When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in Davos last week attending the World Economic Forum, he knew he was going to have to contend with some very hot topics. The Iranian nuclear threat, pooh-poohed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, was one. The framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, pushed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, was another.
As usual, he came well prepared to confront those particular challenges. What he had not anticipated, however, was that a chummy sideline chat with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was going to turn into the sizzling story of the day, shortly after returning home to Jerusalem.
He should have known better.
According to the Norwegian news outlet Dagan, Netanyahu told Solberg that his son, Yair, had visited Norway with his Norwegian girlfriend, Sandra Leikanger. Considering this a cute item, the Norwegian media not only reported on it, but published photos of the young couple that Leikanger had posted on her Facebook page.
Yair Netanyahu, 23, met Leikanger, 25, at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, where they both were students. As the son of the prime minister, every milestone of his (and his younger brother’s) life has been covered by the Israeli press. Naturally, then, when word got out that he was dating someone, it was of interest to the press.
But it would have remained in the realm of the gossip columnists had the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newspaper Yated Neeman not devoted an editorial to the subject, opening a Pandora’s box that the Prime Minister’s Office is having a hard time putting a lid on.
This is because the object of the young Netanyahu’s affections is not Jewish.
Yated Neeman editor Yisrael Friedman lambasted Netanyahu senior for having “boasted” to his Norwegian counterpart about his son’s relationship with a gentile, thereby giving the message to Jews across the globe that assimilation is no big deal.
Immediately, haredi groups in Israel entered the fray, saying that the relationship between Yair Netanyahu and Sandra Leikanger was a matter of “national concern for the Jewish state.”
Shas leader Aryeh Deri told Israel Radio: “I have friends who invest tens of millions, hundreds of millions, to fight assimilation throughout the world. If, heaven forbid, this is true, woe is us.”
Hagai Ben-Artzi, the brother of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, also chimed in, going after his nephew personally.
“Yair should know that if he does such a thing, if he doesn’t break off the relationship, then he is spitting on the graves of his grandmother and grandfather who loved him so much and raised him,” Ben-Artzi said.
By Thursday evening, every media outlet in Israel and abroad was reporting on the so-called “outrage” in Israel over the prime minister’s son being involved with a “shiksa.”
Terrific. Now, in addition to Israel’s other image problems, it is being portrayed as a place where relationships with non-Jews are viewed with horror.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the first place, unlike Diaspora Jews, those who remain in Israel rarely have to grapple with the question of intermarriage. Being surrounded by other Jews will do that.
The parental debate inside the Jewish state, instead, tends to focus on what to do when a potential daughter- or son-in-law is religiously, culturally or socioeconomically different from one’s own child, or how to respond if faced with offspring bringing home a same-sex partner. “Jewish continuity” is a subject that Israelis associate with communities abroad.
In the second place, mainstream Israelis do not accept the haredi position on anything connected with Judaism in general and interpersonal relations in particular. The secular Israeli press in this case has been defending the Netanyahu family, something it hates having to do, and the reportage in the foreign press has been wildly exaggerated.
Finally, the issue of Yair and his girlfriend is actually far more interesting and nuanced than the surrounding noise. As it happens, Sandra Leikanger is a member of a fiercely pro-Israel evangelical family. Her sister, Ida, converted to Judaism and settled in Israel.
This not only means that Sandra Leikanger would conceivably be amenable to becoming a Jew in the event that marriage to Yair Netanyahu is ever actually on the table; it also makes her a better match for him than most Jewish girls he is likely to have encountered on campus, most of whom lean to the Left. It is not easy, to put it mildly, for educated secular Jews on the rightist side of the political spectrum to find like-minded mates. I can attest to this from personal experience.
What the senior Netanyahu can attest to from personal experience is that he ought to watch his banter and stick to dealing with – and talking to world leaders about – free markets and threats to Israeli and international security.
The writer is the author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’
This article was first published by Israel Hayom, english edition (www.israelhayom.com), and is reprinted with permission.