In Praise of Intermarriage: Why Are Israeli Jews So Afraid of Relationships With Arabs?

Imagine how different the attitude toward Arabs would be if tens of thousands of Jewish families in Israel had a Palestinian member

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A gay couple dancing at wedding (illustrative).
The LGBT community once led the charge in tearing down barriers between Jews and Arabs.
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

“The Jews are to the human race very much what the pure-bred Arab steed is to the equine world. But whereas the Arab thoroughbred is used freely to improve other breeds of horses, the Jew obstinately objects to being utilized in the same way for the purpose of raising the intellectual level of the human race. He is afraid, he says, of debasing the purity of his blood. But the Arab strain of blood runs through the veins of a million European horses without impairing the purity of the desert stock. If half the Jews of the world intermarried with other races, the other half would keep the original fount free from debasement.”

The author of these words, written in 1910, was British journalist W.T. Stead. Such views were not uncommon in early 20th-century Europe. It’s true the race theory that was prevalent then prompted many Christians to believe in the ideology of racial purity and to oppose “contamination of the purity of blood” by Jews. However, a different approach that was widespread at the time, albeit less known in terms of contemporary historical consciousness, was based on an ideology of racial mixture. Belief in that hybridization project was popular in elite circles in Europe, among Jews and Christians alike, particularly Germany in the age of the empire, between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th. Even German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked that “Christian stallions should be mated with Jewish mares” (source: “Jews, Race and Environment,” by Maurice Fishberg).

For his part, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that the Jews were the most ancient and purest race, and amused himself with the idea of interbreeding (Verschmelzung) between members of the European aristocracy – especially Prussian noblemen – and Jewish women. By this means, he averred, the Germans could inherit the financial skills of the Jewish banking families.

Another German philosopher, Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906), agreed that the German people would benefit from an infusion of Jewish blood, in order to overcome the “degeneracy that has become rife in the personality of the Germans.” In certain circles, German-Jewish “hybrids” were considered particularly meritorious – i.e., people in whom “the critical thinking of the Jewish race has merged with the bold character of the blue-eyed Germans.”

The ideology of racial intermingling was based on racist assumptions and aspired to assimilate Jews into the European population. At the same time, the fact cannot be ignored that this notion rested on recognition of the Jews’ personality traits, which were viewed as a necessary element in society. From this perspective, the views commonly heard in present-day Israel are more benighted than those espoused in Germany 120 years ago.

The reports last week about the relationship between Amir Fachar, a former “Survivor” reality TV show participant, and model Opal Inbar, revealed yet again how powerful the dominant ideology of racial separation is in Israel, even among the secular Jewish population. “If each of us marries a non-Jew, that will be the end,” wrote Dror Inbar, Opal’s father, on his Facebook page, explaining why he forbade her from having a relationship with Fachar, who turns out to be Muslim. He also denounced the romantic liaison between Israeli singer Daniella Pik and American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. As expected, the post in which the father set forth his views was shared by thousands and drew tens of thousands of Likes.

Racist segregation is a mainstream stance in Israel. But unlike the situation in the German Empire, in Israel’s ethnic democracy, there was hardly any significant political or cultural force campaigning in favor of mixed marriages between Jews and Arabs. A rare exception was Gershom Schocken, publisher and chief editor of Haaretz from 1939 to 1990. In a 1985 article in the paper, titled “Ezra’s Curse,” Schocken lashed out against Israel’s xenophobia and isolationism, which he claimed were preventing the toppling of barriers between Arabs and Jews.

“The fact is that there is not one sovereign nation in the world that bans marriages with members of other nations,” Schocken wrote, and reminded his readers that “nearly all the European nations (not to mention the United States) were formed by merging different nations.” We, the Jews, he also noted, conquered a country in which an Arab population dwelt, and “in this situation, it is natural that the two nations begin a process of merging.”

Perhaps Schocken’s thinking on the subject was influenced by mixed-marriage ideologies originating in Germany, his native land. In any event, he was fiercely assailed for the opinion he expressed – not least by intellectuals such as Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, who were associated with the left. Yehoshua viewed the article as a “symptom of the general eclipse” in the country’s secular culture.

Pioneers of assimilation

Indeed, ethnic insularity in Israel is hardly confined to the religious public. One proof of this is the suspiciousness with which romantic ties between members of the Jewish and Arab LGBT communities are perceived. On the face of it, the partner’s religious affiliation should make no difference, since, in any case, intimate relations between men are prohibited according to halakha (Jewish religious law). Nevertheless, many secular families will accept a gay son enthusiastically, but will be shocked if he brings home an Arab partner. In fact, relations between Jews and Arabs would appear to be less acceptable today in the LGBT community than they were 20 years ago. Whereas in the past gay people were pioneers in tearing down the barriers between Jews and Arabs, in the past two decades the LGBT community, too, has locked itself into ethnic boundaries in the country.

This is regrettable, because the growing legitimization accorded homosexuality in the past two decades could have served as a model for toppling barriers between Jews and Arabs. Every family in Israel that has a gay or transgender child tends to gradually adopt positive views of the LGBT community. By the same token, we can only imagine how different the attitude toward Arabs would be if tens of thousands of Jewish families in Israel had a Palestinian member.

Returning to W.T. Stead and his Arabian steeds: If the influential journalist had continued his racial-merger campaign, the relations between Jews and Christians in Europe might have taken a different course. What a pity that in 1912 he decided to sail to America onboard the Titanic. And the rest is history.

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