Negotiation Skills and Strategies at Work: Negotiating Jewish Identity

Negotiation skills and strategies can help American Jews better understand what it means to be Jewish in their home and in their broader community, argues Harvard negotiation expert Robert Mnookin in his latest book.

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What does it mean to be Jewish in America? The question offers many opportunities to apply negotiation skills and strategies, 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 former chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Rethinking the Matrilineal Principle

In The Jewish American Paradox, Mnookin challenges 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. He writes that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is producing in contemporary America hundreds of thousands of Americans who only have one Jewish parent. The matrilineal rule rejects about half of them as Jewish—unfairly and arbitrarily so, according to Mnookin.

He gives the example of Angela Warnick Buchdahl, a New York rabbi who is the child of a Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother. If held strictly to the matrilineal principle, this influential rabbi would not be considered Jewish. By contrast, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was raised Catholic and didn’t learn about her Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side until later in life. Albright doesn’t identify as Jewish but is considered Jewish according to the matrilineal principle nonetheless.

Given the shortcomings of the matrilineal principle, Mnookin proposes in The Jewish American Paradox a two-part standard to replace it. First, for the American Jewish community as a whole, he believes the standard should simply be public self-identification. Those who identify themselves as members of the Jewish people should be welcome under the “big tent” of the American Jewish community, he argues. Second, Mnookin believes that Jewish subgroups, such as an Orthodox synagogue or a Reform congregation, should be able to apply their own standards for membership and participation in their community. Moreover, no institution should have the right to dictate the standard for any other. Under Mnookin’s two-pronged standard, a person may self-identify as a member of the broader Jewish community but must be invited into a particular subgroup.


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An Internal Negotiation

The process of considering one’s religious or ethnic identity can be informed by negotiation skills and strategies, Mnookin writes in The Jewish American Paradox.

Each of us has many strands to our identity, he notes. The degree to which any particular strand is salient to us often involves an internal negotiation, as well as negotiations with our families and community. For example, the strands of one woman’s identity might include her family roles (wife, mother, and daughter), place of origin (California), professional role (librarian), and religion and ethnicity (taking pride in being Jewish).

The degree to which any particular strand of identity is salient depends on the person. For ultra-Orthodox Jews, being Jewish permeates virtually every aspect of daily life. For others, their Jewish heritage may play no role at all in their lives.

In addition, the salience of each strand of one’s identity may fluctuate throughout one’s lifetime. For example, one’s sense of Jewish identity may come to the forefront when one is studying for a bar or bat mitzvah or planning one’s marriage ceremony.

Finally, there is a group dimension to identity. 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, Mnookin notes. However, if we feel alienated from a group to which we are said to belong, membership may bring feelings of shame or denial.

Negotiating Your Children’s Jewish Identity

With interfaith marriage on the rise in the United States, couples increasingly are facing the challenge of reconciling seemingly conflicting goals for their children’s religious or cultural upbringing. In The Jewish American Paradox, Mnookin suggests negotiation skills and strategies, rooted in mutual gains negotiation, that can help parents navigate their differences.

First, noting that interfaith couples try to preserve harmony by suppressing their differences, he advises couples not to avoid conflict. To negotiate these differences effectively, empathy and assertiveness are needed, writes Mnookin. Empathy involves listening nonjudgmentally to the other person’s perspective, drawing out their views with genuine curiosity, and conveying understanding. Once a partner feels heard, he or she will typically become more willing to listen. Assertiveness means articulating one’s interests and calmly standing up for them without attacking the other person. This process requires us to consider how emotions affect negotiations and to draw on negotiation skills and strategies from the business world.

What advice do you have on negotiating one’s cultural and/or religious identity?

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