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The Magenta Elephant in the Room: When Interfaith People Visit Israel

I sometimes think if I receive one more email inviting me to send half-Jewish people to Israel on trips or special tours for interfaith families, I’m going to have a neural meltdown. It’s not the kindly trip invitations that get to me, though: it’s the viewpoint. Here’s their collective message:

Robin, why doesn’t your group for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage sponsor trips to Israel? They are the new silver bullet for identity problems among interfaith family members!


And some of them have actually used the phrase "silver bullet." The terminology is dreadful — "silver bullets" are ordinarily used on werewolves and, in the 1950s, the Lone Ranger fired them at the Bad Guys on black-and-white TV shows. What is the subtext here: that identity problems among half-Jewish people can be resolved by killing them? The implied message for members of my group, the Half-Jewish Network, is that we’re apparently the Bad Guys for — having been born. Well, then excuse me for living. Anyway, some Jewish organizations — well-meaning to be sure — have decided that the best way to deal with us having been born with one non-Jewish parent or grandparent is to ship us to Israel, where we will thus be overcome by the allure of Jewish identity. Ideally, we will then return home wanting to be completely Jewish, supporting Israel’s government without question, donating to our local Federations, and not asking awkward questions. There’s just one big problem with these trips. A huge pink elephant in the room. It’s so pink, it’s probably magenta. The outreach officials organizing these trips — the rabbis and tour guides and Jewish communal professionals conducting them — almost none of them tell the members of interfaith families that Israel has legal and social policies in place discriminating harshly against interfaith couples and adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage. That’s the real silver bullet — straight to the heart. These policies are no secret. Israeli newspapers — free, available online, and often in English — discuss them endlessly.

I have spoken to many Jewish outreach professionals about this. I’ve asked them to please explain why interfaith family trips never include even one hour to meet with resident Israeli half-Jewish people — who might give the American interfaith families a realistic picture of their lives in Israel — living in fear of immigration bureaucrats yanking their Jewish identity papers; being refused permission to marry Jews with two Jewish parents; delayed (sometimes permanently) Orthodox conversions; being called "non-Jews" and "erev rav" (mixed rabble) and contents of "pooper scoopers" in the Israeli newspapers; and yet still being compelled to serve in the IDF and pay taxes. I want them to please explain why there is no time on these trips for members of American interfaith families to meet with three small, under-funded and overworked Israeli Jewish organizations fighting this discrimination in the courts and the Knesset — the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families, the Israel Religious Action Center, and the New Family. Please explain why there is no time to meet with the IDF staff running the military conversion to Judaism programs — they have many descendants of intermarriage among their students, who are tired of being called "non-Jews" and being buried in special sections of IDF cemeteries among the Druze and Christian soldiers, away from the areas set aside for Jews with two Jewish parents. Please explain why I keep seeing YouTube videos of young American half-Jewish adults who have just returned from Birthright trips, lauding the Israeli state’s acceptance of half-Jewish people — something that is demonstrably not true. These young half-Jewish adults haven’t been told that the Israeli Law of Return (allowing anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent to make aliyah) currently operates as a "bait and switch." Once half-Jewish people arrive in Israel, there is a strong probability that they will be classified as "non-Jews" if they cannot produce enough documentation certifying either that they have a biological Jewish mother or an Orthodox conversion. Hostile Israeli immigration bureaucrats and Haredi-dominated rabbinical courts are reversing Orthodox conversions and rejecting proofs of having a Jewish mother or a Jewish father that were deemed quite sufficient two decades ago, leaving thousands of half-Jewish people stranded as second-class "non-Jew" Israeli citizens. And the discrimination against half-Jewish white Israelis and half-Jewish Diaspora olim is escalated when applied to Jewish-Arab interfaith families. One municipality, Petach Tikva, has set up a government hotline which appears intended to assist parents in breaking up teen Arab-Jewish couples. Even more atrocious, Orthodox vigilante groups, strikingly resembling the "vice and virtue" patrols of some Islamic countries, have begun stalking teen Arab-Jewish couples in lover’s lanes. An Israeli Orthodox anti-missionary group, Yad L’Achim, has a lot of its resources devoted to breaking up marriages between Jewish women and Arab men, allegedly "rescuing" them from "abusive" Arab husbands. One of their goals is to reach "out to other Jewish girls who are involved with Arab men – the number is estimated at a staggering 20,000 – and trying to help them find their way back to Am Yisrael." Surely 20,000 relationships can’t all be "abusive." When I press Jewish outreach professionals on these issues, some of them perceive their first duty — beyond their duty to their interfaith family constituents and emet (truth) — is to promote Israel. Others honestly didn’t know about Israel’s policies against interfaith families. They are very upset when they find out, but they have no answers for me. Still other Jewish outreach professionals apparently feel that outreach to interfaith families is still so controversial in many Jewish communities that broaching this issue might cost them their jobs. Some Jewish outreach professionals have taken partial action on this subject. Birthright Israel recently fired an Israeli trip organizer who told his Birthright trip participants –some of whom were apparently half-Jewish — that intermarriage was wrong. That’s a good first step. But what about the second step — leveling with half-Jewish trip participants about Israel’s current legal and social discrimination against them, and the efforts of three Israeli groups to fight this discrimination? I have repeatedly suggested to Jewish outreach professionals that we organize Israel tours for interfaith couples and adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage that would address our magenta elephant. I want tours in which we meet with other interfaith families living in Israel. Tours in which we meet with the three Israeli Jewish organizations fighting for our rights. Tours in which we are encouraged to form realistic, caring bonds with Israel, as opposed to an uncritical "crush." Because eventually the interfaith couples and half-Jewish people will find out the truth — and who will they blame on that day for deceiving them? And how will they feel about Israel then? I had a long correspondence with a kind rabbi in Israel who invites American interfaith families and adult children of intermarriage on his tours. I asked him: what did he tell members of interfaith families on his tours about Israel’s laws and policies against us? He replied that he only says something if they ask about those policies. I asked him — what if he was a realtor, who took a couple on a tour of a house that was beautiful–except for some termites in the basement–and he did not tell them about the termites because they did not ask? What would happen when the couple found the termites, after signing the lease? Wouldn’t it be better to discuss with them what might be done about the termites? There is a Talmud entry which forbids dressing up goods in a deceptive manner before sale. He eventually replied to me with a highly emotional, angry email which seemed to say that I was a bad person for asking such questions. Interfaith couples and adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage are not stupid. Many of them lack Jewish knowledge and are unfamiliar with Israeli society, but they are rapidly acquiring this knowledge. Shouldn’t we prepare them for what they will discover about Israel, instead of sending them on "silver bullet" tours? Won’t their feelings for Israel be more likely to remain compassionate and helpful if they are told the truth, than if they are deceived? Few people cope well with being deceived. Love isn’t blind. And it is not healthy if it is blind. And relationships where love is blind usually don’t last. I know of only one Jewish outreach tour of Israel that has told the interfaith couples and teen children of intermarriage accompanying them the truth about Israel’s poor treatment of interfaith families. And they found, as I expected, that interfaith families and adult children of intermarriage are capable of coping with complexity and ambiguity. The interfaith families on that tour were not turned off on Israel, and did not walk out of Judaism. The trip participants returned to the U.S. more interested in Judaism, Hebrew study, shul attendance and other Jewish identity markers. They told the trip organizers that they had never been interested in making aliyah. They were willing take the good of Israel and set aside the rest. They are more interested in Israel than they were before the trip. They displayed generosity and warmth of heart towards Israel. Let us treat interfaith couples and adult children of intermarriage as grownup members of the mishpocha and entrust them with the truth about Israel. They will not disappoint us.

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