Is Peter Beinart the new Steven M. Cohen?

In The Mix

By Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener

Forget those 50 rabbis Newsweek has been fussing over.

Journalist/author Peter Beinart may well be the most famous American Jew these days, at least among the New York Times-New York Review of Books-New Yorker-reading intelligentsia.

Lost in all the debate about his views on Israel and Zionism — including his calls for a targeted boycott of West Bank settlements and his assertion that American Jewish leaders are out of touch with the rank and file — is serious discussion of his other cause: government vouchers for Jewish day schools.

Beinart has pushed the idea in a column in The Wall Street Journal. And I was struck how someone who is so critical of the American Jewish establishment when it comes to Israel, is himself so, well, establishment and out of touch when it comes to talking about intermarriage.

Beinart’s main argument is that American Jews intermarry more than Jews elsewhere in the Diaspora because the United States government doesn’t subsidize religious education, thus rendering day schools — the cure, of course, for intermarriage — financially inaccessible. As a result, he argues, American Jews should give up their “excessive concern” with separation of church and state and get with the voucher program.

Setting aside my question as to whether significantly more non-Orthodox American Jews would really opt for day school if only they were cheaper (I’m not convinced they would), is my concern: why is Beinart, normally a critical thinker, accepting wholesale the Steven M. Cohen philosophy that intermarriage in and of itself is a problem and that day schools are valuable not for the education they provide or the values they embody, but because they instill in their graduates a “commitment” not to intermarry?

Indeed, if intermarriage prevention is the primary function of Jewish day schools, why on earth should we ask non-Jewish taxpayers to subsidize these schools? It seems an odd argument to make, particularly in a mainstream publication like The Wall Street Journal.

As someone who has been covering Jewish education for more than 15 years, I’m familiar with the issues of vouchers and day school affordability that Beinart raises; I was actually surprised he didn’t bring up the Hebrew charter school movement, as well, since it is rapidly growing and slightly less polarizing than vouchers, yet confronts some of the same church-state objections.

I can understand Beinart’s desire to address the embarrassing rate of Jewish illiteracy among our otherwise highly educated population. But why must preventing intermarriage — rather than enriching lives, building a more vibrant, knowledgeable and interesting community — be the raison d’etre?

I would argue that it is intermarriage-obsessed rhetoric like Beinart’s (which, I hope, are not representative of the sentiment at most day schools), as much as tuition, that discourage many non-Orthodox parents from enrolling their children in Jewish day school. Liberal Jewish parents want their children exposed to diversity and want them in a positive (rather than a kvetching-about-intermarriage) environment where interfaith families don’t feel like they’re an illness in need of a cure.

There’s also the added challenge that huge numbers of American Jews identify as atheists and, while they may want their children exposed to Jewish history, culture and texts, are uncomfortable with the amount of time that Jewish day schools devote to prayer.

Whether their perception is accurate or not, for many American Jews, Jewish day schools seem too, well, parochial.

In calling for vouchers for day schools, and justifying it with an intermarriage argument, Beinart is making the same mistake when it comes to Jewish education that he thinks the “establishment” makes when it comes to Israel: asking people to check their liberalism at the door.

Julie Wiener is associate editor of The New York Jewish Week. Contact her at

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