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.

North Carolina’s Amendment One

Tomorrow, a shameful amendment will be voted on by the state of North Carolina–and will likely pass according to all the latest polls. This amendment effectively alters the state’s constitution and will not only make it illegal for same-sex couples to be recognized in the state of North Carolina, but due to the wording of the legislation, will also ban any other type of “domestic legal partnerships” such civil unions and domestic partnerships.

This is the official language on the ballot:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

I have friends at UNC who have been doing some amazing work to protest this amendment. But the fact is, that while universities like UNC and Duke tend to be socially liberal, the majority of the state is full of voters with religious and conservative beliefs that make them support laws like this.

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Josh Orol, a sophomore at UNC protesting the amendment on campus

Proponents of the amendment point to states like New York and Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is legal and argue that if those couples then moved to North Carolina expecting certain legal rights, complicated issues would arise. By banning same-sex couples, they no longer have to deal with such hypothetical issues. As Representative Paul Starn said, “They’re going to bring with them their same-sex marriages. They’re going to want to get divorced” and have custody issues decided, he said. “We’re not equipped to handle that.”

Supporters also say that because this issue is so sensitive, it should be decided by the voters themselves, not by a handful of legislators.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of N.C. Values Coalition, argues that a popular vote on the amendment is the “right thing to do” and it is more democratic when it allows everybody to vote. Fitzgerald adds, “The people of North Carolina want to determine for themselves how they want to define marriage. They don’t want activist judges doing it for them.”

In fact, this is entirely misguided and incorrect.  It is no wonder the NAACP is so involved in this issue and opposed to this amendment. You don’t leave minority rights up to majority vote. Schools were not de-segregated because of a popular vote. Constitutionally enshrined protections are supposed to be immune to this type of thing. These people will receive different benefits and privileges because others voted that to be OK. Think about the implications and the precedents this sets for our country.


Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have come out against the amendment.
Obama’s statement said, “While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the record is clear that the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples.”
Clinton argued, “The real effect of the law will be to hurt families and drive away jobs.”

People are insisting that this ban will hurt businesses. Many people will no longer be able to receive the work benefits from the state that they once were able to, so it might dissuade people from working there. They also believe it will hurt all sorts of families, including heterosexual couples, by threatening insurance and benefits for unmarried couples and their children.

A high number of voters are expected to vote tomorrow because this issue invokes faith and religion, two historically major motivations in voter turnout. There have been 30 marriage amendments already in place in the United States, and only one, in Arizona has been defeated. However, that was in 2006, and then in 2008 it was reworded and passed.

This is increasing evidence of a growing polarization and ideological divide in our country as more and more nationally report support for same-sex marriage. In 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent. Today, 47 percent are in favor and 43 percent opposed, according to a new Pew Research poll.

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Social media activism from a friend’s facebook at UNC

The best thing at this point we can hope for is for enough people to become educated on this issue, and then work together to strongly oppose it. We should not allow for such important issues like human rights and freedoms to be left up to a popular vote.

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photo credit: blog.pflag.org

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photo credit: pamshouseblend.firedoglake.com/