What We Really Mean When We Talk of Assimilation’s Threat to Jewish Identity

“Gader Haya,” (or “Borderlife” in English), by Dorit Rabinyan. Photo courtesy of Am Oved Publishers LTd.
“Gader Haya,” (or “Borderlife” in English), by Dorit Rabinyan. Photo courtesy of Am Oved Publishers Ltd.

The decision to ban a book, depicting a doomed love story between a Jewish woman and an Arab man, from Israeli schools shows how out of touch Education Minister Naftali Bennett is with the Jewish reality.

By Anshel Pfeffer

The absurdity of Israel’s Education Ministry refusing to allow Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” (“Gader Haya” in Hebrew) onto the high school curriculum shouldn’t need pointing out. The ruling, contrary to the professional opinion of the ministry’s own head of literature studies, was based on the argument that “young people of adolescent age tend to romanticize and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of assimilation.” The novel portrays a doomed relationship between a Jewish-Israeli woman and a Palestinian man in New York.

The lack of regard that Israel’s senior educators have for the intelligence of their students is breathtaking, as is the apparent ignorance of Dalia Fenig – a geography teacher and the Education Ministry official who led the committee responsible for the decision – of many other novels and sections of the Bible that deal with intermarriage and miscegenation, and are already on the official curriculum.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett backed Fenig, instead of asking himself why, for the first time ever, the professional recommendation of the ministry’s own experts had been overturned. Anyway, if the great educationalists are so worried about what impressionable young readers might take from the book, perhaps they should have read it first and realized that its bottom line is that a lasting relationship between a Jewish woman and an Arab man is all but impossible in today’s Israel.

But while the book banning is concerning to say the least, it could have two positive results. The first is for Rabinyan, whose award-winning novel, published in May 2014, is getting a second life and has been flying off bookstore shelves around Israel over the last 24 hours (and with another edition being rushed into print). Also, it may finally kick off a long overdue conversation on what assimilation means in this day and age.

What are Israelis talking about nowadays when they mention the dangers of assimilation? After all, the term was originally coined to describe the success of Diaspora Jews overcoming centuries of persecution and discrimination, and being allowed into respectable society. It only later assumed the additional meaning of cultural suicide. For Israelis today, it means something that only happens to Jews abroad: intermarriage. And whether or not they are religious, the vast majority of Israelis understand this to mean being lost forever to the Jewish people, almost as if they had been murdered in the Holocaust.

This isn’t just about religion or ethnicity. An increasing number of Israelis wouldn’t care if their sons or daughters married one of the 300,000-plus “Russian” immigrants and their offspring who emigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, but who are not considered Jewish by Orthodox rabbinic law. Because as long as you live in this country, serve in the Israel Defense Forces and, crucially, speak Hebrew, that’s as Jewish as you need to be. The fear of intermarriage is either with an Arab within Israel, or else leaving the country, marrying a nice goy and having one’s grandchildren disappear into a void, devoid of Jewish identity.

But even this is not what Israelis mean when they speak of “assimilation.” First of all, because it rarely happens – there are, on average, only about 20 Jewish-Arab marriages a year in Israel, and while thousands of Israelis do leave the country every year, some subsequently finding non-Jewish spouses abroad, there is no available data suggesting this a widespread trend, or is about to become one.

No, when Israelis speak of the “dangers of assimilation,” they are talking about something that happens to non-Israeli Jews in the Diaspora. When Habayit Hayehudi leader (and Education Minister) Naftali Bennett enraged Orthodox rabbis by visiting a Conservative school in the United States last month, he justified it by citing the need to “fight the threat of assimilation.”

Ironically, in the Diaspora – particularly in the United States, where Jews spent decades obsessing over growing rates of intermarriage and the “disappearing American Jew” – they’re finally getting over it. Demographic trends have stabilized somewhat and many communities are beginning to understand that rather than trying to fight the inevitable result of life in a tolerant and liberal society – Jews marrying members of other (or no) religions – it makes a lot more sense to try and make those new members by proxy, and their children, feel a bit more welcome.

Not only does this seem to be a more useful and realistic way of combatting assimilation, but in many cases it’s actually the non-Jewish spouse who is more interested in Judaism than the “original” Jew. This is uncharacteristic because, on most aspects of Jewish identity, American Jews are much more clueless and conflicted than their Israeli counterparts – who simply “know” they’re Jewish. But sometimes, Israelis can learn from their American cousins.

Bennett is actually a leading member of a group of relatively moderate (in religious terms) religious politicians who know that the biggest threat to keeping Jews connected to their identity is a fundamentalist rabbinical establishment. It’s Bennett’s blinkered and, quite frankly, rather racist worldview that prevents him from understanding that intermarriage is no longer the main cause of assimilation: it’s the rabbis and radical elements of his own party, to whom he is beholden. Rabinyan’s book is not a challenge to his aspiration of safeguarding the Jewish people – just a powerful literary evocation of the personal experiences opening up to a world that he doesn’t comprehend.

The challenge today is no longer making sure Jews marry only Jews, but building a Jewish society – both in Israel and the Diaspora – that is open and hospitable to those who aren’t sure anymore why they need, or want, to be Jewish. And banning books is exactly the wrong way to go about this.