The Israeli Ministry of Education has struck a book from students’ reading lists.
Big deal. Happens every day in Russia, China and Iran.
But this was not a revolutionary work by a fire-eating rebel. It is a gentle novel by an appreciated female author, Dorit Rabinyan.
Her cardinal sin was the plot: a love story between a Jewish girl and an Arab boy. They meet on American soil.
The Ministry shuddered. What? A kosher daughter of Israel with an Arab Goy? Unthinkable. Like a love story between a white woman and a black man in the Atlanta of Gone with the Wind. Or between a Jewess and a pure Aryan in Hitler’s Germany.
Shocking. Good that the wise men of the ministry stopped it in the nick of time.
The decision caused an uproar. Liberal teachers and commentators had a field day. Especially those who have a sense of humor. (Yes, there are some of these even in Israel.)
Several of them demanded a ban on the Bible, since it is full of kings and heroes who married foreign women. Abraham took a foreign woman, Hagar, had a boy with her and sent both to die in the desert, because Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, was jealous. The Bible depicts our foremother as a rather obnoxious shrew.
Moses had a Midianite wife. King David married the woman he lusted for, after sending her Hittite husband to die in battle. His son, Solomon, had a lot of wives, most of them foreigners. The hero Samson was betrayed by his Philistine wife. King Ahab, who bled to death because he refused to receive medical treatment during battle, had a wife from Sidon. And so on. A very long list. Some educators gleefully demanded the removal of the Bible from the ministry’s list.
Almost as bad, some of the masterpieces of modern Hebrew literature figure love stories between Jewish men and Shikses (a derogatory Yiddish term for non-Jewish women, originating from the Hebrew word for "abomination"). Out with them!
However, what struck me most about the affair was one word in the ministry’s official explanation for the measure: "hitboleluth", meaning assimilation.
The book was accused of leading its readers, especially young ones at an impressionable age, towards assimilation.
Assimilation? Here? In Israel? In an official government statement?
"Assimilation" is a word widely used in the Jewish Diaspora. It is highly derogatory. It is the act of a Jew who is ashamed of his heritage and tries to lose himself in the surrounding Christian environment. A Jew who apes the Goyim, and tries to look and behave like one of them. In short, a despicable coward.
To call a Jew in Los Angeles or Moscow "assimilated" is a serious accusation. For many centuries, it has been one of the most damning labels.
There were good reasons for this. Jews were a beleaguered minority everywhere. They had no state of their own, no army to defend themselves, no power except their solidarity. They had to hold together to survive. In small communities, even the apostasy of a single family could deal a serious blow to all the others.
Assimilation often led to full conversion. When a Jewish girl married a Christian man, the children were generally brought up as Christians and lost all contact with their Jewish roots (though in Jewish religion, the offspring of a Jewish mother are full Jews. The father does not count. (Perhaps because one can never be quite sure who the father is.)
All these are quite natural attitudes for a dispersed community, living as a minority in a foreign, often hostile, environment. A means of survival.
The word "hitboleluth" is therefore bound up with another Hebrew word: Galut (literally: "exile").
According to the accepted Jewish belief, Jewish history is divided in three parts: the "First Temple", from the days of Abraham to the Babylonian exile, an exile imposed on the Jews by God because of their sins. After two generations, God allowed the Jews to return and build the "Second Temple", but they sinned again. So God got really mad and sent them again into exile, this time indefinitely. Orthodox Rabbis saw Zionism as a sin, because returning to the holy land was an act of rebellion against God. Jews had to remain in the "galut" until God in his mercy took them back.
The Zionist ideology disdained the "galut". Being basically atheistic, it paid no heed to God’s will.
The founder, Theodor Herzl, believed that once the Jewish State came into being, all real Jews would come to live there. From then on, only they would be called Jews. All other Jews would "assimilate" in their present homelands and cease to be Jews. (This part of the original creed is not mentioned in Israeli schools.)
As I never tire of pointing out, before the State of Israel was founded, the Zionist community in this country proudly made a distinction between themselves and the Jews in the Galut. Spontaneously, people of the Jewish community in then Palestine started to call themselves a "Hebrew" community and speak of Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew underground, future Hebrew state and Hebrew army, as distinct from Jewish religion, Jewish traditions, Jewish Diaspora etc.
The worst insult one could throw at a person in Tel Aviv (officially called "the first Hebrew city") was that he was "galuti". It meant that he lacked the qualities we modestly associated with ourselves – uprightness, courage, self-sacrifice, hard manual work.
Nothing could be more "galuti" than the fear of assimilation.
Assimilation to whom? The Arab citizens constitute about 20% of the Israeli population. They are discriminated against in all fields of life. Public opinion polls show that many Jewish Israelis despise them. Just this week a Greek airplane about to leave Athens for Tel Aviv was delayed for hours because some Jewish passengers objected to two Israeli Arabs on board. The Arabs were left behind.
(Imagine two black passengers on an American plane. Or two Jewish passengers on a German one.)
So where does the fear of assimilation spring from? Only from deep "galuti" roots.
Love affairs and even marriages between Jewish girls and Arab men (never the other way around) are not unheard of in Israel. But they are extremely rare. Perhaps a few dozen. Young people of the two nations do mix here and there, especially at the universities, but the gulf is much too wide.
The idea that a love story of such a couple must be banned, because it could lead to "assimilation", is ridiculous. Unless it is the other way round: Arabs citizens being afraid of assimilation of their young men in the Jewish society. There are a few cases like that, too. (Arab girls generally marry in their extended families.)
So what is the root of this syndrome?
An easy explanation is the "religionization" of life in Israel under the present super-rightist-religious government. The "national-religious" forces are conducting an offensive all along the front. To survive as Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu has turned over to them almost all senior posts in government. Kippah-wearing men are now in charge of the police, the security service, the Mossad and many other institutions. And good-looking extreme-Right women in charge of the rest.
The army command is still in the hands of "secular" generals, but during the last Gaza war a brigade commander (alas, my old brigade) issued an Order of the Day in which the IDF was called "God’s army". This is the same army that was founded in the 1948 war, when almost all its commanders were socialist, atheist kibbutz members.
The new Chief of Staff has dared to abolish the army’s rabbinate department for "Jewish consciousness" – a religious missionary outfit. Since the Orthodox refuse to serve in the army for religious reasons – such as the proximity of women soldiers – the army is still largely secular, but it is already massively infiltrated by "national religious" officers. The military rabbis play in it the same role as the "political commissars" in Trotsky’s Red Army. Soldiers are sworn in at the Western Wall, Israel’s most religious site.
I believe that this process is far more profound than a shift of power from the old secular elite to a new religious one, bad as that may be.
What is happening is the retreat of the new Israeli nation which we created in the 30s, 40s and 50s of the last century, into a new edition of the Jewish ghetto – an armed ghetto, a nuclear ghetto, but a ghetto nonetheless.
It is the opposite of what Zionism was all about: a secular, democratic, egalitarian, liberal country, as opposed to a closed, religious, nationalist, racist, even semi-fascist society.
In such a society, "assimilation" is indeed seen as a mortal danger.
There is still time to turn the wheel around and save the state we built.
But for how long?