The sensitive and troubling issues of assimilation and intermarriage are at the top of the priority list for most Diaspora Jewish communities. Keeping Jews Jewish has become such a critical concern that the Israeli government recently approved a multi-year $168 million program geared to strengthen the Jewish identity of young Diaspora Jews.
The worrying trend – especially in the US – of Jews marrying outside the fold and losing their connection to their heritage is often cited as a central impetus for picking up and moving to Israel by olim from the West. In Israel, our children will meet Jews, go to school with Jews, and will marry Jews, is the common mantra among these ideological immigrants.
Assimilation and intermarriage can be taken off the “worry” list when Jews move to Israel, replaced by other unique issues like rockets and Color Red sirens. However, such thinking does not take into account that, in addition to being the Jewish homeland, Israel’s population is much more diverse in its makeup than many people realize.
According to statistics released before Independence Day this year, in addition to 6,135,000 Jews, there are 1,694,000 Arab citizens of Israel and 348,000 other non-Jews, including Christians and Baha’is. Because Israeli society is generally segregated according to religion, with mostly separate schools, living areas, and social environments, one would think there is still quite little chance of intermarriage taking place. However, according to the latest figures which the Interior Ministry provides from a Knesset report, there were more than 92,000 mixed marriage couples living in Israel in 2008.
Given the likelihood that many of those couples arrived in Israel from abroad, the theory that Jews marry Jews in Israel has proven to be a sound one over the years. And the strong fiber of Jewish heritage in Israeli society is strong enough to withstand the instances when a Jew does marry outside the religion.
That’s why the hoopla surrounding Sunday’s wedding between Mahmoud Mansour and Morel Malka was so surprising, inappropriate, and disconcerting. In a blatant display of intolerance, racism, and anti-democratic values, the union of Mansour, a Muslim Arab from Jaffa, and Malka, a recent Jewish convert to Islam, was turned from a sacred affair into a public travesty.
Lehava, an organization that campaigns under the slogan, “Saving the daughters of Israel,” in an attempt to combat marriages between Jewish Israeli women and non-Jewish men, launched a campaign to harass both the bride and groom as well as the owner of the Rishon Lezion wedding hall where the couple wed.
On Sunday night outside the hall, a few hundred protesters demonstrated against the wedding, and the couple was forced to hire private security guards to insure their guests’ safety. What should have been the couple’s most sacred and holy day was turned into a travesty.
Thankfully, voices of condemnation over the behavior of those who would deny an Israeli couple their basic rights were quick to be expressed.
President Reuven Rivlin wished peace and joy to the couple, writing on his Facebook page that the red line that runs between freedom of expression and protest and incitement had been crossed. He noted that the couple, in deciding to get married, had exercised their freedom to do so in a democratic country. He said there was no room for incitement and racism in Israel, adding that racist expressions undermined the foundations of a joint Jewish and democratic society.
Health Minister Yael German also defended the couple’s right to marry. “I hope that your nuptials will be an additional step toward turning Israel into a more tolerant and pluralistic place,” she wrote in a note to them.
Would it have been better if Malka had not converted to Islam and married Mansour? It depends on whether you think their happiness represents a threat to the continuity of the Jewish people. Obviously the Jewish fiber of Israeli society is of utmost importance and value – without it, what reason is there for the Jewish state to exist? But within that mission to strengthen the Jewish complexion of our country, we need to be able to accept the other aspects of Israeli society and not feel threatened by them. Rather than trying to invoke stringent separation policies, we need to feel confident enough in our own identity to embrace the other.
In addition to launching worldwide campaigns to save Diaspora Jewry, we need to invest time and money into educating our own youth – whether secular or religious – about the beauty of our own Jewish heritage. That will do so much more good than using scare tactics to keep the Jewish population of Israel in a bubble.
As Rivlin wrote, not everyone has to be happy for the young couple at the center of the storm, but everyone has to respect their decision. That’s the sign of a strong, vibrant society.