When Jews fear intermarriage

My essay in global broadcaster TRT World:

The leaked words of Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz sounded shocking. The rate of intermarriage amongst US Jews was “like a second Holocaust”, he claimed. The Jewish people had “lost six million people” in the last 70 years due to intermarriage, Peretz said. Six million Jews were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust.

A former rabbi of the Israeli army, his comments were immediately condemnedby Jewish groups in the US. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation that’s spent decades supporting Israeli government policies and attacking people of colour, slammed Peretz.

“It’s inconceivable to use the term ‘Holocaust’ to describe Jews choosing to marry non-Jews,” the ADL head tweeted. “It trivializes (sic) the Shoah [Holocaust]. It alienates so many members of our community. This kind of baseless comparison does little other than inflame and offend.”

On the face of it, this controversy seems like a relatively minor issue when compared to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and surging anti-Semitism across the world. Yet it goes to the heart of Israel’s confused identity and Diaspora, Jewish affiliation with the Jewish state. At a time of declining US support for Israel, and growing US Jewish disquiet over Israeli racism and occupation policies, who legitimately speaks for Jews is an important question that hyper-nationalistic Israel wants to define.

Israel claims to be a state for the Jewish people. Any individual proving his or her Jewish background can apply and receive Israeli citizenship (Palestinians with often longer connections to the land of Palestine aren’t granted the same rights). With a population of just over nine million people, around 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian, Israel’s religious authorities maintain a vice-like grip over who can marry and be granted official recognition.

The only courts with the power to marry couples in Israel are religious courts. For example, a Christian cannot marry a Jew. Gay marriage is forbidden. A Jew wanting to marry a Palestinian from the occupied, Palestinian territories faces incredible hardships. There’s an ugly obsession in Israel with Jewish-Arab unions, one Jewish group literally stalks the streets across the country, intimidating and attacking Arabs with connections to Jewish women, and it’s not seen as overly controversial to oppose it. The Israeli government directly funds programmes to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and (ideally, in their view) procreate with other Jews.

The comments by Peretz are not uncommon in Israel, such is the fear and disgust with Jews daring to find love with non-Jews. Former minister of education and diaspora affairs Naftali Bennett said in 2016 that marriages between Jews and non-Jews were a disaster on par with other Jewish tragedies in history such as the Holocaust.

During a speech to Israeli emissaries, he explained: “Israel, in my eyes, is not only the state of the citizens of Israel, but the state of world Jewry. Your mission is one of saving, of looking outward from the confines of the community you will be serving. I expect each and every one of you to work hard and think how you can save another Jew [from assimilation]. The key lies more in your inner strength than in ideology.”

The head of the Jewish Agency, one of the largest Jewish organisations in the world, said in 2018 that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the US was a “plague” that had to be fought. He pledged to find a “solution” to the issue. Jewish Agency leader Isaac Herzog once said, when leading an Israeli political party, that his party must never be seen as “Arab lovers”.

The level and extent of racism within Israeli society towards non-Jews is shocking to witness. Jewish supremacy is expressed by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – just this week he again claimed that Jews have more historical and moral claims over the land of Palestine than Palestinians – and West Bank Rabbis funded by the Israeli state who call for Arabs to be enslaved.

Barely a week goes by without another Israeli commentator publicly demeaning the lives of non-Jews. Decades of Israeli control over Palestine, and the required physical and moral brutality to do so, have coarsened Israeli Jewish society to such an extent that non-Jewish lives are often seen as less equal than Jewish blood.

The larger political battle over Jewish identity is not really about marriage or dating at all. It’s centred around the growing Jewish voices in the US and other Western nations who refuse to remain silent in the face of ugly Israeli actions in Palestine. If anything, these people are often proudly Jewish and anti-Zionist. Mainstream Jewish organisations shun these Jews, claiming that real Jews are Zionist and passionate defenders of the Jewish state. In the Trump era, however, with many mainstream Jewish organisations supporting the White House in its war against refugees and Islam, outspoken, dissident Jews are taking a side and it’s with the downtrodden.

This ugly debate around assimilation touches on how Jews should act and behave in the 21st Century, more than 70 years after the Holocaust. For Israel and its blind supporters, the only acceptable Jew is the one who backs its occupation policies across Palestine. The others are expendable. This speaks to the insecure and tribal nature of modern Zionism, a movement that growing numbers of Jews reject.