical fluke with no meaning (like the correlation between inflation and cases of dysentery). I haven’t seen yet why you seem to be saying that intermarriage causes a reduced connection to Israel rather than that Jews with a lower connection to Israel tend to be more likely to marry non-Jews. Are there any longitudinal data sets which could help to tease out these causations by looking at how individuals’ attitudes change before, during and after interfaith relationships?

    As an intermarried Jew I can explain why it’s such a problem to promote the message that intermarriage causes Jewish disengagement or that all intermarried Jews have low levels of Jewish engagement. I am Jewishly engaged by pretty much any measure: I belong to a synagogue, I teach Hebrew school, I have a kosher kitchen, I observe Shabbat, I even observe niddah with my Christian husband and we’ve been to Israel together. The main barrier to my Jewish engagement isn’t my husband, but the attitudes of Jewish establishments and the ways in which these are institutionalised. I couldn’t have a rabbi officiate at our wedding. I’m excluded from training to be a rabbi. I don’t know whether we’ll be able to be buried together. We wouldn’t have been able to get married in Israel. (In a way I’m amazed that intermarried Jews are committed to Israel as we are, given that Israeli law treats intermarried and non-Orthodox Jews like shit.)

    In non-Orthodox movements, discrimination against intermarried Jews is justified by the belief that intermarriage is damaging to the Jewish community and intermarried Jews can’t be as Jewishly committed as intramarried Jews. Studies which blame intermarriage for all of the problems facing Judaism have an effect upon my life and my ability to live as an observant Jew. They also distract from other causes of Jewish disengagement.

  • I want to welcome Steven M. Cohen to the Network Blog. I don’t want to get into an extended back and forth with him here, but I do want to respond briefly.

    I’m glad to see Steven say that outreach is valuable, both educationally and morally. I’m also glad to see Steven acknowledge that the gap in various forms of engagement with being Jewish is severely reduced when Jewishly engaged interfaith couples, as opposed to all interfaith couples, are compared to in-married couples. I’ve never known him to acknowledge that before.

    Steven protests (I think, too much) that outreach advocates should not want to minimize the gaps in Jewish engagement between all interfaith couples, and in-marrieds. As I said in my original post – if you focus on those gaps, the logical policy consequence is to write interfaith families off – to not even attempt that educationally and morally valuable outreach.

    Steven’s defense of his use of the term “primary driver” (intermarriage is the “primary driver” of detachment from Israel) is weak, with all due respect. “Statistically” “the key factor” sounds like correlation to me, but “primary driver” sounds like causation – something social scientists in my experience carefully avoid asserting – and once again, would lead funders and policy makers to write off the intermarried, not reach out to them.

    Finally, I challenge the reasons Steven offers to explain his statistics. He says that “Anyone who has been married knows the influence one’s spouse/partner exerts upon one’s major life choices,” but as I have argued in the past, it is exactly for that reason that intermarriage may lead to an increase of support for Israel among Americans in general. If the Jewish partner cares about Israel, then not only his or her non-Jewish partner, but that person’s parents and siblings and other relatives now have a close family member who cares about Israel – which may influence all of them to start caring, too. It’s not the interfaith relationship that is determinative; what the Jewish partner brings to the relationship is critical.

  • Dr. Cohen, by that same logic couldn’t you just as easily prove that Israel encourages disengagement from Judaism among Jews in multi-faith families?

  • I thank Ed Case for his continued attention to my thesis that intermarriage is strongly linked with distancing from Israel.

    Ed, correctly, notes that were we to focus upon the Jewishly engaged intermarried, the gaps in Israel attachment between them and others would be severely reduced. My concern all along has been to draw attention to the serious challenge intermarriage poses on a population level to the degree of various forms of engagement with being Jewish.

    I do contend that intermarriage is indeed the “primary driver” of detachment from Israel in the non-Orthodox population at large (as opposed to the engaged segment, where politics and political attitudes are indeed far more critical). That inference is based upon the following observations:
    1) Younger non-Orthodox Jews are less attached to Israel.
    2) Intermarriage is far more frequent among younger than older Jews.
    3) Intermarried Jews (for whatever reason) are less attached to Israel than other Jews. In fact, their gaps with other Jews are greater for Israel attachment than other indicators of Jewish involvement (e.g., Passover Seder attendance).
    4) Among those who are not intermarried (in-married + single), younger Jews are just as attached to Israel as older Jews.
    5) Hence, statistically, intermarriage is the key factor or what I called, the “primary driver” of declining engagement with Israel among the young.

    In general, the intermarried score lower than others on all forms of Jewish engagement, but especially those reflecting the group or ethnic dimension to Jewishness … living in Jewish neighborhoods, having Jewish friends, and, commensurately, attachment to Israel.

    The reasons are several. First, there are pre-marriage factors — having intermarried parents, living outside areas of Jewish residential concentration, weaker Jewish education. And then there are post-marriage processes: Anyone who has been married knows the influence one’s spouse/partner exerts upon one’s major life choices. The religious parts of Judaism find more counterparts in the religion of American Christians (and others) than do the ethnic parts of Judaism, including attachment to a “homeland,” for which there is indeed no counterpart in Christianity.

    Last, I would think that advocates of reaching out to intermarried Jews or interfaith families would want the world to appreciate the adverse consequences and correlates of intermarriage for many forms of Jewish engagement. I’ve always been mystified why such advocates would want to minimize the attention to these troubling gaps. After all, if intermarried Jews are just as engaged in Jewish life as in-married Jews, then why invest in outreach? But, sadly, the gaps are indeed huge — and both outreach as well as efforts to promote opportunities for in-marriage are valuable, both educationally and morally.

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