Shalom Goldman on Religion, Intermarriage, and the Peace Process

Monday, February 24, 2014
Shalom Goldman on Religion, Intermarriage, and the Peace Process

by SHALOM GOLDMAN for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 21, 2014: 

While Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts toward Israeli-Palestinian peace still generate headlines in the US, Israeli readers have long lost any initial interest they might have had in Kerry’s flurry of diplomatic activity. As one journalistic colleague told me  “flurries of activity are like snow flurries—nothing really sticks.”  This skepticism is shared by both Palestinians in the West Bank and Jews in Israel.  In recent polls more than 80% of those polled in each group thought that nothing substantial would come of the talks.

Virtually all Israelis and Palestinians can remember back to earlier American-sponsored peace talks that went nowhere. And their parents and grandparents can remember them too. The history of these talks is as old as the history of the state of Israel.  According to “America’s Great Game,” an authoritative new book by historian Hugh Wilford, American Middle East peace plans have been the stock and trade of the US State Department since President Harry Truman overruled the diplomats and granted recognition to Israel in May of 1948.

After decades of intermittent and unproductive negotiations one would think that there were no new wrinkles in the demands put forth by both sides. But as religious issues move to the forefront of the negotiations, instead of remaining in the murky background, new demands have emerged. The most notable of them is Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ – and not simply as  a state of its citizens. This is a demand that the Palestinian leadership, faced with a clear rejection of it by its constituencies, finds itself unable to meet.

Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be recognized by the Palestinians as “Jewish” has generated much criticism among Israeli liberals, who see the demand as deliberately provocative and diplomatically untenable.

And that demand was put into sharp relief by the news in late January that Netanyahu’s 23-year-old son Yair was making the quite ‘unJewish’ move of dating a Christian woman

That story has generated more Israeli headlines in the past few weeks than Kerry’s ‘shuttle diplomacy’. And though the story seems more appropriate for People Magazine than for the The Economist or Haaretz it doesn’t want to go away.

As one witty journalist put it: “He hasn’t even put a ring on it, and every Israeli politician is freaking out” about his liason with blonde non-Jewish Norwegian university student, Sandra Leikanger. The two “love birds” apparently met while studying at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel.

She is 25, he is 23 and they make a photogenic couple, but for some Israelis, especially among the country’s large Orthodox population, they are quite a problematic couple. For a nice Jewish boy from the nation’s “first family” a shiksa is not the appropriate match.

Suprisingly the story has received quite a bit of international and American attention:

On Jan 28th CNN devoted a four-minute segment to the story, concluding that the controversy in Israeli is being stoked by the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and that other Israelis are indifferent to it.

CNN’s claim that opposition to the ‘Yair and Sandra romance’ is generated by the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community underestimates the fact that for all of their sophistication and western cultural orientation many Israeli Jews are still socially conservative on the issue of intermarriages.

Tel Aviv — to say nothing of Jerusalem — is not New York City. And newly-elected mayor Bill de Blasio’s bi-racial family constellation would not meet Israeli voters’ approval.

A follow-up CNN opinion piece on Feb. 2nd caught the spirit of this concern in an article  titled “Why would anyone care if Yair Netanyahu is dating a gentile?”

The author, Jonathan Rosenblum, sees the Netanyahu—Leikanger case as another step in normalizing marriages outside of the Jewish community.

“Bluntly, the non-Orthodox segments of the Jewish people outside of Israel will cease to exist in one or two generations through intermarriage. The end of so many family lines extending back to antiquity provokes sadness.”

Similar sentiments were expressed last month by Israeli politicians on the Religious Right — who portrayed the romance as a threat to the state’s national security. In their eyes a threat to the Jewish tradition is greater than a military threat to the state. And both types of threat need to be pre-empted. Therefore, these politicians say, the Prime Minister should tell his son to date someone else.

The leader of the haredi Orthodox Shas party said the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son and a non-Jewish Norwegian woman is a matter of national concern.

“Woe is us if it is true,” Shas chairman Aryeh Deri told the haredi radio station Kol Barama on Monday. He added that if the reports of the relationship are true, then the prime minister and his wife “have a great heartache.”

But while the young Netanyahu’s political stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is anything but liberal — he was last in the news for writing and posting  anti-Arab statements on his Facebook page — his views on Jewish-Christian relations (at least those of the personal kind) are decidedly liberal.

The Prime Minister’s son, it seems, feels justified in promoting intolerance toward the members of one monotheistic religion — while embracing (as it were) — the members of another. (While Jewish-Christian marriages might be becoming more frequent, Jewish-Muslim marriages are extremely rare in Israel.)

Liberal Israeli observers familiar with the history of the State of Israel (and less concerned about  the religion of Israel ) are more sanguine about this ‘first family’  dating dilemma. They remember that Yair’s father, Prime Minister Netanyahu was himself married to a Christian woman who converted to Judaism. Those with a longer historical memory know that in the 1950s Amos Ben Gurion, the son of Israel’s first Prime Minister, married  Mary Callow, an Irish woman whose conversion was speedily arranged by Israel’s rabbinical authorities.

Soon after the flare up around Yair and Sandra’s romance journalists discovered that Sandra Leikanger’s older sister is herself a convert to Judaism living in Israel.

The elder Netanyahu has assured his coalition partners on the religious Right that Sandra and Yair are only ‘study partners.’ But if that doesn’t turn out to be true, it won’t be the end of the world — or of the Jewish state. Nor will it be a development that will move Kerry’s search for Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer to fulfillment.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and core faculty of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His most recent book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010). 


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