Opinion

Why I, an Israeli Jew Who Lost Family in Auschwitz, Assimilated

For me and for many others, assimilation is not a 'problem' – it is the only way that allows us to be at peace with ourselves.

In this Sunday Jan. 15, 2012 file photo, Benjamin Millepied, left, and Natalie Portman arrive at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles.
AP

1. A few weeks ago I was sitting with my partner and a friend from abroad in a crowded Tel Aviv bar. A young woman who heard us speaking in French told us she came from a religious community in the Paris area and was thinking of making aliyah. This was the first time she’d seen a couple “like us.”

With a nonchalance that left us agape, the potential new immigrant declared she would never, ever, ever consider even dating a man of Christian descent – like the two men who sat across from her. Needless to say, a Muslim would never fit the bill either. She “believes in blood,” she explained.

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2. Rabbi Zamir Cohen, founder of the Hidabrut (“Dialogue”) organization for attracting Jews to religious observance, who has 60,000 Facebook followers, is running an anti-assimilation campaign entitled “The quiet Holocaust.” When you type hitbollelut (“assimilation”) in Google, the organization’s impressive website turns up as the second result. If you enter the site, you can read all kinds of stories about the “salvation” of Jewish boys and girls, as well as a way to report on Jews who are in a relationship with non-Jews (“full discretion assured”).

In one video, Rabbi Cohen explains: “The plague of assimilation today is like a quiet Holocaust. There was a loud Holocaust, in which Jews were murdered and slaughtered. There is a quiet Holocaust, in which people assimilate and disappear.”

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3. “Disappearing” (“Ne’elamim”) is the name of a film shown last week on Channel 2, funded by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry (neither Keshet, the Ministry of Culture nor the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs will reveal how much state funding went into the film’s production). This “documentary” by veteran journalist Yoav Limor conveyed messages very similar to those found on the Hidabrut website, and posited that mixed marriages threaten the very survival of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. In one scene, Limor asks a young man from New York how he could be living with a non-Jewish woman when his grandmother was in Auschwitz.

The similarity between the two narratives is hard to ignore. The penetration of such messages, which until now were mostly confined to the religious fringes of the Internet, into the country’s most powerful commercial broadcaster, is worrisome. Using the Holocaust in a government campaign against mixed marriages amounts to blasphemy.

4. Until the day she died, my grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, kept pictures in her photo album of a man I never met. A man with blond hair and a strong physique, wearing a uniform. After the war, this Polish solider became her boyfriend. The relationship was only broken off when she decided to make aliyah with her sister, after they’d already talked about marriage.

My other grandmother, who spent the war years in a penal colony in Siberia, had her only son, my father, with a non-Jewish man.

5. In addition to Limor’s ethical failure in consenting to become a mouthpiece promoting racist messages, he also showed himself to have lousy journalistic instincts. During the film, as he encounters many people who tell him they’ve turned their back on institutionalized Judaism, it never occurs to him to ask them what it is about 21st-century Judaism that turns them off.

Orthodox Judaism is causing many to turn away. Its rigid rules and extreme worldview will not be embraced by those who seek gender equality and equality among peoples.

6. The memory of my grandmother’s parents, who were murdered in Auschwitz because of racist persecution, makes it incumbent upon me to seek brotherhood and equality. My children, the future progeny of a mixed marriage, will be my answer to Hitler on the one hand, and to the likes of Rabbi Zamir Cohen and Yoav Limor on the other.

For me and for many others, assimilation is not a “problem,” as Limor called it in his film. It is the only way that allows us to be at peace with ourselves. If I were to reject my partner, the man I fell in love with, on the basis of the blood that flows in his veins – I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror.