Anti-Semitism remains the most serious external threat to the safety of Jews and, by inference, to the future of Judaism. No country, small or large, is immune to Jew-hatred. The massacre of Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last month is the latest of numerous contemporary instances.
Intermarriage has now become an internal threat to Jewish continuity. Some pundits who had already written off the Diaspora in general because of the danger posed by anti-Semitism now also point specifically to its liberal majority, because many are likely to marry non-Jews.
Israel is recognized as the surest protector of Jews under threat, even in countries where Jewish families have lived for centuries. Not only do the leaders of the Jewish state stand up for Jews everywhere in the world, but Israel is also a safe haven for those who have been displaced or are at risk in the Diaspora.
However, it’s becoming less certain that Israel can also protect Jews against intermarriage. Though the likelihood of Jewish endogamy in Israel remains great, there are now also Israelis who have non-Jewish spouses. Some met their non-Jewish partners while volunteering on kibbutzim and elsewhere in the country. Others got together on their customary trips abroad after army service and have chosen to stay abroad.
Israeli Jewish actor Tzachi Halevy and Israeli Muslim television presenter Lucy Aharish were in the news recently. As interfaith couples cannot legally wed in Israel, Halevy and Aharish, who were reportedly maintaining a secret courtship for four years, were married in a private ceremony. Such ceremonies have also become quite common among Jewish couples who refuse to subject themselves to what they regard as the indignities imposed by the official rabbinate in the land. Yet interfaith marriages are still rare.
The high-profile couple provided an opportunity for some Israelis to voice their disapproval and for politicians to criticize them in the hope of currying favour with potential supporters. Though by coming to Israel you’ll be protected from anti-Semitism – even if as a liberal Jew you may not be spared religious discrimination – you can no longer be sure that living there will guarantee you Jewish grandchildren.
The real danger of assimilation through intermarriage is, of course, still in the Diaspora. To stem the tide, progressive movements are doing their utmost to keep Jews Jewish not by coercion and recrimination, but by positive reinforcement. Thus, though Jewish law regards a person as Jewish only if born to a Jewish mother, the decision by the American Reform movement to also recognize patrilineal descent is reported to have become a successful way of enabling children of intermarried couples to stay in the fold.
To further encourage such couples to bring up their children as Jews, some non-Orthodox rabbis would officiate at their marriage ceremonies. Rabbis who have consistently refused to implicitly condone mixed marriages by conducting such ceremonies are at times put under considerable pressure by members of their congregations to face reality and officiate. The Canadian Reform movement has always been more traditional and, until recently, only very few of its rabbis would conduct interfaith marriages. That may now be changing, too.
Characteristically, Conservative Judaism has endeavoured to keep the middle ground. Despite their progressive profile, Conservative rabbis have not been allowed by their organization to officiate at mixed marriages. Of late, however, they’ve been permitted to attend, though not conduct, such ceremonies.
Ironically, perhaps anti-Semitism, too, will keep many Jews Jewish in defiance of discrimination and persecution. The manifestations of Jewish commitment in response to the massacre in Pittsburgh is a telling indication of the determination of many – hopefully most – of us to remain Jewish, not least because our enemies try to stop us.