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Can a Book Threaten Israel’s Jewish Identity?

By Shmuel Rosner

JAN. 19, 2016

The Israeli novelist Dorit Rabinyan has hit the jackpot: First, her latest book, “Borderlife,” became an issue of fierce debate and controversy. Then it became a symbol of liberty and progress. And then, of course, it became a best seller.

What spurred Ms. Rabinyan’s good fortune? A bureaucratic decision of little importance. In December, the Ministry of Education decided not to include “Borderlife” on its list of required reading for the matriculation exams.

Many books are not included in the list of required reading for high school students, of course. But the decision to skip Ms. Rabinyan’s book became an issue of national discussion. “Borderlife” chronicles a love story between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Muslim Palestinian man. “Marrying a non-Jew is not what the education system wishes to endorse,” a ministry official said.

The political brouhaha that followed was somewhat predictable. The head of the opposition, the Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog, said he had purchased “several copies” of the novel. Minister of Education Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party defended his ministry’s decision by claiming that the book smears the Israel Defense Forces. (It does not.) On the left, the decision to keep the book off the reading list became yet another sign of the looming end of our democracy, courtesy of Israel’s right-wing and religious factions. A representative from the left-wing Meretz Party called the Ministry of Education’s decision “racist censorship.” On the right, the attack on the ministry was seen as proof that the left does not care about Israel’s Jewish character.

Nothing in this war of words was particularly interesting on its own. But the incident brought to light Israel’s confused approach to Jewish identity and the question of assimilation. It showed that many Israelis felt the need to adhere to one of two artificial choices: Either support banning the book or endorse marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

In some ways, this gets at a question at the heart of the state of Israel. Jews account for one-fifth of 1 percent of the world’s population. Jews in Israel are a tiny minority in a vast Muslim region, and Jews in other countries are a tiny minority among Christians. The Jewish fear of demographic calamity is well founded and deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche. Jews know that in bad times they are persecuted, and so their ability to thrive as a distinct group is challenged. And they know that in good times, when Jews are welcomed and integrated, their ability to thrive as a distinct group is challenged in a different way.

The creation of a Jewish state was supposed to address both of these challenges, giving Jews a place where they are the majority in power, saving them from hatred and discrimination, and giving them a place where they are the majority culture, saving them from assimilation.

There have been complications, but as a rule, it has worked. Jews in Israel are safe from persecution and — unlike their brethren in other countries — do not assimilate. They can’t assimilate because they are about 80 percent of the population, and they don’t intermarry because the vast majority of other citizens of Israel are Arabs, with whom Jews have contentious relations. Also, marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is not even legally possible.

This is a blessing for Jewish continuity — but apparently it’s also a curse for Jewish self-awareness in Israel. When the flap over “Borderlife” forced Israeli Jews to take a position on the highly complicated matter of assimilation and intermarriage, many of them proved unequipped to deal with it.

On one hand were those who comically overreacted to a fictional story of unfulfilled love. Granted, it wasn’t the first time the issue had come up. There have been occasional eruptions of hysterical responses to isolated incidents of interfaith relationships in the past. So, clearly, the fear of assimilation is very much alive in Israel. This suggests that many Jewish Israelis have forgotten that living in a Jewish state was supposed to rid them of this fear. If even a Jew in Israel cannot enjoy not having to worry too much about the Jewishness of his or her grandchildren, then one of the most compelling arguments for the country’s existence becomes hollow.

On the other hand were those who proved unable to simultaneously reject the ministry’s idiotic rationale for not including the book on its reading list while still accepting as reasonable the position that a Jewish state does not wish to encourage assimilation. Students should be exposed to controversial books, but that doesn’t mean the ministry’s decision symbolized what bigoted country Israel had become. Many seem to have forgotten that a Jewish state is a place where the natural and healthy aspiration for Jewish continuity can and should be unapologetic.

But there was one person who refused the binary choice dominating the public discourse: Ms. Rabinyan. While she is no doubt a critic of many of Israel’s policies, she is also a staunch Zionist. It is ridiculous for the ministry to try to portray her as a proponent of assimilation.

She didn’t intend “to endorse romantic relations between Arabs and Jews,” she told me recently. She also said that she deemed it critically important to have a Jewish majority in Israel — a reason many Israelis, Ms. Rabinyan included, call for ending the occupation of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. Much like the conflicted love story in her novel, Ms. Rabinyan’s nuanced response to the controversy surrounding it could serve as a good starting point for a discussion about Jewish identity — a discussion that the Jewish state seems to need.

Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer