Why Jews Should Stop Worrying About Intermarriage

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 19, 2013.

As the founders and funders of Taglit-Birthright happily embrace the findings of a new study that claims Birthright alumni are more likely to marry other Jews, we’re reminded of the deficient rhetoric that surrounds the Jewish intermarriage conversation.

“It is still surprising to us how effective [Birthright] has been in promoting in-marriage,” said lead researcher Leonard Saxe, the Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.       

I recognize that Jewish adults believe they are exerting responsible leadership when discussing the rise of intermarriage, despite whatever awkwardness others might feel as a result. They see themselves as brave enough to talk about the hard issues that perhaps weaker or misguided Jews, who are afraid to fight assimilation, shy away from.

But this is wrong. It’s not just the creepy, micro-managing factor that has young people bothered by efforts to “fight intermarriage.” Their discomfort also stems from those same liberal, egalitarian values that lead my generation to support same-sex marriage by a margin of 81 percent. We want to live in a society where people can and should marry whomever they love. Consequently, we want those partnerships to be welcomed with open arms by our government, and by our communities.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reported an intermarriage rate of 52 percent among American Jews. They later retracted their statements to say a more accurate intermarriage rate would be 38 percent from 1980 to 1984, and 43 percent for 1985 to 1990. The rate remained the same until 1995, then rose to 47 percent by 2001. While the rate of intermarriage has since decreased, the fact is unless you live within a very insular traditional Jewish community, you know, or are close to, or are a Jewish individual living in an intermarried family.

Telling intermarried couples that they are in a less-preferred familial situation than someone with two Jewish parents is offensive. It implies that their lifestyle is inadequate, or insufficient, to raise a proper family. Instead of growing up feeling proud of their pluralistic, American, interfaith situation, children of intermarried couples go on Birthright trips and hear leaders speak about disturbing rates of Jewish intermarriage. That was one of the first things I heard on my Birthright trip. We’re pushing communal messages that on some level, parents in intermarriage relationships have made a mistake.

I understand that the Jewish bias against intermarriage is often rooted more deeply in fear thanprejudice. Especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, a concern about Jewish survival is understandable. It’s when this concern manifests itself in counting Jewish spouses—and inevitably counting Jewish mothers—that it slips into pathology and alienates more than it embraces.

I’m proud that the Jewish community has been one of the most ardent political proponents of same-sex marriage. But that same compassionate support and vocal understanding is withheld from the thousands and thousands of Jews who have fallen in love and married non-Jews. It’s not even the flawed separate-but-equal rhetoric that plagues the same-sex marriage debate. It’s: we’ll accept you, but one is definitely preferred.

One example that was really disheartening for me earlier this year was when Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner published an editorial exemplifying this type of discourse:      

Judging by the amount of money spent, and organizations created, and words expressed,   you would think that the most serious problem facing the American Jewish community is the waning attachment to Israel among young adults. But that’s not what keeps me up at night.

What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.

Jewish communal life is valuable, and it’s something I care about. But perhaps revisiting the way we talk about its future would help keep more young adults interested in staying connected. Ethnocentric marriage rhetoric is not just problematic because it sounds borderline-racist to those who value diversity and free choice. It also misses the point that at the end of the day, we hope to marry somebody who shares the same values as we do. But as anyone who is Jewish knows, not all Jews share the same values and priorities. Different things are inevitably important to different people. This is why I wish we heard more encouragements to marry people who we love, not simply if they’re Jewish.

Eisner acknowledges this problem at the conclusion of her editorial when she writes, “We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.” She hints at the values issue, but only remedies it with the same tribal response.

I’m 21 years old and still in college, which means that I’m young enough for marriage to not be quite yet on my radar, but old enough for my Jewish community leaders to have inundated me with unsubtle marriage messages for years now. Both of my parents are Jewish, and I have been involved with both Jewish and non-Jewish guys in my lifetime. I don’t know who I’ll eventually end up with. But I am well aware of what some people expect of me and it’s saddening that my community feels “haunted” by just the thought of me marrying a non-Jew.

We’re living in the age of marriage equality. I hope that as I grow older, my community will genuinely support me, along with whomever I love and choose to marry. I also hope that we can learn how to better support people who have already made that marital choice for themselves.

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AP makes ‘illegals’ illegal

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 5th, 2013.

This week the AP Stylebook, the standardized style guide for newspapers and other publications across the United States, announced that no longer, under their rules, will it be acceptable to use the term “illegal immigrant.” AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained that the term “illegal” is incorrect when labeling people and “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The change, proponents argue, is necessary because labeling individuals as “illegals” or “illegal” is an unfair designation that no other criminal or civil offender in this country receives. Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter and immigrant activist, has called the term “illegal immigrant” dehumanizing. In a Fox News Latino survey conducted last year, nearly half of Latino voters responded that they find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive.

About two months ago a similar political AP Style debate played out with regard to same-sex marriages. An internal memo was leaked that said the AP would use “couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages” as opposed to the terms “husband” and “wife.” This separate-but-equal discourse for legal same-sex marriages drew the ire of the gay community, causing the AP to change its position within the week.

These questions of language have real ramifications; the way that ideas are presented in the press impacts how people understand and relate to the issues, and the effort to avoid potentially loaded terms is never-ending.

For example, in the case of immigrants who enter the country illegally, the AP also now advises journalists to avoid the term “undocumented.” AP argues that often these individuals do hold some sort of documentation, therefore it’s inaccurate to assert otherwise. And in the case of the gay community, in November AP editors advised the press to avoid the term “homophobia” because, in their view, homophobia implies that anti-gay sentiment is based in irrational fear. AP now encourages journalists to use the term “anti-gay bigotry” instead.

(At The Baltimore Sun, the terms “illegal immigrants” and “homophobia” are still acceptable.)

The AP is not alone in revising its language related to immigration; New York Times officials have also said they also want to revise their style book to promote a more nuanced immigration discourse. But nuance may be the enemy of brevity. The AP’s new guidelines say, “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”

Certainly it’s important to find ways to describe such divisive political issues that is both accurate and neutral, but it can also lead to language that is clunky or, worse yet, not easily understood. Moreover, the effort to avoid potentially freighted language is almost inevitably viewed by those involved in the debate as taking sides. The AP’s effort to avoid controversy in its stylebook has often only courted it instead. In a highly polarized society, it may simply be impossible to find terms that please everyone.

Is gay marriage a gateway issue for political activism?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 29, 2013.

This week, as the Supreme Court took up two historic cases pertaining to same-sex marriage, it’s been an exciting time to be a college student. Huge numbers of young people on Facebook and Twitter continue to post pictures and status updates in support of marriage equality. Kids proudly walk around campus sporting red clothing in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that seeks to promote equal rights for gays, lesbians, transgender people and bisexuals. The enthusiasm, from the quad to the blogosphere, is infectious and inspiring.

“As an LGBT student at Hopkins, I have been truly humbled by the way that my fellow students have rallied around this issue,” said Danielle Stern, who, like me, is a junior at Johns Hopkins University. “Hopkins isn’t a campus where students get excited easily.”

For so many of us, this feels like our civil rights moment. We grew up studying the struggles of our great-grandparents, our grandparents and our parents who fought for racial equality and social justice. But for me and for my peers, who grew up in an era marked by questionable wars in the Middle East, which in turn seemed to promote Islamophobia at home, politics seemed to represent a smarmy, dark, and at best, unengaging enterprise.

But suddenly there is an issue that people can get excited about. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 81 percent of 18-29 year olds support marriage equality. And that figure, though staggering to some, is not all that surprising. We’re the generation that grew up with Ellen Degeneres, Will and Grace, Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean. Gay role models today exist in almost every arena. Not supporting gay rights seems so at odds with everything we’ve grown up with. In the eyes of the youth, it’s bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

As I watch my friends from the left and right get their first taste of political activism in support of marriage equality, I wonder, could this type of involvement be here to stay?

In some respects, it is hard to imagine another type of issue that could garner such massive, broad-based support, yet political science tells us that political participation begets more political participation. Could gay marriage be the “gateway issue” for more kids to engage in the politics?

Penn State political scientist Eric Plutzer found that often the most motivating factor for voters to turn out to the polls is simply that they have developed the habit to vote before. “Interest does not lead to participation,” Mr. Plutzer said. “Rather, participation promotes interest.” In other words, perhaps the most successful way to get Americans to vote throughout their lifetimes is to get them to vote for their first time.

To be sure, young people today aren’t citing gay marriage as their top issue at the voting booth. According to research conducted by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), only 3.8 percent of young voters named gay rights as their top issue in the 2012 presidential election. The vast majority of voters, both young and old, cited the economy and jobs as being most important to them.

But could simply participating in this historic moment along with the rest of the 81 percent in my generation be enough to ignite further participation down the road? We are given the opportunity to see political engagement at its best, and maybe the consequences will be lasting.

CIRCLE Director Peter Levine thinks there is indeed a chance gay rights could be that gateway issue. “While there isn’t clear research that political organizing leads to more political organizing, the evidence from the voting world is pretty suggestive,” he said. “We know once you get people voting, it often leads to more voting.”

Will my generation move from gay rights to the environment or some other big issue? Time will tell. For now, I will enjoy this warm moment in history, as youth across the United States take part in the political process that will inevitably, and assuredly, give the gay community the rights they so very much deserve. And hopefully, this unique issue, which touched so many of us personally, will keep many more of us involved in the future.