Saturday, July 30, 2011

Rami Levy, Israeli Racism and the danger of Intermarriage.

The headlines on Wednesday informed the Israeli public of racial segregation in our local supermarket! In response to apparent romance between one of the (Arab) packers and one of the (Jewish) cashiers, a local Rabbi had approached the supermarket owner to ask – in the name of preventing intermarriage and assimilation – that the there be no interaction between Jews and Arabs at the store. In two visits that I have made to the store this week, (I am not an overenthusiastic blogger – just an avid shopper!) the majority of packers are now in fact Jews.

As this is my local store and my community Rabbi, I feel emotionally connected to this issue. I also feel that it raises some important points of conversation that are seldom discussed in Israeli society so let's make a few comments about Israeli-Arab coexistence.


Rami Levy, the owner of the supermarket, described his store as the "Peace Supermarket." Is that so? Well, I certainly do think that Rami Levy has furthered the cause of coexistence in our little segment of the embattled Middle East.

When the store opened last year, and it gave equal access to Jews and Arabs, many local Jews were shocked? "What? Are we going to shop with them? - Those terrorists?" Was this a genuine security concern, or merely discomfort of the "other" a.k.a. racism? – Probably a mixture of both. Jews were fearful of Arabs, after prolongued terrorism, and with nothing to readjust that impression. After the shop opened, the result - almost instantaneously - was very positive interaction. Even though we don't go dancing down the aisles together, there are smiles and there is courtesy, there is mutual assistance, and there is – interaction! Suddenly the Arabs have a human face; they also have wives and husbands, they also buy pasta and toilet paper, and they also have holidays on which they buy exorbitant supplies of food! I would say that the Rami Levy has humanized the Arab population for my children in a very real way.

Let me stress. For the average Israeli, there is little contact with Arabs; and there is much fear. The Arabs with which we interact are unlikely to be on our socio-economic level – academics or white-collar workers. And unless one knows people who are "different and equal" it is difficult to build a culture of tolerance. See the latest satirical piece of Sayed Kashua, the fabulous Israeli-Arab novelist and Ha'aretz columnist. His story demonstrates quite clearly that Israelis don't want to holiday with Arabs, and the latent racism irrespective of which side of the Green Line one resides. In our neck of the woods, before the Oslo accords in 1993, we used to drive through Bethlehem, and people used to shop in their markets and stores. Then came the roadblocks and separate roads. And in 2000, with the intifada came a deeper level of segregation. Without human contact, it is difficult to build trust, and the simple understanding that we are all human beings who deserve respect and dignity..

Here is a letter written by a 30 year-old man who grew up in Gush Etzion. He recently attended a dialogue meeting for Arabs and Israelis (of the Right Wing Eretz Shalom group) to further neighbourly relations in the area. Here is what he wrote on the group's email list:

"On Friday, I went to Hussan (an Arab town) for the first time, with, I admit, many butterflies in my stomach. But almost immediately, all my fears melted
away. I saw a large group of Jews, black and knitted kippot, from Beitar and Gush Etzion, beards and tzitzit flapping on the wind … we sat in the garage we drank coffee and conversed. I was quite embarrassed by my initial suspicions.
Fundamentally, Can anybody tell me that the person who I am sitting and talking to is trying to work behind my back? The culture of cowardice and suspicion has reached heights that we cannot fathom. True! There have been (violent) situations, and … when we fall, we fall down hard and it hurts, and we can add the argument that the suspicions and distrust of Jews (towards Arabs) is the Arabs' fault etc. etc. (- that is what I told myself until now.) But today, I feel that the stigma generated by these sorts of statements is too large. It is a burden too heavy to bear, and it carries a heavy price. And so, alongside a distrust at the national level, every individual must open some sort of friendship or human relationship (with an Arab,) if only so that he learn not to tarnish (all the Arabs) and to be defensive all his life." (written July 24,

I bring all this to show that simple supermarket interaction is vital to expel the view of all Arabs as the enemy, as hostile and threatening. Total separation can lead to a dangerous dehumanisation and demonization of our Arab neighbours.

Now let me address the problem of intermarriage and assimilation. The local Rabbi thinks that if Jews and Arabs work alongside one another, there will be people who fall in love and intermarry. Now, truth be told, this is a real possibility in university, at work, and anywhere.

I think that we really have two choices.

Option 1 is an Israel that is a segregated society in which Arabs are restricted from integration, a culture that will breed a society of bigotry, racism and exclusion (which anyway will be ruled illegal by the Supreme Court,) which but morally is not the ethical Israel that I believe in.

Option 2 is a society which respects its citizens and every human being on its streets.

But we have a problem. If Arabs are equal to Jews, and integrated in society, then what WILL be with intermarriage? The answer is clear. We have to educate our kids to want to be Jewish, to value Judaism, and to desire a Jewish lifestyle. Just like in Chutz LaAratez, people will have to choose to be Jewish and to marry a Jew. Now, for some, they wish that Israel will be the place where one doesn't need to think about these things. In Israel the football players and street-sweepers should be Jewish as should be the doctors, lawyers and cashiers. But the realty is that over 25% of the Israeli population is non-Jewish; be it Russian immigrants or Arabs or what have you.

Now, you will ask correctly… if we create an equal Israel, how can we justify allowing that increased intermarriage. Possibly we should push more segregation to stop that momentum. So again, I return to our two options above. Either we create a exploitative unequal society or we invite full participation. I am unwilling to live in a society that grades its citizens to first class and 2nd class. It is wrong.

Now, this is difficult. I desperately want to further Israel's Jewish character, and to see Judaism reflected positively in Israel's public and cultural environment. I would cry over any case of intermarriage. Sometimes, I wish that the problem will simply go away, because this is about making hard choices, and pitting religious interests against humanistic ones. And yet , civility and respect for all decent human beings are also mitzvot. We cannot solve the problem by creating an increasingly unequal society. Education, and strengthening of Jewish-Israeli identity is the key way that this should work.

Ironically, the newspaper articles saw this as a Gush Etzion, "settler" problem. But it is a problem throughout Israel. And we are going to need to face this one head on.


Anonymous said...

Rav Alex promoting assimilation in the holy Land?

Benedict said...

Rav Alex writing an agenda, not for assimilation, but for peace in the Holy Land.

Mara said...

I agree wholeheartedly that we need to teach love of Judaism to curb assimilation.
It would be lovely to go shopping with our arab neighbors and see individuals for the real people they are.
It proves again and again how much we just want to live in peace- somehow.
Meeting arabs on their turf is also beautiful- until there is a drive by shooting as has happened over the years. Shopping together can create peace until we let our guard down again- and there is a suicide bomber among the tomatoes. We have a long memory- us Jews- for the Churban Bayit. We have very short term memory for what the horrendous potential can be for letting our guard down. In hindsight, I wouldn't ever want to be the one who states that I should not have allowed my kids to go shopping that day that the gunner can 'round Rami Levy- Gush Etzion (G-d forbid a million times!)- as happened in the super- Efrat not too long ago.
I don't know what the answer is. I wish I could agree with your love of Arab theory- Hashem knows how much I constantly pray for the day. Until moshiach- watch your back!

Raymond said...

I don't think the ever-present threat of biting into a spoiled tomato will keep any sane person away from all tomatoes, to extend your metaphor.

I say this as not a resident of a place neighboring Arab villages, nor as a father with my children to be concerned over. Maybe that makes me naive, but I agree basically with what R' Alex is saying. I guess America has taught me that you can't ignore everyone who's not the same as you, even if you'd like to. Sooner or later, the realization hits that to hate and to isolate does no one good, and only leads to strife.

Furthermore, the distance kept between Arabs and Israelis can only be breeding on an equal level demonetization of the Israelis on their side as well. The very same lack of interaction between the two peoples that cause us to distrust and suspect them is likely brewing distrust and suspicion in their camp as well!
All we can do is put our best foot forward and hope that the world responds kindly for us being kind. The impact of one Arab family knowing that that Israeli family in Efrat are real, humble, and respectful people can reverberate for generations, and hopefully will bring a more humanized cross-borders relations.

Jeremy said...

I've often heard the statistics quoted about intermarriage rates in America, and am upset to hear it singled out. Though I'm sure the intermarriage rates in Israel are lower than in America, a marriage between two Jews that happens solely because of demographics, and not because of any innate desire to marry a Jew, is a problem in and of itself. The fear that interaction between Jews and Arabs will lead to intermarriage may be real. But, as Rav Alex suggests, it must be treated at its source.

Donna Merrill said...

Rami Levy, God Bless all that you are doing. It takes one man to change the world. You are doing this and my prayers are with you.