Last week I wrote about a TV advertisement funded by the Israeli government, in which Diaspora Jews who intermarry are portrayed as victims of kidnapping. The advertisement showed photographs of young American, French, and Russian Jews on "LOST" posters -- the kind you'd see for an abducted child. The narrator warned, "More than 50 percent of young Jews assimilate," referring to a widely accepted statistic for intermarriage in the Diaspora. The ad was intended to encourage Israeli Jews to tell their Diaspora relatives about MASA, a study abroad program.
Now MASA and the Israeli Agency have pulled the ad, admitting it offended many Jews in the Diaspora. But in its statement, MASA obscures the issue, claiming that the ads were "misinterpreted" by the press as an attack on intermarriage. But as J.J. Goldberg explains in The Forward, there is a long history of the intermarriage rate being conflated with the "assimilation" rate, even though there is ample evidence that many "half-Jewish" children are being raised with a sense of Jewish identity and exposure to Jewish culture and religious practice. Goldberg writes:
...the ad’s 50% “assimilation” figure seems to a garbling of the intermarriage statistic published in 1990 — a generation ago — by the Council of Jewish Federations. The finding (later repudiated by the council as inflated, but now evolved into a durable urban legend) did not say that 50% of Jews were “assimilating,” but rather that they were marrying non-Jews. The pessimistic prediction was that their children were unlikely to be identified and involved as Jews, absent some strong educational effort. Nobody said these Jews would vaporize the moment the goblet was shattered.
Many Israelis, even those paid to understand and work with the Diaspora, had a hard time understanding the distinction. Avi Becker, who headed the Israel office of the World Jewish Congress and later became WJC secretary-general, reported more than once during the 1990s that one-half of all American Jews were assimilating each year. If that were the case, we would be down to a few dozen Jews by now. The U.S. Congress alone has more Jews than that.
The reality is that a major proportion of self-identified Jews under 25 today have only one Jewish parent.
The ethnocentrism and anti-peace politics coming out of Israel are no way to earn the loyalty of young American Jews, the vast majority of whom are politically progressive and strong supporters of President Obama's two-state agenda. It's true that American and Israeli Jews speak "different languages," to borrow the words of MASA's Alon Friedman, attempting to excuse this debacle. But the goal should be a conversation on equal footing -- not a lecture intended to make American Jews feel delinquent and guilty.