Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mealy Diasporic tomatoes

For American Jews, "intermarriage" typically implies a particular scenario: it's the husband who's Jewish, and the non-Jewish partner represents a WASP elite, or at the very least a mainstream white Christianity devoid of all hyphenation and neurosis. A male Jewish outsider penetrating (get it? get it?) Real America. The Jewish-communal cry is for 'our' men not to be tempted away by a 'shiksa.' This may be an image with more to do with certain mid-to-late-20th-century fiction and film than with real-life, 2010 couples, but regardless, that's "intermarriage" in America.*

Not so in Israel. Apparently. The narrative there is a whole bunch of the other way 'round - the would-be intermarriers are Jewish women, not men, and the would-be non-Jewish spouses are Arabs. The genders are swapped, as is the role of the Other. (See also.)

What's bizarre about this, among other things, is that the rabbis' wives who've made opposing such marriages their cause claim to be fighting "assimilation." Meanwhile, if anyone's assimilating, it would be the Arab men who, according to the rabbis' wives, pose as Jewish: "'Yusuf turns into Yossi, Samir turns into Sami and Abed turns into Ami.'" Although I guess their claim is that Frieda becomes Fatima once the marriage takes place. I mean, who knows. The subset of Jews who'd get worked up about Jewish women and Arab men working together in a supermarket are in no place to start throwing women's-rights critiques at the Arab or Muslim world.

But I can't say I've given much thought to intermarriage in Israel. Marriage in Israel more so, because the rules are a mess, to the point that even a gung-ho Zionist looking to marry a fellow Jew might be well-advised to do the actual marrying elsewhere. But I'd always assumed that living in Israel made marrying in the default for Jews, and, based on that assumption, have encouraged theoretical secular American Jewish parents who decide to throw theoretical fits when they find out that their children they've raised with no religion or areligious Judaism whatsoever are lo and behold not committed to marrying in to consider that maybe, if this was their main concern, and they had no interest in participating in Jewish communal life here in the States, they might have considered moving to a place where it's possible to have Jewish grandchildren by default.

But I don't revel in being uninformed, particularly when it comes to topics related, however tangentially, to my research. So I Googled, and... hmm. So perhaps the intermarriage debate in Israel is just a wacko extension of the one going on in the Diaspora, as opposed to a home-grown one centered on the rare cases of Jews marrying out within Israel? This from 2009:

The Israeli government has launched a television and internet advertising campaign urging Israelis to inform on Jewish friends and relatives abroad who may be in danger of marrying non-Jews. The advertisements, employing what the Israeli media described as 'scare tactics', are designed to stop assimilation through intermarriage among young diaspora Jews by encouraging them to move to Israel. 
Unnerved yet? If not, there's also this:
One-third of Jews in the diaspora are believed to have relatives in Israel. According to the campaign's organisers, more than 200 Israelis rang a hotline to report names of Jews living abroad after the first TV advertisement was run on Wednesday. Callers left details of e-mail addresses and Facebook and Twitter accounts. The 30-second clip featured a series of missing-person posters on street corners, in subways and on telephone boxes showing images of Jewish youths above the word "Lost" in different languages.
More Googling, and the story only gets creepier, but at least it seems as though the campaign isn't representative of all (most? how much?) Israeli opinion on the matter. Anyway, I realize I'm more than a year late on this, but good on Esther Kustanowitz for pointing out how low it is to compare intermarrying Jews to people who are actually, well, missing or dead.

This is all kinds of blech. It strikes me less as racist, though, and more as tremendously counterproductive, if the goal is more Jews in Israel. The opposition to intermarriage doesn't seem to be all that different if Jews are the marginalized group, as in the Diaspora, or if the fear is that Jews will abscond with a marginalized group within Israel. If Yusuf wants to be Yossi, why not encourage this? Why take measures seemingly designed to repel the last remaining Diaspora Zionists (ahem, ahem), who had the audacity to fall in love before hopping on a Birthright party-bus. (Yes, I am slightly concerned my face made it to one of those flyers.) I mean, maybe some interfaith couples would like nothing more than to reside in Tel Aviv, subsisting on iced blended coffee and superior tomatoes and cucumbers year-round. Stories like this and I'm kind of like, fine, I will eat mealy Diasporic tomatoes, so be it.

*To those who say this cliché is ancient history, that I'm stuck hovering around 1997 culturally, well, perhaps so, but take this NYT Style list, "The 110 Things New Yorkers Talked About in 2010:" We get, on the one hand, "Chelsea Clinton marries a nice Jewish boy," and on the other, three items down, "Natalie and Benjamin." Chelsea Clinton and Natalie Portman are comparably famous, around the same age, and famous from the same age, give or take. Their dudes are both best known for being their dudes. It's not that there aren't Jewish women off with (dashing European, why not?) non-Jewish men. It's that we as a society are only interested in labeling intermarriages as such when they fit the familiar scenario. Consider also that moviegoers have yet another opportunity to meet Fockers this holiday season.

24 comments:

Britta said...

I don't get how anyone could even remotely think this campaign would be a good idea. IMO, if one wanted to promote intermarriage, I couldn't think of a better way. The idea of "informing" on people's personal lives brings to mind some of the scariest and most invasive tactics of totalitarian states. Moreover, I don't get the point. Do you report on people to Masa? So what? They call random strangers and harangue them about dating a non-Jew? I'd imagine anyone getting a call out of the blue from an extremist group in Israel about their relationship would feel violated and paranoid, not convinced to give up their relationship.

Phoebe said...

I had to read the thing several times to make (some) sense of it, but am still not sure exactly what happened, what was supposed to happen, what "informing" even meant in this context. How could Jews in Israel have any leverage here? Are they given one-way tickets to Ben Gurion to distribute to intermarried American Jews, so that they can get divorced and make aliyah all in one go?

It's legit for Israel to do things in a general way that would encourage more Jews to live there or at least to support the state's continued existence - for example, if Birthright offered a sense of how amazing and important it is that there's a Jewish state, where Jewish is "normal," and that even if the state is flawed, it still matters. But that approach is apparently too complicated. Far better, apparently, is to make all Diaspora Jews in mixed relationships, or who are the product of such relationships, or who don't meet whichever rabbinic qualification for being an official Jew, get defensive. In other words, yes, you're right, this if anything encourages interfaith romance. That was certainly my sense of Birthright, which is apparently not even as hardcore as Masa. (Although the trip I went on might have been.)

Anonymous said...

I thought the point made by the rabbis' wives was that the Arab men would adopt Hebrew names to mislead single Jewish women or, more generally, to thrive in a Jewish state. Once married, the men might then attempt to convert their gullible Jewish brides.
--EH

Phoebe said...

"EH"

But if it's to thrive in a Jewish state, that's assimilation! If the Jewish brides are indeed so gullible, as I agree the rabbis' wives implied, their conversion wouldn't be "assimilation" if they were still living in Israel.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't that depend on the proportion of Arabs versus Jews? If enough gullible Jewish women give up their Jewish identity, wouldn't there be a chance that Israel would no longer be a Jewish state? Isn't that what the hysteria is about?

--EH

Phoebe said...

That is what the hysteria is about, but as long as Israel is, for the time being, a Jewish state, "assimilation" could only, I would think, go the other direction.

Britta said...

If a woman is willing to marry a man without knowing his religious or cultural background, but merely based on an assumption from his name, then she is beyond gullible. If there are groups that see this as a threat, then they must have an extremely low opinion of Jewish women.

If a man purposely deceives a woman the entire time they are dating, to the point of constructing a new cultural identity he plans to ditch once they get married, then I would imagine that would be considered fraud, and the the man could be prosecuted in court and the marriage would be invalid (since the guy is not Jewish).

If the bigger fear is that a man would present himself as an Arab willing to convert/who had converted to Judaism, but who then after marriage attempts to lock his wife up in his home village, I'd imagine he would have a hard time forcing his wife to live anywhere she wouldn't want to in Israel, given that it is a liberal state where women are not legally subordinate to their husbands (correct me if I'm wrong). If a man does this by getting a woman to go to some other ME country and get married and then forces her to stay, I guess that's a possibility, but that seems kind of implausible. I'd also imagine a neighboring country would not want to risk conflict with Israel by supporting a man's attempt to kidnap an Israeli wife.

Finally, wouldn't the children of Jewish women and Arab men still be Jewish? Wouldn't the concern be more about Jewish men marrying out?

In some ways, if you get Arab men to marry Jewish women and raise their children Jewish, that's kind of a way to mitigate the demographic imbalance in Israel.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

What I'm picturing, and I could be way off, is neighboring villages where Jewish and Muslim extremists live side by side, in parallel poor, xenophobic, women-aren't-much-respected-by-contemporary-Western-standards situations. (Note that we are talking about "rabbis' wives" and not women with some career of their own.) So it wouldn't be that a well-educated, go-getter Jewish Israeli lawyer finds herself abducted, but that rather than being a subordinate to a Jewish husband, she has a comparable role with a Muslim one. Again, this is all speculation from the way all of this is being described.

As for the children being Jewish, technically yes, but if in Islam that's not the case, or if there's no way for the Jewish woman in question to raise her children in any way but that of her new family, it's not so important. But more to the point, I think there is some aspect of this that's a bit, unfortunately, and much as I'd rather, as a Zionist, not have to say this, of racism involved. (Of course, being a Zionist doesn't mean full support of the Israeli government, let alone its more fanatical citizens.) Like 'oh no our innocent daughters snatched away by the scary men.' Racism, or xenophobia, but at any rate paranoia, for sure.

The demographic question... the more I read, the more I feel like anything done about this ends up driving more Jews away.

PG said...

Britta,

Given that Israel criminally prosecutes men for rape-by-deception if they lie about some aspect of their identity (their race, their profession, their marital status) in order to get a woman to consent to sex, I think you're probably right that they'd allow at minimum a civil case for fraud if a man claims to be a Jew in order to marry a Jewish woman.

Phoebe,
I would think the rabbis' wives are referring to assimilation in the sense that the Jewish state is a minority within the Middle East. A Jewish woman who marries an Arab (whether Muslim or Christian) is assimilating to the Middle Eastern majority. I could imagine people in Hong Kong having a similar objection to the use of Mandarin as a form of assimilation; in HK itself, Cantonese is the dominant language, but it's a semi-autonomous region within China, where Mandarin rules. (Indeed, even people who are certainly aware of the variety of languages in China use "Mandarin" interchangeably with "Chinese language.")

Britta said...

OK Phoebe, I can see that. I was picturing some sort of Israeli "not without my daughter," which seems about as hysterical and overdriven as, well, the American version (though as you rightly point out, there is probably some of that going on as well).
My question then would be, if these are poor, xenophobic, traditional communities, how would Jewish women even get the opportunity to marry Arab men? Or is it more seduction at the well type stuff, where one illicit tryst has to end in marriage otherwise the woman will be shunned or whatever by all involved?

Britta said...

PG, Oh, I think I heard about that case (maybe on this blog?) But definitely, it seems like the woman would have an advantage in this situation. I wonder though, if a Muslim woman tricked a Jewish man into sleeping with her/marrying her, it would be viewed in the same way.

Oh, also Phoebe, I think that on some level, all of this is distasteful because ultimately, there is no non-creepy way to force people to keep some sort of ethnic/genetic groupness together if it isn't naturally occurring. I am probably more "zionist" than many people of my age and political persuasion, and I can strongly understand the fears of dissolution/annihilation that many Jewish people have (which if in themselves are not rational, do have a history which makes paranoia not completely irrational), but if you replace "Jew" with another ethnic group, the whole idea goes from sounding creepy to blatantly racist. I'm not usually a big fan of "if you replace X with Y" type arguments, but I think it can sometimes give you a vague sense of the acceptability of your idea.

Roman said...

The whole rabbis' wives thing is less about actual intermarriage and much more general racism and xenophobia. I don't have actual numbers on Jewish-Arab intermarriage in Israel, but it is minuscule. Most (Jewish, Israeli) women I know would be disgusted at the idea of even having sex with an Arab man. The racism is pretty bad here.
This thing is part of a larger anti-Arab campaign by Haredi Jews in Israel right now.

Phoebe said...

PG, Britta,

I linked, in this post, to the post where I discussed the case rape case PG links to here, because it seemed relevant, indeed.

PG,

Point taken re: regional assimilation. I guess it just depends how much people sense themselves to be part of a region vs. part of a country within that region.

Britta, Roman,

Re: the racism question - Britta, I agree with you 100% that "there is no non-creepy way to force people to keep some sort of ethnic/genetic groupness together if it isn't naturally occurring." There are ways not to turn off the last remaining Diaspora Zionists to Israel, but good luck to them there.

I don't have any qualms, obviously, saying that a mission like that of the rabbis' wives is ridiculous, offensive, upsetting, etc. Racism's a tougher call, because if what we're looking at is two groups that despise each other (and that use racist language and imagery, no doubt, in both directions) but that are far more similar than they'd admit, and if the difference is national/political/religious more than physical, maybe xenophobia, or just bigotry, would better describe what's going on. "Racist" makes it seem like, if only some Jewish racists came to believe that Arabs are not backwards, or whatever other racist clichés they may use, everyone would get along just dandy. Or think of it like this: it is racism, but a) telling this demographic they're being racist isn't going to make them blush in shame, and b) racism isn't at the center of what's going on. It's not that I think Jews are incapable of racism, (the X and Y argument), and have certainly heard racist remarks over the years from people who are Jewish. It's that I'm not sure how to classify this conflict, whether racism is the best term to sum up what's going on.

rshams said...

I'm going to second Britta in my assumption that the women that these rabbis' wives consider susceptible to seduction by Arab men are generally not going to be found in "Jewish extremist" communities. If we take that term to mean women living in settlements or in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, then they're probably going to be the least likely to even interact with Arab men, much less fall for them. My own assumption is that the rabbis' wives are thinking of secular women from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

And I would also have massive qualms with using the term "racist" to describe this whole distasteful business. The reluctance of most secular Israeli Jewish women to enter into relations with Arab men is a confluence of several cultural, political, and social factors - somewhat similar to their reluctance to enter into relations with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. It's not a "race thing" - it's the result of serious cultural and social differences and somewhat justified political resentment.

Roman said...

It really is racism, though, because that's how the protagonists here see it. No respectable rabbi's wife is going to let her daughter marry a converted Arab who speaks perfect Hebrew and is culturally Israeli.
Racism is at the center of what's going on, because, unlike in the case of American Jews "assimilating", Jewish women (especially religious Jewish women) who marry Arabs are near non-existent. It's more akin to the fear some American racists have of black men doing horrible things to "their" women.
There was a case a few years back of people in Ashdod trying to run the few Arabs who live there out of town, and their main argument was that thee Arabs were corrupting their teenage daughters en masse.
I'm pretty sure that's a common theme in racism and xenophobia in general. It's a nice mixture of hatred of the other and the lowest kind of patriarchal thinking.

rshams said...

I'm not disagreeing at all with the fact that this letter is hysterical and distasteful (and patriarchal). My first point would be that I don't think it was concerned with the religious women who would never marry an Arab - it was more likely targeting the secular and socially disadvantaged.

My second point is that I just don't know whether the reluctance of Israeli Jewish women to marry Arabs should be considered racist. I mean, think of similar hypotheticals. Would a secular Israeli Jewish mother be overjoyed at her daughter marrying an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student from Mea Shearim? Probably about as overjoyed as she would be if her daughter were to marry an Arab. Is that "otherizing" both Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, groups in which there is surely a diversity of lifestyle and culture? Sure, but it isn't racist per se.

Conversely, I'm not so sure that the same secular Israeli Jewish mother would have the same opposition to an Arab man who 1.) converted to Judaism, 2.) did not express political opposition to Zionism, and 3.)maintained a culturally similar life to her and her family. An extremist rabbi's wife would probably raise hackles, though, for sure.

Britta said...

I think the question isn't whether or not it is racism, but whether or not using the term "racism" is particularly illuminating or explanatory of what is going on here. I tend to agree that saying "it's racist" and moving on doesn't really do much to understand what is going on here. I also think that it is very hard to use the term "racism" cross-culturally and have it be meaningful.
I realize my comment wasn't super clear, I agree that I would hesitate to use the term racism here, whereas in other contexts I think it might be more obvious (e.g. hysteria in Northern Europe about daughters marrying Muslims tend to come off as more blatantly racist to me, in large part because of a different history and in part because that is context I am much more familiar with). I also do think that the fact of mutual ethnic antagonism also makes the label "racist" less meaningful, since calling both groups "racist" and then being done with it doesn't really accomplish much. I think what's hard is in Israel it IS true that Arabs are systematically disadvantaged, in a way that is similar to US institutional racism, but at the same time, it also true that Israel is surrounded by countries and people who are fundamentally hostile to its existence, and there IS a huge security threat based on that, and it's not that Israelis get joy out of oppressing Palestinians, or something like that. Even though, in Israel, Jews are in a position of power, to say that Jews are racist and Arabs aren't is to completely overlook that fact that many Arabs are virulently anti-Semitic, which I think is one problem of how the left deals with Israel/the IP conflict.

I think a difficult aspect, going back to the nature of a forced community, is there is no great way to create an ethnically homogeneous country in an area that is not ethnically homogeneous. There are unsavory options (genocide, forced expulsion), which are generally frowned upon by the International community today. Another possibility is a peaceful mulitethnic nation, but which doesn't work if one side wants an ethnically homogenous nation and the other side is hostile to the existence of the first group even being there at all. (People can manage to magically sort themselves into ethnically homogenous blocks that then can be self governing and peacefully coexist would be great, but that is obvs. easier said than done.)
I realize that maybe this comment has veered more into my ramblings on the I-P conflict, so I will cut it off here. But anyways, I just wanted to pretty much agree with Phoebe and rshams.

Roman said...

@rshams: yes, the secular Jewish mother won't be overjoyed, but there's nothing forcing the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student to be an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student. If you can't dislike people because you think their beliefs are stupid or dangerous, what can you do? And there is also the fact that for a secular woman to join Orthodox society means surrendering much of her free will, choice, and respect. Many Israeli mothers would still prefer their daughter to marry an avrach with no prospects than a westernized, feminist, rich Arab. Yes, some would prefer the latter, but not nearly the majority (of secular, Jewish mothers). A better example than the yeshiva student would have been a Moroccan when the mother herself is Ashkenazi. Or better yet, an ultra-Orthodox Moroccan! Then he and the westernized Arab might be on something more like equal footing. Also, why does the Arab have to convert to Judaism? You just said the mother is secular.
@everyone: I'm not sure I see how the fact that Arabs are racist towards Jews changes the fact that Jews are racists towards Arabs. Surely there are many blacks in the US who are racist towards whites, and Muslims in Europe who are racist against Europeans. Mutual hatred is still hatred. The word racism, to me at least, does not imply any kind of one-sidedness.
And yes, I don't see how the wider conflict changes any of the facts here. It's related, sure, but these people being scared shitless of Arabs doesn't make what's going on here not racism, or reduce its severity. Bringing up blacks in the US for the last time here (I promise), white slave owners were forever terrified of their slaves, and what would happen if they ever lost control of them - and for good reason (see Nat Turner).
No, I'm not saying Arabs in Israel are identical to blacks in the antebellum south.
Another example: it's less prevalent now, but for a long time there was very, very strong anti-German sentiment in Israel, to the point where some people considered all Germans to be Nazis, anti-Semites, murderers, or all of the above. That sentiment is very understandable, but it does not make it anything but racism.
I think I made my point, no? I'll shut up about it now.
I actually didn't think that calling this out as racism would be controversial, but it's always interesting to be surprised.

Phoebe said...

Roman,

I don't think anyone's saying it's controversial to call this racism. The question is really how big of an emphasis one wishes to put on the racism angle. It's indisputable, in the US, that if you're talking about blacks and whites, the power dynamic is and (certainly) was such that racism means something different when going one way than when going the other, to the extent that it's a bit ridiculous to talk about black racism against whites. But with Israeli Jews and Arabs, there's a lot of legitimate victimhood on both sides. Which is why those who call the rabbis' wives letter "racist" have a point, as do those who point out the continuity in imagery, language, etc. between 1880s-1940s European anti-Semitism and what's used by some Arabs against Jews today. That said, unlike some other Zionists, I don't think it's all-important that certain anti-Semitic tropes have carried over, because the Palestinians do have grievances against the Jewish state. Palestinians are not arbitrarily picking Jews as a scapegoat - their adversaries are, in fact, Jews. My point is that, if racism isn't the driving force behind the Palestinians' beef with Israel, behind the most victim-complexed Greater Israel advocates' desire to see the Palestinians exiled to existing Arab states, labeling the conflict as about racism misses the point. With conflicts that are fundamentally about racism, the answer is a request that the bully play nice. I don't think that's enough to solve what's going on in the Middle East.

Roman said...

Well, yeah. I wasn't saying the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about racism. I was saying that the whole rabbi's wives coming out against intermarriage thing is a result of racism (is that more or less controversial? rshams, at least seems somewhat uncomfortable with calling it racism) rather than Jewish women actually marrying Arabs in any considerable numbers (as opposed to intermarriage actually being a thing in the United States).
I agree that framing the conflict as racist isn't incredibly useful. It is racist, but so what? So are many other conflicts. Making your adversary less than human isn't exactly a new tactic.
I can see why you wouldn't like that definition, though, given the power differences between Israel and the Palestinians. I agree that there's no pure victim here, and that both sides are constantly fucking up their chances for peace. As an Israeli and a Jew however, I'm much more pissed off by the stupidity of my own granfalloon.

Phoebe said...

Roman,

I'm getting sidetracked, but... Intermarriage debates are never just about numbers. Even in the US - if the real issue were demography, it would be simple enough a) to point out how many children of intermarriage, especially where the mother's Jewish, identify as Jews, and b) to take measures to welcome children of intermarriage into the Jewish community. It's the same as in Israel - there's suspicion of - or more like dissatisfaction with - Jews who aren't 'pure.'

Roman said...

No, that's not it. Not Israel, I mean. It's good ol' "dey stealin' our wimmin" fear-mongering.

Phoebe said...

Roman,

I get that there's a stealing-our-women angle, and I agree that this makes the rabbis' wives' letter more racist, trope-confirmation-wise, than American Jewish opposition to intermarriage that fails to take into account the possibility that 'half-Jews' can perfectly well be Jews. My point is that in both cases, the fear of intermarriage is about xenophobia.

Roman said...

So, yeah. We agree.