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What makes an intermarriage controversial?

Reactions to the wedding of a Jewish Israeli actor and an Arab Israeli journalist told us a lot about Israel, as well as what makes it so different from the Diaspora.

Actor Tzachi Halevy and news anchor Lucy Aharish. Credit: Instagram.
Actor Tzachi Halevy and news anchor Lucy Aharish. Credit: Instagram.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In America, intermarriage is not merely commonplace; it is the norm outside of the Orthodox world. In Israel, it’s rare for a number of reasons. When actor Tzachi Halevy—best known to American audiences for his role in the hit Netflix series “Fauda”—married television news anchor Lucy Aharish, it made headlines and engendered a controversy in which certain politicians felt impelled to comment with predictably dismal results. Some members of the Knesset condemned their decision; others defended it, but expressed dismay about intermarriage in general. Still others weighed in to condemn the pair’s critics and to see the entire discussion as a stain on Israel’s national reputation.

Actor Tzachi Halevy and news anchor Lucy Aharish. Credit: Instagram.

Seen in that context, it’s no wonder that the couple kept their relationship secret for years, lest they and their families be exposed to the brickbats of critics, as well as to the just as unwelcome support of others.

But in the United States, it’s hard to imagine anyone caring—let alone thinking it appropriate to weigh in on the matter.

There are two ways to interpret this, and how you look at it says a lot about how you weigh two factors: the relative value of a society in which barriers between faiths have completely broken down, as well as the value of having a nation where an overwhelming Jewish majority ensures that Jewish identity and peoplehood is not threatened by the very personal choices we make when we marry.

Intermarriage is an issue for Jews because of our relatively small numbers. In a world in which there are only about 15 million Jews (a number that is still millions lower than the pre-Holocaust total) and in which anti-Semites still plot our collective demise, the idea of extinction is still imaginable. Despite the strength and success of Israel—and the fact that American Jewry is the freest, richest and most influential Diaspora community in history—there is still a tendency not to take any of that for granted. After two millennia of persecution and exile, the notion of “sacred survival” as a Jewish imperative understandably still impacts the way many of us think.

In 2013, the Pew Survey of Jewish-Americans told us that the overall rate of intermarriage had reached 58 percent and approximately 80 percent for those not Orthodox. Five years later, it’s almost certain that those numbers are even higher.

In Israel, the rate of is far lower. Though a study commissioned by Haaretz in 2014 estimated it to be as high as one in 10 marriages, it’s hard to be sure of those numbers, as such marriages can’t be legally conducted in Israel; neither the rabbinate that controls Jewish life-cycle events or the equivalent Muslim authorities will perform such ceremonies. So those who wish to intermarry must do so abroad. Whether or not that figure is inaccurate, it’s clear that the divisions between the two communities are such that it remains a marginal phenomenon.

That’s a key point that cannot be overemphasized. Even those who lament the decline of Jewish in-marriage must acknowledge that the prevalence of interfaith unions is a product of freedom and the acceptance of American Jews. It would not be possible in a society where anti-Semitism had thankfully not become a preserve of extremists.

In Israel, the divide between faiths is a matter of national identity and not—as it is for most in the United States—about which holiday you prefer to celebrate in December.

Being a Jewish Israeli means being a citizen of a state, where the language, calendar, culture, anthem, flag and reason for existence revolve around Jewish identity. For the vast majority, it also brings with it the obligation to defend the one state on the planet that serves as not only the spiritual and cultural center of the Jewish world, but the ultimate safe haven for Jews in a world where anti-Semitism runs rampant.

Being a Muslim or Arab Israeli means having democratic rights that your co-religionists elsewhere in the Middle East are denied in all the states where they dominate. But it also involves being a national minority in a Jewish majority nation in conflict with other Arabs, especially the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. That creates tensions and barriers that keep the communities apart, irrespective of religious and cultural reasons against intermarriage.

But if you care about the Jewish future, rates of intermarriage are not purely an academic concern, especially when you contemplate what may be the demographic implosion of a vital non-Orthodox community that gave much of value to the Jewish people and the United States.

Since many of those in America who intermarry raise their children as Jews, one cannot generalize about the individual experiences and choices of intermarried couples. But the statistical impact of these figures on the future of Jewish life in this country are fairly obvious in terms of shrinking numbers of those who identity as Jewish, support Jewish causes and institutions, and hold fast to a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood among the entire community.

A Jewish population that makes up less than 2 percent of the U.S. total is swimming against the tide. That means the fact that the fastest-growing slice of the community is “Jews of no religion”—or those with only tenuous links to Judaism—presents a picture of decline even if the fraction of American Jews who are Orthodox are growing in numbers.

In Israel, the low rate of intermarriage is not a plausible threat to the Jewish majority. Nor, despite the problems of Israeli society, is the Jewish nature of its national culture or the pull of Jewish peoplehood among its population really in doubt—something that makes the contrast with the situation for Jews in the United States abundantly clear.

That’s why those members of Knesset who publicly chided Halevy and Aharish for their choice were not only being uncivil about something that was no one else’s business, but were also unreasonably inciting fear in way that is destructive of a civil society.

While the only proper reaction to Halevy and Aharish is to wish them well, that doesn’t mean that there is something illegitimate about wanting to encourage endogamy in a world in which Jews remain a tiny and still embattled minority. The fact that Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid was lambasted by Haaretz for saying that intermarriage was problematic (as if that sentiment made him an advocate of Nazi-style racial purity) was troubling.

All too many secular Jews in the United States have come to regard any form of Jewish parochialism or nationalism unacceptable or racist. But the genius of Zionism is that it provided not just a national home for the Jewish people, but a place where Jewish identity could thrive as part of a normal majority culture, rather than the preserve of a minority.

Supporting the right to intermarry—and to do so without being subjected to opprobrium, whether in Israel or the United States—doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want to preserve Jewish peoplehood and encourage the building of Jewish families. That Israel provides a home that is more conducive to that goal than even the best Diaspora community in history is something worth celebrating and preserving, and another reason why American Jews who care about the Jewish future should cherish it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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