Yair’s Norwegian girlfriend

It has been widely reported that the son of the Israeli prime minister, 23-year-old Yair Netanyahu, has been dating a non-Jewish Norwegian woman. Sandra Leikanger, 25, and Yair are both students at Israel’s elite Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

The news has created a stir in Israel, with many Orthodox groups and individuals condemning both the son and the father.

The head of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, Aryeh Deri, said, an interview on the Charedi radio station Kol Barama: “Woe is us if it is true. … If, heaven forbid, this is true, it is no longer a personal matter — it is a symbol of the Jewish people. … Shame on the people of Israel that the son of the prime minister maintains a relationship with a gentile.”

Arutz Sheva reported that “Benzi Gopstein, director of Lehava, a Jewish education group fighting assimilation in Israel, published a letter to Netanyahu on his Facebook page Sunday. … Addressing the prime minister, Gopstein wrote ‘the consequences of your son’s actions, despite his being a private individual, are far-reaching. … His children — your grandchildren, as you certainly know, will not be Jews. … This is the son of the prime minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish nation, who will join the 6 million …”

Hagai Ben-Artzi, brother-in-law of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a professor of Talmud at the Orthodox Bar Ilan University, told Kikar HaShabbat, an ultra-Orthodox news site, that if his nephew, Yair, marries Leikanger, he “would bury myself, I don’t know what I would do with myself, I’d take to the streets and rip the hair out of my head. … Yair should know that if he does such a thing, if he doesn’t break off the relationship … he is spitting on the graves of his grandmother and grandfather who loved him so much and raised him.”

These reactions do not speak well for the Jewish people or Judaism. I write this as one who has devoted much of his life to bringing alienated Jews to Judaism. One of the nine chapters in my first book, “The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism,” which I co-wrote with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, was the case for Jews marrying Jews. 

It is very unfortunate that so many Jews — especially among those who practice Judaism the most fervently, ironically — see the dating of a Jew and a non-Jew solely as a guarantor of the Jew leaving Judaism. Given that Judaism accepts converts — and that Judaism so reveres converts that it holds that the moshiach (Messiah) will come from a convert (Ruth) — why don’t we simply encourage the non-Jew to convert? The marriage of a Jew and a convert is not an intermarriage.

Why, then, do we so rarely consider the possibility of the non-Jew becoming a Jew? Why must we regard inter-dating as inevitably the abandonment by the Jew of his or her Jewish identity instead of the non-Jew coming to Judaism and the Jewish people?

The most honest answer is that the majority of Jews who intermarry don’t care about Judaism, have little or no Jewish identity of their own, and are therefore in no position, even if they were interested, to encourage the non-Jewish partner (who rarely has a deep attachment to another religion) to consider becoming a Jew. 

But that means that the primary Jewish problem is that too few Jews care about Judaism or the Jewish people. Therefore, intermarriage is a symptom of the primary Jewish problem, not the primary Jewish problem.

The ideal is for Jews to marry Jews. But in the real world, this is increasingly not happening. And even among many Jews who do marry Jews, Judaism and Jewish identity play little or no role in their lives, and even less in their children’s lives. 

With regard to Yair, the conversion solution should be even more appealing and more likely than among Jews of the Diaspora. The Israeli Jew, after all, lives in a country where the vast majority of its citizens are Jews, a country that celebrates Jewish holy days as its national holidays, that closes down on Yom Kippur and that speaks the language of the Bible. The notion that an Israeli Jew who dates a non-Jew will inevitably abandon Jewish identity — living in the Jewish state — portrays Israeli Judaism as essentially pathetic.

It is also a devastating commentary on the failure of practicing Jews in Israel to make Judaism, or even just Jewish identity, appealing to many of their fellow Israeli Jews, not to mention to non-Jews who are dating Israeli Jews. 

If an American citizen dates a non-American, how many Americans fear that the American will abandon his or her American identity — especially if the non-American chooses to become an American? Don’t we simply assume that if the couple chooses to live in America, and the non-American chooses to become an American, that it is the non-American whose identity will be abandoned?

Why can’t we assume the same of most Israeli Jews who date a non-Jew? This is exactly what happened in the case of Sandra’s sister. Yes, Yair’s girlfriend’s older sister, Ida Leikanger, converted to Judaism, changed her name to the Hebrew name Hila and is an Israeli citizen. Why isn’t that a net gain for Israel and for the Jewish people? Why do so many Orthodox Jews automatically assume that if Yair and Sandra marry, the same thing couldn’t happen? 

As anyone can easily verify on the Internet, the Orthodox attacks on Yair’s dating a non-Jew have been reported all around the world. These protests, which sound to the vast majority of non-Jews as racist preoccupation with purity of blood, hardly constitute a kiddush hashem. Indeed, they make Jews, Judaism and Israel — and the God of Israel — look awful.

Orthodox Jews in Israel ought to either keep quiet or make an announcement such as this: 

“We ask Yair, Sandra and all people of goodwill to appreciate how much we Jews fear losing any of our people. Undoubtedly the two of you are sensitive to the problem of endangered species in the animal kingdom. You can then surely appreciate that there can be endangered groups among humans. With unparalleled losses due to the Holocaust and a high assimilation rate in the two largest Jewish communities outside of Israel — America and Russia — we Jews are an endangered species among humans. That is why we are so concerned when any Jew intermarries; the chances are great that their children will not identify as Jews. Our concern, therefore, is in no way directed against Sandra Leikanger, whom we treasure as one of God’s children.

“Furthermore, it is difficult to make a Jewish home when one parent is not Jewish — and Judaism is a home-based religion.

“Having made the reasons for our concerns clear, if Yair and Sandra are in a serious relationship, we, as representatives of Orthodox Judaism, would like to invite Sandra to see the beauty of Judaism and enjoy a series of Shabbat dinners at the homes of Sabbath-observant Jews. Sandra should know that Judaism and the Jewish people welcome converts, and we would welcome you with love and respect.”

That would go over somewhat better in Norway and the rest of the world than what was said. It might go over even better with Yair.