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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Threat from Within: American Jews, the State of Israel, and Intermarriage


This paper investigates how dominant American Jewish organizations seek to construct a collective Jewish identity that focuses on and advocates for the state of Israel. While the state of Israel has long been at the center of Jewish collective identity, there has been increasing fragmentation among American Jews with regard to Israel over the last several years. It is within this shifting, unstable dynamic that the dominant Jewish organizations cultivate Jewish collectivity, explicitly constructing American Jews’ attachment to Israel as inextricable from collective Jewish identity. For this reason, data for this paper comes primarily from ethnographic research on the representation of Israel in normative Jewish spaces in the Bay Area. Dominant Jewish organizations, the membership of which constitutes the elite leadership of American Jews, view the loss of Israel-centered collective identity among American Jews as posing an existential threat to Israel, and they link the loss of this collective identity to intermarriage. Thus intermarriage is framed as a grave threat to the state of Israel that invokes the specter of Israeli, and Jewish, destruction. The ethnographic research presented in this paper shows how the active, deliberate linking between family structure among Jews in the United States and their assigned obligations to the state of Israel works on-the-ground in dominant Jewish organizations. Stigmatizing intermarriage and promoting Jewish in-marriage has become a key tactic in a larger effort by the dominant Jewish organizations to shore up the Israeli state by creating Israel-oriented American Jews. 

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