Israelis Cannot Let Judaism Be a Mask for Racism

It's time Jews in Israel shed their Diaspora mentality of fearing assimilation and start taking care of the minority religions living in this country.

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Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014.
Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The recent protest outside the wedding of Morel, a Jewish-born woman who converted to Islam, and Mahmoud, a Muslim, has nothing to do with intermarriage, nor did it have to do with assimilation. It was racist, pure and simple.

Despite that the wedding was no one’s business other than that of the couple, their friends and families, I can understand why the wedding evoked strong emotions among members of the Israeli public. A Jewish-born woman chose to leave the faith, and even though she apparently now identifies as a Muslim, many Jews still see the relationship as intermarriage between a now-apostate Jew and a Muslim.

Even so, I am not convinced that the protests against the wedding came from a religious objection to intermarriage. First, the claim that the wedding was a religious intermarriage is a tenuous one, as Morel converted to Islam. While Judaism technically views her as a lapsed Jew, but nevertheless a Jew, in the eyes of the couple, the wedding was between two members of the same religion.

From a Jewish religious perspective, the problem is not that the bride was marrying outside the faith, but that she left the faith altogether. I can understand the sadness at seeing that our religion ceases to speak to some of our members, but we should not publicly mourn that departure from the faith at the celebration of two people joining their lives together.

Moreover, the chanting of “Death to Arabs” by the protesters revealed the rally’s true colors. Not that a chant of “Death to Muslims” would have been any less repulsive, but it showed which “inter”-marriage really bothered the protesters: the marriage of an ethnic Jew with an Arab. It is no coincidence that the protesters did not gather outside the marriage of one person born to Jewish parents and one born to a Jewish father only (who is not considered Jewish by traditional Jewish law or the Chief Rabbinate who has a monopoly on the marriage of Jews in Israel). Those couples also deserve to get married in peace (and by law) but they can rest assured that Lehava (the so-called anti-assimilation organization that led the protests) would leave them alone if neither member of the couple speaks Arabic.

Sadly, while only a few hundred people took the opportunity to try to ruin what should have been the happiest day of Mahmoud and Morel’s lives, the attitudes they displayed seem to be commonplace among Israeli youth. A recent study at a school in central Israel found widespread racism among its students, who openly wished harm to their Arab neighbors. Education Minister Shay Piron should be commended for wanting to address this racism in the beginning of the upcoming school year, as should President Reuven Rivlin for advancing a program to combat incitement, but the problem cannot only be solved by running a few informal programs.

We cannot allow religion to be a mask for racism and ethnic supremacy. Jewish Israelis need to start understanding what it means to be the majority in their country and understand their responsibility to the non-Jewish minorities. Unfortunately, many Jews in Israel are living in the Diaspora mentality of fighting for our right as a minority against a hostile majority. (Even the very name Lehava - a Hebrew acronym for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land” - does not recognize that the word “assimilation” typically defines a minority group assuming the identity and culture of its neighboring majority group!)

It should be the job of independent Jewish leaders – not the government – to educate Jewish values. While these values may include preaching against inter-marriage, they must certainly include our responsibility to care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government and its institutions must focus on caring for all citizens in its midst - regardless of ethnicity or religion. This includes divorcing religious institutions from the state, starting with the Chief Rabbinate, which sadly puts marriages in the spotlight much more than a democratic country should do.

President Rivlin was right to decry the protests over Mahmoud and Morel’s wedding and remind the country that every individual has basic rights that they must be able to exercise without harassment. It is time the Israeli public stops letting fear cloud this basic truth and begins making it a reality for all Israeli citizens.

Arie Hasit, a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

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