Expert tells MKs: We have 15 years to fight assimilation

55% intermarriage does not mean 55% assimilation, counters Reform chief; Maimon says Israel needs to act now before it's too late.

November 16, 2010 04:25
3 minute read.
MK Danny Danon

MK Danny Danon 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

“We have 15 years to intervene and bring back people on the verge of assimilation into the fold of Judaism,” Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said at a special session on assimilation in the Diaspora at the Knesset on Monday.

Speaking to the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, Maimon said Israel needs to act now if it wants to engage the large group of young Jews whose affiliation with their communities is weak before it’s too late.

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He suggested a fivefold program supporting Israel trips like Masa and Birthright, strengthening Jewish education in Israel and abroad, and even rethinking Israeli foreign policy.

“It’s hard identifying as Jewish at colleges in Europe,” Maimon said. “Israel isn’t perceived as an enlightened country, but that’s perhaps an issue outside our scope of conversation today.”

Committee chairman Danny Danon (Likud) convened the panel to discuss ways of dealing with the threat.

Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, an authority on Jewish demographics, opened the debate by giving some background.

“Assimilation is a long process that dates back to the emancipation of the Jews,” he said. “According to a study from the first part of the decade, approximately 40 percent of Jews in the Diaspora marry outside the faith nowadays.”

DellaPergola said that the number of Jews in the world is currently stable at a bit over 13 million, with 6 million in Israel and about 7.5 million abroad. But the number of people with Jewish ancestry is much larger than that, he said.

“The number of Americans eligible to make aliya according to the Law of Return is between 10 to 12 million people,” the Hebrew University lecturer said. “That’s not to say that I think they’ll show up tomorrow morning. But this is a group that should not be entirely ignored.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Israeli branch of the Reform movement, warned against alienating the children of mixed marriages.

“We need to be careful when we process the numbers,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, and I’m not an expert on this issue, there may be 55% of marriages between Jews and non-Jews, but that does not mean there’s a 55% assimilation rate and that families in this group are torn away from the Jewish people.

The key question is how we treat this phenomenon.”

He strongly rejected the notion that assimilation was substantially higher in communities where Reform Judaism is practiced in comparison with Orthodox ones.

“There are communities where there are almost no Reform or Conservative Jews and, nonetheless, assimilation rates of young Jews is in the high double digits and many marry outside the religion,” Kariv said. “In France there’s almost no Reform Judaism, and a very strong Orthodox establishment. But isn’t there still a 45% mixed marriage rate there?” Kariv urged authorities to institute faster conversions and carry out a more inclusive policy toward the children of mixed marriages, lest they be lost.

MK Marina Solodkin of Kadima, a member of the Knesset committee, weighed in with her opinion on the issue.

“In Russian there’s a saying that I haven’t heard in any other language and is very important: ‘Half a Jew is still a Jew,” she said.

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