The foolishness of politicians sometimes has an unexpected benefit: it can reveal unspoken truths.
“If we give up on Jewishness, our descendants might end up living in a democratic state,” Likud MK Miki Zohar unthinkingly told Haaretz this week, regarding a bill that would ban businesses from operating on Sabbath, he added.
The same extraordinary line of thinking was also evident last week, when Israel’s Ministry of Education excluded Dorit Rabinyan’s novel Borderlife from the curriculum of Israeli high schools, over concerns that it encourages romantic relationships between Jews and Arabs.
The ministry’s decision to exclude a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man caused worldwide outrage, not least because it was accompanied by this ridiculous statement: “Adolescents lack a systemic view that includes considerations of maintaining the national-ethnic identity and the significance of miscegenation.”
Excluding the book did not have the effect expected by the people behind the move: following protests by teachers and students, its sales spiked dramatically.
Singling out Rabinyan’s novel did look somewhat arbitrary, given that much of Israel’s literary canon centers on romantic relationships between Jews and Arabs, from Amos Oz’s My Michael to A.B. Yehoshua's The Lover, to Sami Michael’s Trumpet in the Wadi. Nor is this some modern phenomenon. The Bible contains enough stories of miscegenation and intermarriage to make adolescents’ heads spin. The Book of Esther, for instance, tells the story of a courageous Jewish woman who saves her people by marrying the king of Persia.
Arbitrary as it seems, the decision to disqualify Rabinyan’s book is not surprising. Fear of miscegenation, or “assimilation” as it's usually called in Jewish circles, isn’t some crazy new scheme stoked by Israel’s messianic right wing margins. Quite the opposite. Discouraging “assimilation” is an inseparable part of the Jewish State, and lies at the heart of the Israeli mainstream.
A national threat
Israel has no civil law prohibiting intermarriage. Nevertheless, its marriage laws make it virtually impossible for Jews to marry non-Jews.
That is because there is no institution of civil marriage in Israel. Religious authorities - namely, the Chief Rabbinate - have a monopoly on all matrimonial affairs.
Since Chief Rabbinate is strictly Orthodox, and Orthodox Judaism does not allow mixed marriages, and Israel’s other religious authorities don’t perform interfaith marriages either, intermarriage is a matter of impossibility. Jews, Muslims and Christians cannot intermarry unless one of the beloveds converts to the other’s faith.
Jews and non-Jews who wish to marry can do so abroad (if they can afford it), and their marriage will be recognized by the state. Still, this does not guarantee an end to their troubles. While intimate relations between Jews and Arabs are rare, some decry them as a national threat.
In recent years, in line with the radicalization of right-wing religious groups in Israel, there has been more and more talk about the “problem” of assimilation. In 2009, the Jewish Agency launched a controversial anti-assimilation campaign that described it as a "strategic national threat” and urged Israelis to report acquaintances living abroad who are “in danger” of marrying non-Jews. In early 2014, reports that Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair, was dating a Norwegian shiksa almost turned into a full-blown political scandal.
At the same time, extremist “anti-assimilation” groups like Lehava and Yad L’Achim, which attempt to “rescue” Jewish women who converted to Islam in order to marry, have strengthened dramatically. In August 2014, hundreds of protesters showed up at the wedding of Morel Malka, a Jewish-born woman who converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim man named Mahmoud Mansour, and tried to block the ceremony from taking place.
The violent protest was condemned by President Reuven Rivlin, but surveys have repeatedly shown that while violence is castigated, opposition to interfaith marriage is not limited to Israel’s margins. A poll conducted by Haaretz following the Malka-Mansour ruckus showed that 75% of Israeli Jews and 65% of Israeli Arabs would not even consider having an interfaith relationship. In the same poll, 60% of Jews and 54% of Arabs said that they would oppose a relative of theirs having an interfaith relationship.
Observance had little to do with it: two thirds of self-proclaimed secular Jews said that they would avoid interfaith relationships as well.
So when Dalia Fenig, the education ministry official who headed the committee that disqualified Rabinyan’s book, told the Israeli news site Ynet that “Marrying a non-Jew is not what the education system aims to teach,” she was not so much speaking for religious ultranationalists, as faithfully representing the fears and concerns of the Israeli mainstream.
Rabinyan herself, defending her book in an interview with Israeli Army Radio, echoed some of these concerns when she said “This book is not politically provocative. It does not encourage mixed relationships, quite the opposite, it examines this possibility and chooses to avoid it.”
Openness = danger?
It is no wonder that so much of Israeli literature deals with Arab-Jewish love stories. Their forbidden-fruit nature, and the improbability of a happy ending, make for great drama.
Fears of “assimilation” have troubled Jewish communities since the days of the Maccabees, and after being transported to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they acquired a new level of toxicity. What fuels much of this fear is that openness, whether in the form of democracy or intermarriage, poses a danger to Jewish identity.
In 1985, legendary Haaretz editor Gershom Schocken wrote an article railing against Israel’s ban on intermarriages, describing it as a “curse,” a remnant of pre-Zionist days, when Jews were merely an ethnic-religious group that fought hard to maintain its integrity in diaspora.
“The fact is that there is not one sovereign nation in the world that bans marriages with members of other nations,” wrote Schocken, who treated the ban on interfaith marriage as an impediment to the creation of a “unified Israeli nation.” Mixed marriages, he wrote, would most likely remain a marginal phenomenon even after barriers are lifted. Their removal, he determined, is nonetheless necessary for Jews and Arabs to co-exist in the same space.
But try telling that to three out of four Israeli Jews.