Ask A Negotiation Expert: Negotiating Jewish Identity

By on / Negotiation Skills

What does it mean to be Jewish in America? What challenges does the American Jewish community face? These questions prompt many conflicting answers—and many opportunities for negotiation, writes Robert Mnookin in his new book, The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World (PublicAffairs, 2018). The author of numerous books on negotiation, Mnookin is the Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was the chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School from 1993 until July 2018.

Negotiation Briefings: In The Jewish American Paradox, you argue that the traditional “matrilineal principle” for determining who is Jewish—that is, the rule that one is Jewish only if one’s biological mother is Jewish—is no longer useful, if it ever was. Why not?

Robert Mnookin: In contemporary America, intermarriage now produces hundreds of thousands of Americans who have only one Jewish parent, and the matrilineal rule unfairly and arbitrarily rejects about half of them. If its original purpose was to embrace only children of mixed parentage who were likely to be raised as Jews, it fails. Consider Angela Warnick Buchdahl, a prominent New York rabbi who is the child of a Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother. On the flip side, Madeleine Albright, who was raised Catholic and didn’t learn about her Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side until she became U.S. Secretary of State, doesn’t identify as Jewish.

NB: What do you think would be a better framework for determining Jewish identity?

RM: With a community as diverse as ours, it’s impossible to neatly divide Jews from non-Jews and capture what it means to “be Jewish” for everyone, so I’ve come up with a two-part standard. First, for the American Jewish community as a whole, the standard should simply be public self-identification. Are you willing to identify yourself publicly as a member of the Jewish people? If so, you’re welcome under the big tent of the American Jewish community. Second, subgroups, such as an Orthodox synagogue or a Reform congregation, should be able to apply their own standards for membership and participation—and no institution has the right to dictate the standard for any other. Under my two-pronged standard, a person may self-identify as a member of the broader Jewish community but must be invited into a particular subgroup.

NB: How can negotiation theory help us better understand our own religious or ethnic identity?

RM: Each of us has many strands to our identity, and the salience of any particular strand often involves an internal negotiation with one’s self, as well as negotiations with one’s family and community. My identity strands include family roles (husband and father), place of origin (Kansas City), professional roles (lawyer, professor, dispute-resolution expert), and religion and ethnicity (taking pride in being Jewish). The salience of any particular strand of identity varies from person to person. For the ultra- Orthodox, being Jewish permeates every aspect of daily life, while for others of Jewish heritage, it may be the thinnest of strands. Most American Jews fall somewhere in between. Further, the salience of each strand may fluctuate throughout one’s lifetime. For example, one’s Jewish strand may assume greater importance when studying for a bar/bat mitzvah or planning one’s marriage ceremony. Finally, identity has a collective dimension. Belonging to a group—whether a family, a social class, or an ethnic or religious group—can be a source of pride and self-esteem, but if we feel alienated from a group to which we are said to belong, membership may bring feelings of shame or denial.

NB: Interfaith marriage is on the rise in the United States and in many other cultures. What negotiation advice would you offer couples who have different goals for their children’s religious or cultural upbringing?

RM: Don’t avoid conflict. Many interfaith couples try to preserve harmony by suppressing their differences. As Paul and Rachel Cowan say in their book, Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage (Penguin Books, 1988), these differences are often “time bombs” that typically go off at times of stress, such as during the December holidays. Instead of avoiding serious conversations or making unwanted concessions, negotiate these differences.

Such negotiations require both empathy and assertiveness. Empathy involves listening nonjudgmentally to the other person’s perspective, drawing them out with genuine curiosity, and demonstrating that you understand them—without necessarily agreeing. Once your spouse feels heard, he or she will typically be more willing to listen. Assertiveness means articulating your interests and calmly standing up for them without attacking the other person.

Finally, remember that you and your spouse are not the only interfaith couple facing these issues and that the overwhelming majority of interfaith families successfully resolve their conflicts. Today there are a variety of organizations and professionals that specialize in counseling interfaith couples that can offer help.

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