"Marriage Wall Pains New Israelis"

July 28, 2007
Following closely on the heels of news that Israel is considering a law allowing the Housing Agency to discriminate against Arabs in leasing land (see
Haaretz: A Racist Jewish State), the LA Times reports (July 26, 2007)  on the difficulties caused by the fact that control over marriage in Israel resides with the Orthodox rabbinate. This means that marriage is restricted to people who can prove Jewish descent through their mothers or who have undergone the grueling process of converting to Orthodox Judaism. So Israelis with a Jewish father don't count, and even if you have a Jewish mother it may not be easy to prove it to the authorities. Documents must be authenticated, often at considerable cost. It is possible to go abroad and have a civil ceremony, but this too is costly.

This is not a rare problem. Over 300,000 Israelis cannot be legally married, even though they are eligible for the military draft.
One of the criticisms of my work is to argue that even if I am right about the extreme concern that traditional Jews had in racial purity, this surely does not apply today when there are very high rates of conversion and intermarriage. Consider the following:

  • To the extent that this is true at all, the argument is really about how to characterize Diaspora Judaism in certain Western countries. High levels of intermarriage do not occur in Israel or in other parts of the world. In fact, the article notes that each religious community in Israel has its own marriage laws. Indeed, a main motivation of the early Zionists was to avoid the assimilative pressures of European culture and prevent intermarriage. The Jewish state becomes a microcosm of traditional Middle Eastern societies and traditional Judaism itself: Different groups living among their own people and with their own cultural practices, walled off from other groups.  

  • In the U.S., estimates of rates of intermarriage tend to be inflated because Orthodox Jews are undersampled while Southern, black, and poor Jews were oversampled. The best-known survey inflated the number of out-marrying Jews by including people who themselves were of mixed parentage and were not raised as Jews.

  • The vast majority of the intermarried and their children will eventually leave Judaism both because their descendents will be less committed to the Jewish community and because they are made to feel unwelcome in the Jewish community. Outreach efforts routinely overlook the children of intermarried couples. Thus, the issue is not so much about what Judaism is, as about whether there will be a decline in Jewish numbers in the long run.

  • There is a robust core of ethnically conscious Jews (fundamentalist, Orthodox, and Conservative)—at least 33% but probably more because these groups are undercounted probably for political reasons—for whom intermarriage is anathema. This group will retain their genetic integrity into the foreseeable future, and they are prone to high fertility levels.

  • The Jewish community has made a major effort to minimize intermarriage (see also Separation and Its Discontents, Ch. 9). This effort is one factor likely to discourage conversionary families and their descendents from remaining in the Jewish community. It is still very common for Jews to self-consciously assert the ethnic basis of Judaism. Charles Bronfman, a main sponsor of the $210 million "Birthright Israel" project which attempts to deepen the commitment of American Jews, stated, "You can live a perfectly decent life not being Jewish, but I think you're losing a lot—losing the kind of feeling you have when you know [that] throughout the world there are people who somehow or other have the same kind of DNA that you have."(Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2000). Even in Reform Judaism, it is common to think of Judaism as having a biological basis. And the fence mending has been particularly vigorous in the outer layers of the Jewish community. Recent guidelines for Reform Judaism emphasize traditional practices of conversion, such as circumcision, that are likely to minimize converts, and proselytism is explicitly rejected ("Reform Judaism Nears a Guide to Conversion.", p. A19, New York Times, June 27, 2001). It would appear that Conservative religious forms of Judaism will be the rule in the Diaspora and there will be a self-conscious ethnic aspect to Jewish religiosity.

  • There is no attempt by the organized Jewish community to simply convert non-Jews to Judaism. Quite the opposite. Every effort now is directed at mending the fences and preventing intermarriage. Orthodox conversion is a very grueling process, presumably designed to weed out all but the most motivated.

  • So far as I am aware, conversionary couples and their children do not have a leadership role within the Jewish community. I would be amazed if the ADL had significant number of Jews coming from intermarried families--certainly not people like Abe Foxman, Mortimer Zuckerman, Alan Dershowitz or the Jewish activists I am aware of. Again, the issue of conversion and its effects on Judaism is really a question about the future, not the present, and certainly not about the past.

When you put all this together, "the only democracy in the Middle East" and its supporters in the U.S. don't seem very Western at all. Ethnic purity and apartheid-like discrimination and separation from outgroups are the reality.