Two and a half years ago, Israel’s ministry of absorption had to withdraw a campaign aimed at Israeli expats living in America. The aim of the campaign was to convince those Israelis to come back home. The means, some US Jews thought at the time, were outrageous. Israel’s campaign made it seem as if there is no hope for a Jew in America and no future for him other than assimilation. That is, it implied that intermarriage leads to assimilation.
Of course, the debate in the US over the impact, the inevitability, and the proper way to respond to intermarriage is a heated one. Two weeks ago, I posted a new set of data from Steven Cohen that points to the connection between intermarriage and distancing from Israel. In recent months I also wrote several posts following rabbi Rick Jacobs’ remarks at the Reform biennial concerning interfaith marriages. Intermarriage looms large in the American discussion and also in the Israeli discussion about the American Jewish community – or the Diaspora, as Israelis tend to call it.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli government allocated new funds to strengthening Jewish identity in world Jewish communities. “The initial announcement of the initiative”, reported the JPost, “came as the Pew Research Center released a major study of Jewry in America, the largest Diaspora community, in which the findings indicated accelerated rates of intermarriage and assimilation among millennials”. The ministers and planners that were involved with this plan – and this I know from conversations with them – consider interfaith marriages a demographic threat to the Jewish people and currently see little evidence that such marriages lead to strong Jewish identities.
It should be honestly stated that many Israelis have a sense of superiority as they ponder the perils of intermarriage. Some try to hide it, some don’t really hesitate to openly and proudly remind their counterparts that in Israel we don’t have such a problem. They are obviously right when it comes to the dry facts: the level of intermarriage in Israel is insignificant, almost nonexistent. It is not a factor in Israeli life. Still, it is important to ask why.
Some Israelis mistakenly assume that it is the stronger Jewish identity – the more solid Jewish backbone – that makes Israelis more resistant to intermarriage. I tend to tease these Israelis when I’m invited to speak to Israeli groups (that is, quite often) and tell them that the only reason Israelis don’t intermarry is because they have no one to intermarry with. The Arabs, for obvious reasons, are not an option for most Jewish Israelis (not because of racism, because of the “conflict”). Other non-Jews just don’t live in this neighborhood in large enough numbers to become a factor. So Israeli Jews don’t intermarry and can feel superior about it – until this reality is more closely examined.
That is to say – I have a survey to share with you. It was conducted by my friend Menachem Lazar of Panels Politics, and parts of it were published by an Israeli website. But not all of it. And not – in my view – with the right accentuation.
Jewish Israelis were asked about intermarriage, and gave answers that prove the point: had they had the opportunity to intermarry, they would do exactly what American Jews do. The more religiously committed of them would refrain from looking for a non-Jewish spouse, while a majority of the less religiously committed would have no problem with intermarriage.
54% of them oppose intermarriage. That is, 95% of self-identified Haredis, but not Israeli youngsters and seculars. If only 17% of Israelis “strongly support” intermarriage, among the younger generation the strong support category goes up to 29%, and to 33% among secular Israelis. Lazar also asked Israeli Jews a more personal question: how would you react had your offspring decided to intermarry? 20% would “gladly” accept it, and 24% would simply “accept”. A small majority of 52% would object or strongly object to such marriage, but the majority of opponents is more religious and older than the significant minority (44%) of accepting Israelis.
90% of Haredis and 87% of religious Israelis would “strongly object” to the marriage. On the other hand, 37% of seculars would “gladly accept” the marriage – 17% higher than the 20% “glad acceptance” of the population as a whole. Seculars are about half of the population (49%) with “traditional” being the second largest group (30%). the “Haredi” (9%) and religious (12%) groups are much smaller.
It is interesting that Israelis become much more conservative on this issue – that is, they tend to oppose intermarriage – at a very certain age. Among 45-59 year old Israeli Jews, the group which “strongly opposes” intermarriage rises to 48%, a significant jump. That is a significantly higher percentage than all other age groups. Among the youngest (18-29), only 25% would strongly oppose the intermarriage of offspring. In the 30-44 age group, the percentage rises to 34%, and for the above 60’s is goes back down to 27%.
Lazar analyzed these numbers for me, and it proved useful as it might provide us with a hint as to why the 44-59 age group is the outlier in opposing the intermarrying of children.
Our question was simple: is the rise in opposition to intermarriage among the 44-59 a generational phenomenon? That is, is Israel going through a generational shift from the opposition of the previous generation (Israelis my age and higher) to acceptance and even support of intermarriage among younger Jewish Israelis? Or maybe the rise in opposition among the older group is a result of a life-cycle situation: Younger Israelis don’t really think about the implications of intermarriage and don’t really ponder their meaning until they have children that reach the age of marriage. The age group of 45-59 year olds is the one of Israeli parents at the stage of having to marry off their offspring.
So do we have an answer? Not quite, but we have something. The 44-59 group is markedly higher in its opposition than both younger and older Israelis. So we can speculate that this might be a life-stage-based opposition. When one reaches the age in which the issue of intermarriage of children is very personal – one is more inclined to oppose the institution. But when one’s children haven’t yet reached the marriage age, or after they have already married, the inclination to oppose intermarriage goes down.
The bottom line:
Intermarriage is not a problem or an issue in Israel and isn’t going to be an issue for the time being. Having said that, we should keep it in mind that there’s nothing inherent to the Israeliness of Israelis that make them more immune to intermarriage (and to assimilation). In other words: if Israelis are immune, it is all because of location and separation. Not identity – geography.