x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Israel gets tough on intermarriage

The Israeli government urges Israelis to inform on Jews abroad who may be in danger of marrying non-Jews.

A still from the Israeli government's advertising campaign reads:
A still from the Israeli government's advertising campaign reads: "Assimilating and getting lost to us."

NAZERETH, ISRAEL // 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.

The campaign, which cost US$800,000 (Dh2.9 million), was created in response to reports that half of all Jews outside Israel marry non-Jews. It is just one of several initiatives by the Israeli state and private organisations to try to increase the size of Israel's Jewish population. According to one of the advertisements, voiced over by one of the country's leading news anchors, assimilation is "a strategic national threat" and warns that "more than 50 per cent of Diaspora youth assimilate and are lost to us."

Adam Keller, of Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group, said this was a reference both to a general fear in Israel that the Jewish people may one day disappear through assimilation and to a more specific concern that, if it is to survive, Israel must recruit more Jews to its "demographic war" against Palestinians. The issue of assimilation has been thrust into the limelight by a series of surveys over several years carried out by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think-tank established in Jerusalem in 2002 comprising leading Israeli and diaspora officials.

The institute's research has shown that Israel is the only country in the world with a significant Jewish population not decreasing in size. The decline elsewhere is ascribed both to low birth rates and to widespread intermarriage. According to the institute, about half of all Jews in western Europe and the United States assimilate, while the figure for the former Soviet Jewry is reported to reach 80 per cent.

Israel, whose Jewish population of 5.6 million accounts for 41 per cent of worldwide Jewry, has obstructed intermarriage between its Jewish and Arab citizens by refusing to recognise such marriages unless they are performed abroad. The advertising campaign is directed particularly at Jews in the United States and Canada, whose combined 5.7 million Jews constitutes the world's largest Jewish population. Most belong to the liberal Reform stream of Judaism that, unlike Orthodoxy, does not oppose intermarriage.

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.

A voiceover asks anyone who "knows a young Jew living abroad" to call the hotline. "Together, we will strengthen their connection to Israel, so that we don't lose them." The campaign supports a government-backed programme, Masa, to subsidise stays and courses in Israel of up to one year that seek to persuade Jews to immigrate and become citizens. About 8,000 diaspora Jews attend its programme each year. The government has been trying to develop Masa alongside a rival programme, Birthright Israel, which brings nearly 20,000 diaspora youngsters to Israel each year on sponsored 10-day trips to meet Israeli soldiers and visit sites in Israel and the West Bank promoted as important to the Jewish people.

Although Birthright is regarded as useful in encouraging a positive image of Israel, officials fear it has only a limited effect on attracting its mainly North American participants to move to Israel. Many regard it as an all-paid holiday. Masa officials said young Jews who participate in their projects strengthened their Jewish identity and were more likely to become politically and socially active on behalf of Israel-related issues.

The campaign quickly provoked a storm of debate on Jewish blog sites, especially in the United States, with some terming it "divisive" and an insult to Jewish offspring of intermarriage. A link to Masa's "Lost" campaign had been dropped from the front page of its website yesterday, possibly in response to the backlash. The campaign will probably strike a chord in Israel, however, where a poll in 2007 found that 46 per cent of Israeli Jews believed all Jews should live in Israel because it was "the only way Israel and the Jewish people will be strengthened".

Mr Keller, of Gush Shalom, said few Jews in the United States or Europe, the main target of the campaign, needed to come to Israel for material reasons. "They come from ideological motives, and many of them are right-wing nationalists who can be encouraged to settle in the West Bank." foreign.desk@thenational.ae