Beyond Demographic Panics and Contraceptive Virtuosos: Building a New Jewish Agenda for 2019

What’s the difference between a panic and a statistic? These days it’s about 1/10 of a ratio point. According to the latest data, the fertility rate of American Jews is 1.7. The total American fertility rate is just 1.8. Both numbers are well below the replacement and growth rate of 2.1. And yet, the prevalent analysis in the mainstream Jewish press has framed the Jewish fertility rate of 1.7 as putting American Jews “on the precipice of a demographic cliff…”

Though the New York Times says “there’s a lot of concern about why today’s young adults aren’t having as many children,” the article doesn’t actually quote any experts on the consequences of a sustained downturn in fertility. So why is below replacement level fertility an existential crisis in one context and a seeming yawn in another?

The United States of 2018 is hardly immune to anxiety about ‘real’ Americans being outnumbered by alien immigrants (see, for one, the popularity of this administration’s southern border wall.) But on a national scale, that concern is mostly limited to the right wing press, with the middle of the road Times treating depopulation as news, but not a life or death national crisis. Within the Jewish community, however, depopulation panic is mainstream, in large part due to the tireless promotion of now-disgraced sociologist Steven M. Cohen.

Though I blame him for a lot, Steven M. Cohen hardly invented the twentieth century American Jewish depopulation panic. The previous wave of depopulation panic came after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and tied together anti-feminist backlash with fears about growing rates of intermarriage. And like today, that discourse flagged female bodies as matters of public concern, as well as sites of public intervention. Imagine Milton Himmelfarb standing up in front of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism in 1975 and blaming Jewish women’s use of contraception for a two million Jew demographic shortfall. Imagine Milton Himmelfarb standing up in front of those women and lamenting, (as described in Michael Staub’s Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America), that the Jewish woman had become a ‘contraceptive virtuoso.’ Imagine the elephantine balls, and matching entitlement, needed to get up in front of a group of women and frame procreation, and the very continuance of the Jewish people, as laying solely on female shoulders.

What’s really shocking, though, is that despite how gender dynamics have changed for the better in much of the Jewish world, the same underlying attitudes that Himmelfarb expressed about fertility in 1975 are not just present, but normative. I argue that depopulation panics serve an organizing function for ethno-political leaders (like Himmelfarb) and say more about communal anxieties than demographic realities. In the 1960s and ‘70s, with women gaining increasing independence from the home via divorce and contraception, traditional sites of patriarchal authority found a powerful way to nudge women back into their place with the discourse of Jewish depopulation, a discourse which never really went away.

This year’s revelations about Steven M. Cohen’s decades long pattern of sexual assault and gross impropriety have called into question not just his position as a teacher and researcher, but also his conclusion driven research. A typical Cohen paper put gloomy demographic projections front and center, positing a reductive Jewish ‘continuity’ obsessively concerned with increasing biological reproduction, the failure of which implicates nothing less than the disappearance of (non-Haredi) American Judaism itself. Those who have questioned this formulation (myself included) have been accused of being anti-baby (god forbid) or selfish feminists (more on that in a minute). I wish it didn’t require saying, but questioning a communal agenda premised on an entitlement to womens’ reproductive capacity doesn’t mean that one doesn’t care about or want Jewish babies, or a Jewish future.

It’s obvious that defining ‘continuity’ in exclusively biological terms excludes multiple categories of people from the project of building a Jewish future. Less obviously, it avoids some altogether thorny questions: American Jewry is, on the whole, deeply illiterate and largely uninformed about Jewish history, learning and practice. It’s a Jewishness that is affective and culturally rooted. Given all that, which practices and beliefs do we cherish enough to prioritize their continuity? What cultural materials are we continuing with? What are we continuing for? Faced with such a challenge, no wonder so many chose to worry about filling Jewish baby carriages. Making depopulation panic the center of Jewish leadership means deflecting attention from our broken institutions and failed policies and placing any and all blame on the individual. No wonder it’s such an appealing leadership tactic.

Almost as soon as the Cohen story broke, a heated meta-argument erupted. Was Cohen’s outlook tainted by his own misogynistic attitudes? And was such a fertility driven agenda itself fatally infected with sexism? Rather than seeing Cohen as a single bad actor promoting an essentially good (or at least neutral) communal agenda, I argue that as chief pollster and the sociologist of American Jews, Cohen was responsible not for an agenda, but a demographic panic, one supported by the data he himself generated, necessarily reflecting his own attitudes of entitlement and incuriosity about the real lives of the women he presumed to speak on. His accessibility, his willingness to speak in hyperbolic terms, and his cloak of academic authority made him a popular partner for journalists, leaders and other academics, male and female, all amplifying and reifying his message into an inescapable scientific truth, the denial of which inevitably called down the above mentioned insults.

A panic is an expression of anxiety, not a search for root cause and realistic solutions. The New York Times story on declining American fertility actually asked American women why they were having fewer children. The answers were unsurprising: high cost of child care, lack of parental leave and financial insecurity topping the list. In The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, But a Glimmer of Hope, Cohen and frequent coauthor Jack Wertheimer address a similar question of declining fertility. Theirs however, is not quite the search for answers one would hope. “Presumably, it would be of great communal interest to learn whether anything can be done to reverse he self-defeating fertility rates within so much of the American Jewish populace.”

Presumably. Steven M. Cohen was a paid consultant on the multi-million dollar Pew survey. He was among an elite group of researchers who decided what questions would be asked. He had the chance to find out what kind of economic pressures are facing would-be parents and what real world factors are causing Jews to delay marriage and parenthood. He bears some amount of responsibility for choosing not to.

In The Pew Survey Reanalyzed he and Wertheimer wrote that “…many Jews seem unable to find partners with whom to have children or are not all that interested in having children in the first place.” It’s now an accepted fact that the estimated $1.5 billion student loan debt outstanding is causing young people to delay marriage. Interestingly, the states with the highest amounts of student loan debt are also the states with the highest Jewish populations, including New York, California and Florida.

As Pew didn’t ask any questions about the impact of economic pressures on domestic choices, the relevant data can neither be analyzed nor ‘reanalyzed’. Nonetheless, Cohen and Wertheimer tell us, “… even in the absence of explanations or recommendations, it ought to be clear that what once was strong suit of the American Jewish community — its family values and its child centeredness — is now, when it comes to perpetuating that community, one of its greatest weaknesses.”

The idea that present day decline in Jewish fertility is an aberration from some mythical, fecund past isn’t unique to Cohen and Wertheimer, but a trope bound up with the birth of Jewish demography at the turn of the century in Germany. From the beginning, Jewish social science was intertwined with anxieties about the weakening of the Jewish family, declining fertility, and rising rates of intermarriage. In ‘The Wages of Modernity: Fertility, Intermarriage and the Debate over Jewish Decline” historian Mitchell B. Hart tells how social scientist Arthur Ruppin, one of the fathers of modern Jewish demography, believed that “The stark decline in the Jewish birth rate marks a departure from the great fertility that characterized Jewry over the centuries.”

During Ruppin’s time, social science was infused with biological and medical imagery. “The conflation of the individual body body with ideas of the social and national body meant that indications of illness within the individual were taken as signs of social and national decline.” And though we’d like to think our modern demography is far removed from its roots in the barbarity of racial science, Cohen and Wertheimer, perhaps unconsciously, echo these biological metaphors, as when they write that “…the overall picture is of a community weakened and unhealthy…”

The roots of Jewish demography sound very much like our own social science moment: “… from the start, much of [these first demographers’] attention focused on explaining the declining fertility of contemporary Jewry, and on delineating the consequences.” For Ruppin and his colleagues, intermarriage (and to a lesser extent, conversion) was understood to be a “pathology” at the root of the sickness on the Jewish body politic. Though we often think of Jews as victims of racial science, the uncomfortable truth is that Jewish scientists were eager participants in the production of racial knowledge. ‘Degeneracy’ and purity of blood were some of the terms in this new understanding of Jewish ‘continuity’. In the background of this demographic panic was the deep uncertainty about Jewish political and social enfranchisement. “The uncertainties of modernity, the blurring of previously clear physical, socioeconomic, and cultural boundaries, were reflected in and amplified by the ‘racial chaos’ intermarriage and conversion represented.”

Jews, of course, were hardly the only ones to experience demographic panics. At the turn of the century France experienced a dramatic era of depopulation, due to rapid industrialization, the penetration of personal liberation philosophies like feminism, as well as the devastation of World War I. The sudden need to find laborers (and new French citizens) gave rise to a demographic panic inflected by racism and sexism. France could’ve easily solved its labor shortage by allowing unlimited migration from its Asian and African colonies. Instead, “… a wide range of individuals joined in the national quest to improve the quality and quantity of the population. Immigrants would also be enmeshed in this discursive web linking fecundity, racial hygiene, and a traditional vision of the family.”

As historian Emily Camiscioli writes in ‘Producing Citizens, Reproducing the ‘French Race’: Immigration, Demography, and Pronatalism in Early Twentieth-Century France’, depopulation was seen by conservative, pronatalist forces as an “opportunity to remake the citizen body…” That meant limiting immigration to countries whose populations could be easily assimilated. Non-white immigrants were deemed immutably different. White immigrants from Italy, Poland and Spain, however, could both be assimilated racially (preserving the racial character of France) and their (perceived) respect for the traditional values of land, fertility and family meant a renewal of the French body politic, returning to an era unpolluted by women’s liberation or industrialization. The “reproductive potential of citizens [was] transformed into an object of social inquiry…” as conservative leaders sought to reassert control over a populace on the verge of degeneracy and dissolution.

Interestingly, today, the highest fertility rate in the industrialized world is found in Israel. “Israeli government policy encourages population growth with benefits such as child allowances, free schooling from the age of three and funding for up to four in vitro fertility treatments a year.” Israel, of course, is hardly immune to its own local demographic panic- in that case, focused on anxiety over the boundaries between Jew and non-Jew, between Haredi and secular, between unassimilable Arab and Jewish Israeli. I hesitate to make too much of the Israeli example, but at minimum any discussion of panics vs. social planning must note that Israel is remarkably pragmatic about supporting the fertility of its Jewish citizens. I can’t count how many time I’ve heard (and made) jokes about going to Israel for free IVF, even among my relatively well off, well educated social circles.

Those jokes point to a grim reality. Even among the relatively well educated and well off, the twin disasters of student loan debt and sky rocketing health related costs are having an enormous impact on the transition of young Jews into an adulthood that includes making one’s own family. Reading yet another article about how important it is that we procreate, quickly, and often, written by those who have already had their chance, is a double insult.

The miraculous thing about Steven M. Cohen’s downfall is that it opened up an opportunity for Jewish leaders and community members to remake our communal agenda and examine the influence of pro-natalist voices like Cohen. What would it look like if the concerns of average men and women were an integral part of planning? We know that you can’t force, cajole or wheedle people into having more babies. If Jews aren’t having Jewish babies, it’s not because they haven’t thought of it. In large part what is depressing fertility in general is economic. What if concrete things like subsidized day care and parental leave were given the urgency that futile depopulation polemics get now? What if we bothered to ask people what their concerns were? Furthermore, the Cohen debacle gave us an opening to unpack the meaning of ‘continuity’. Is it possible to expand continuity beyond the realm of the biological? It’s possible to make 2019 a year of unprecedented renewal, if we’re willing to do the hard work of examining our own preconceptions.


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Rokhl Kafrissen

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