Israeli PM Netanyahu faces Zionist Racism from Son dating Norwegian

(By Juan Cole)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is caught in a firestorm of controversy because his son Yair, 23, is dating a Norwegian woman whom he met while she was studying at university in Israel.

Ordinarily I would not want to bring up a story like this, since poor Yair is not a politician and deserves his privacy.

But the story is not about the young man; rather it is about the reaction to this news in Israel. The reaction is racist.

So here are quotes from the AFP article:

Nissim Zeev (Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party): [Netanyahu as prime minister must] “display national responsibility” … “It’s a big problem . . . I bet it pains him.”

MP Moshe Feiglin (Likud, the far right ruling party): “is very unfortunate”.

The extremist Israeli organisation Lehava (which says it aims “to prevent assimilation in the Holy Land”) called on Netanyahu “to prevent this relationship”.

Bentzi Gopshtain (Lehavi, a far right organization opposed to Jews marrying out): “Your grandchildren, as you know, will not be Jewish.”

(According to the Talmud, Jewishness is passed on through the mother).

Let us just say that the son of the Norwegian prime minister started dating an Israeli university student in Oslo, and Norwegian politicians said it was “painful,” and “a big problem,” and called on the PM to intervene to stop it, and warned that the PM’s grandchildren would not be Norwegian because of this racial admixture.

Can you imagine?

The episode is important because it reveals some of what is meant when Netanyahu and other far right wing Israeli politicians demand that Palestinians recognized Israel as a “Jewish state.” They don’t mean a Judaic state, one based on religion. (The Likud and its coalition partners are secular and don’t mostly like the ultra-Orthodox). They mean it is a racially based state, in which members of one ethnicity have special prerogatives not enjoyed by other racial groups. If the issue was just religion, then the Norwegian young woman could just convert, assuming she was of a mind to and the whole thing got serious. But the commenters above clearly discount that possibility. Because their interventions are about race and racial purity.

When I pointed out recently that “Recognizing Israel as Jewish state is like calling America a White State” , I got some push back. But none of it was substantive, and the character of the present controversy underlines that my analysis was perfectly correct.

Some said it was like talking of an “Arab” state. But “Arab” is not a racial category (whatever the Baath Party may think), it is just a linguistic marker of identity. “Arabs” can be Muslim or Christian or (in Tunisia and Morocco), Jewish. People can live in an “Arab” state without being marked as to ethnicity, as long as they speak Arabic. (In this way it is analogous to the “English only” movement in American nationalism). Where they cannot, it is because “Arabness” was ethnicized in unacceptable ways.

Likud Party Zionism is based on 19th century European notions of race and nation, which are simply incorrect.

There are no races in the 19th century sense. People get all mixed up over time because of inter-marriage and because of fooling around. All Europeans (including Ashkenazi Jews) likely have a common ancestor as recently as 1000 CE. Most Ashkenazi women do not have the haplotypes or genetic pattern in their mitochondrial DNA that marks people as being from the ancient Levant (the haplotype is common to Jewish men and Lebanese and Palestinians in their Y chromosome. )

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50 Responses

    • Zionism is the pursuit of a Jewish state, and from very early on its proponents acknowledged that this will be achieved at the expense of the Palestinians (eg, Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall – which essentially set out Israel’s Grand Strategy). If zionism isn’t racist, what the hell is?

  1. Oh, dear. They have a long way to go to catch up with the teacher at my Catholic boys’ school fifty years ago, who told us: “If you want to marry a non-Catholic girl, you’ll have to convince your parish priest that it’s for a really serious reason – like you’re madly in love with each other.”

  2. You make a very important point in pointing out Likud’s inherent contradiction of a so called democracy. The tribalism enforced by the current regime is an example of an outmoded mindset that historically has been the basis of racism and war for millennia.

  3. Speaking of race, aren’t Jews and their arch-nemesis Arabs racially pretty much identical? Like “Black Africans” and African “Arabs” in Sudan?

  4. I am surprised that anyone is surprised when Israel shows its racist face. Its founding ideology is not one of equal rights for all people, it is blatantly racist. Israel proudly announces this to the world when it calls itself the Jewish State.
    Let us recognize this fact and also oppose the “liberal” plan for the Palestinians: the two state solution. Getting rid of your unwanted population is not acceptable, it is racist. It is just ethnic cleansing renamed to hide its reality.

  5. In the Middle East, communities are expected to be endogamous, and that is the culture, unlike in the West. So no non-Muslim may touch a moslem woman; a druze may not marry a non-druze, etc. The article’s author may wish to disagree, but he never objected to the phenomenon in any other situations. To call that “Zionist Racism” is racist and anti-Semitic, since some of the reaction came from very conservative quarters that do not consider themselves Zionist.

    • The issue here is not religious endogamy. The comments quoted are clearly about racial exclusion. Otherwise they would have insisted she convert if it got serious.

      Lebanon just passed a law allowing civil marriage across religious and racial lines. Israel has no such law.

      • It would be extremely unlikely that she would accept the rules of Judaism that are required for conversion in Orthodox tradition. If she does not, the children will be non-Jewish under traditional law and would not be allowed into religious rites. Identifying concerns about this with “Zionism” (the belief in a Jewish national homeland, often espoused by people who don’t believe in religion or oppose intermarriage) is just uncritical groupthink. Some non-racists actually do despair that the world’s most high-profile Jewish leader may have grandchildren that cannot read the Torah in a synagogue. I’m not one of them, but empathy isn’t that difficult if you try.

        • Indeed. I believe that the last figures that I saw on orthodox conversion estimated that less than 10% of those who started the process actually completed it. It’s simply too much of a paradigm shift for the vast majority of people.

    • Good luck figuring it out, given the intersection of identity/claim of privilege interests with the complexities of genetic-marker science. One little entry, out of thousands:

      “Most Ashkenazi maternal lineages are of European origin” link to eurogenes.blogspot.com

      Lots of heavy debate, well salted with obscurities.

  6. I am not an ardent defender of Zionism, but your logic here is pathetically weak. You seem to be asserting here:
    “Jewish nationalism is very bad, because Jewishness is not fundamentally a religious category, but Arab nationalism is totally fine, because Arabness is not fundamentally a religious category.” See a problem here?
    I think the fact that we all have to face is that natioanlism is always based on a delusion — a cultural group masquerading as an ancestral and biological group. This is true whether the cultural group in question is originally religious (Judaism) or linguistic (the Arabic language). Putting forward such a cultural group as a “nation” and using that to lay claim to control over a country is always delusional, regardless of who does it.

    • Well it would be very nice to get rid of nationalism altogether. But until then, some nationalism is more exclusivist than others. I didn’t say Zionism is religious-based, I said it is largely race-based, and the race-based nationalisms are worse than language-based nationalisms because more intrinsically exclusive. In countries with low rates of immigration, a linguistic base for nationalism would not inconvenience many people, who could overcome it over time. In race based nationalisms, non-members are forever outsiders. And, it is the latter that Netanyahu is demanding we formally sanctify for Israel, which is 20% non-Jewish and going toward 30%.

      • The criticisms raised in Israel about the young man’s relationship with a Norwegian woman are based on imagined racial presumptions which have not held up under modern research.

        The Jewish historical tradition which, for example, appears clearly in the “begats” of the Torah is based on race.

        So are the later claims that the Hebrews were expelled en masse from Roman Palestine and have remained endogamous for 2,000 years. Those too are obviously racial and just as mistaken. That Exodus has been shown by the Israeli historian, Professor Shlomo Sand, never to have happened but to have been devised by early modern Zionists to support a right of return by analogy to inheritance of real estate. The term used by them today is redemption. It runs afoul of common sense as was described best by judges in the Rule Against Perpetuities.

        And then finally we have the courageous work of the young Israeli geneticist Eran Elhaik, now of Sheffield University in the UK, who has broken through decades of squiddish ink emitted from within his own profession to discover that the origins of the Ashkenazi lie in Turkish tribes on the Steppe in Central Asia, not in the Hebrews of the Levant.

        Were it not for the endemic crisis and recurrent tragedy in the Middle East I would be no more interested in these matters than is Dr. Cole, but they are just too dangerous to ignore. Correcting this false false narrative is critical to convincing Israel to consult her actual interests which lie in taking eight tenths of the loaf and settling with the Palestinians. Hubris, even chutzpah, can lead to disaster.

    • Kenny said:

      “Ironic that they’re demanding a certain level of racial/religious purity, no?”

      Tragic, certainly, as such views have driven them to the present pass. Like all the rest of us they display flaws. Some, however, are more interesting than most.

      For example, they have many critics. A lot of them are generous and well informed, but they don’t suffer them gladly. They tend to circle the wagons and attack without taking into account that many friends or potential friends *must* also be critics.

      This is not a time when those friends and gentlemanly observers can remain discretely silent. Every one of us has a vested interest in the Palestinian peace process and in improvement of our relations with just about everyone in the Middle East. They are OUR interests, not just Israel’s, not just those of our Jewish fellow citizens here in the U.S.

  7. “race-based nationalisms are worse than language-based nationalisms because more intrinsically exclusive.”
    What are you defining as “race-based”? I thought we agreed that that was a meaningless term. And what makes one form of nationalism “more intrinsically exclusive” than another? Are you saying that I, as a gay Jewish man, could easily immigrate to Saudi Arabia and become a citizen there? Or to Libya? Qatar? And just as long as I learned to speak Arabic, I would be accepted?
    This looks like sophistry to me. Tribalism, exclusion, and persecution are common, especially in the Middle East, and hairsplitting about exactly who is “more” exclusive or who is exclusive in a better or worse way is pointless.

    • I stopped taking you seriously when you brought up Saudi Arabia. Not an Arab nationalist regime and irrelevant to our discussion.

      But yes, an American could emigrate to Lebanon, take Lebanese citizenship, marry anyone there who’d have them, learn Arabic, and after a while he and his family would be Lebanese. In fact the Armenians did just that and many are important in Lebanese politics. The Junblatts are Kurdish and Druze and likewise important.

      But not our hypothetical non-Jewish American nor the Armenians nor the Kurds could move to Israel, take Israeli citizenship (not on offer), marry an Israeli Jew in Israel (not allowed) and become Israeli. So, the Lebanese form of nationalism is ipso facto less exclusive. And for that reason you don’t hear its prime minister demand that we recognize Lebanon as a Muslim state, even though it is over 70% Muslim (just as Israel is 80% Jewish and heading for 70%). That the Lebanese state is “Arab” and a member of the Arab League does not function for Lebanon the way that “Jewish” functions for Israel.

      Yes, making these distinctions is important. Trying to wish them away is propaganda thinking. Not encouraged here.

      • It is difficult to comprehend the shear stupidity of this post. But for starters, Palestinians who were born and raised in Lebanon cannot become citizens there.

        • and yet they are Arabs, which makes my point that it is not like the category of Jews in Israel.

          Also the Palestinians reject Lebanese citizenship themselves. They want to go home.

      • Ok, so we can agree on two things:
        1. Lebanon is by-and-large more accepting and tolerant of immigrants than Israel is.
        2. “That the Lebanese state is ‘Arab’ […] does not function for Lebanon the way that ‘Jewish’ functions for Israel.”

        I will trust you that both of these statements are basically true. Why, however, do you choose to use Lebanon as your one example of an “Arab state” or Arab “nationalism” — when the prime historical centers of Arab nationalism are Egypt and Iraq? And minority groups–religious, cultural, and linguistic–have had a very hard time, to say the least, under the Arab nationalist regimes in those countries, with the Kurds of Iraq being only the most tragic example. Turkey, too, for that matter, is a nationalist regime (though not Arab) and the Kurds in that country are possibly the most severely persecuted people in the Middle East.

        Using Lebanon as your case-in-point of a supposedly better Arab nationalist regime is also distorting in that its pluralism and tolerance were not a natural outgrowth of nationalism; rather, that country went through years of brutal civil war between religious groups from which it is still now recovering. While we may admire Lebanon’s progress and tolerance, in my view I see no reason to consider this characteristic of nationalism in general. Rather, in the deeply religiously divided context of Lebanon, national identity can tend to counteract religious divisions, whereas in Sudan, for instance, Arab nationalism has exacerbated conflicts between so-called “Arabs” and “Africans” in Darfur, all of whom are Muslim and who are closely ethnically related.

        Basically, what I want to say is that appeals to nationalism–though they may in some special cases like Lebanon help to suppress other divisions–are always inherently exclusive, asserting that certain people own a country while others do not. It imagines a monolithic, ancestrally related group that never really exists. You can see things how you choose, but trying to apologize for Arab nationalism while condemning Jewish nationalism seems pretty absurd to me.

        • I’m sorry, but your thesis that all nationalism is equally bad therefore there is nothing distinctive about Zionism is Israel is analytically just not true. But this discussion is anyway over with.

  8. “Most Ashkenazi women do not have the haplotypes or genetic pattern in their mitochondrial DNA that marks people as being from the ancient Levant (the haplotype is common to Jewish men and Lebanese and Palestinians. )”

    Ugh, you butchered the genetics in this sentence. Ashkenazi men and woman have the same mitochondrial haplotypes. In fact most men have the same mitochondrial sequence as their mothers.

    • No, you just read me wrong. I didn’t say anything about mitochondrial DNA in the case of the men, where the unchanging haplotypes are rather in the Y chromosome. But you make my point– most Ashkenazi men don’t have “Jewish” maternal lines.

  9. Genetics has nothing to do with the various and complex criteria for defining Jewish identity. Israel isn’t the only country that uses a concept of descent as a criterion for citizenship, even for people born outside the territory, and processes of so-called “naturalization.” But Israel has its own peculiar “law of return,” which is at odds with Jewish religious law and is ultimately based on protecting people who were victims of Nazi and other regimes of racism. The religious law has procedures for conversion, though there is considerable controversy about what they are and who can authorize them. Under the law of return, a spouse of a Jew is recognized as a Jew for the purposes of immigration. There are many Christians who have migrated to Israel under this law. A recent, very close decision of the Israeli Supreme Court appears to exclude this opening for a Palestinian spouse of an Israeli Jew, though the ruling mostly applies to marriages among Palestinians. There is plenty of injustice in Israel, no doubt, but arguments about genetic evidence are not relevant or helpful.

    • The genetic argument is based on the fact that it is an invalid criteria for Israeli citizenship as most Ashkenazi Jews are descended from European converts to Judaism and, therefore, cannot have a legitimate claim as descendants of the Jewry that historically inhabited Palestine prior to the Diaspora.

      On the other hand, those Jews actually descended from pre-Diaspora Jewry will have a genetic composition very similar to Palestinian Arabs.

      In other words, genetics is a wholly invalid basis of Jewish identity.

      Religion likewise, is not necessarily a basis of Jewish nationalism. The pre-eminent proponent of Zionism, Theodor Hirzl, was an atheist. His portrait hangs prominently in the Israeli Cabinet conference hall. He never set foot in Palestine.

      The other religion-based nationalism which can be closely analogized with Zionism is the Mormon concept of the Deseret state. Perhaps this is why PM Netanyahu and Mitt Romney seem to have such an affinity to each other.

      • The point is that neither Israeli nor Jewish religious law is based on genetic claims. There are plenty of problems and injustices, but this isn’t one of them. Evidence one way or the other wouldn’t change anything.

      • “The pre-eminent proponent of Zionism, Theodor Hirzl (sic)…never set foot in Palestine.”

        In face, Theodor Herzl visited Palestine in October 1898, traveling from Port Said by Russian steamer to Jaffa, and then on to Jerusalem. Herzl timed his visit to coincide with a visit to Palestine by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the two met twice, on October 29 and November 2.

        Herzl’s meetings with Kaiser Wilhelm were attempts to get the Kaiser to intercede with Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and press for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Kaiser, however, refused Herzl’s request to intercede with the Sultan.

    • But Israel has its own peculiar “law of return,”

      Peculiar indeed as it doesn’t recognisze the law of return for the 700,00 Palestinians deliberately driven out of Palestine in 1948 to ensure a Jewish majority and which under International Law also have a right of return.

  10. PM Netanyahu married a friend of Mitt Romney, Fleur Cates, as his second wife in 1981. She was a British subject, a Christian, who later converted to Judaism. He and Romney had worked at the same investment banking firm in Boston at the time of this marriage.

    It was believed that if he had run for public office in Israel prior to his divorce from Cates, the mixed marriage would have been an issue.

  11. What a well considered and well reasoned essay. Thank you. As “half a Jew” with a Scottish mother and a Russian Jewish father I feel these issues quite personally. The more light is provided for the discernment of all, the better. Mahalo.

  12. Richard

    This whole kerfuffle has nothing to do with race as Jews happen to come in every color and from every continent -the issue is internal to Jewish identity: Netanyahu once married a women who converted to Judaism but not through Orthodox protocol, and this is because Netanyahu himself is not an Orthodox Jew who takes the Torah & Talmud seriously, He is a secular nationalist and has been a vocal supporter of non-Orthodox conversions being accepted by the State of Israel as valid grounds for allowing people to become Israeli citizens. The Orthodox establishment is using this Norwegian girlfriend as an opportunity to attack Netanyahu for is position because they want to make sure all converts accepted into the Jewish nation are done so through Orthodox protocol. They know Netanyahu is not Orthodox and that his son isn’t either so they are assuming that an Orthodox conversion won’t happen, and thus, this Norwegian gal won’t be a valid (Orthodox) Jewess if she does decide to convert.

    None of the politicians you cite reject the Ethiopian Jewish community even though Ethiopian Jews are racially more distant to other Jewish Israelis than are Arab Palestinians or Syrians. The Ethiopian Jews are accepted as Jews by Orthodox Rabbis nonetheless because of their ancient religious heritage.

    • The issue of social stratification in Israel among its Jewry has long been controversial.

      There was violence in Haifa in the 1950s against recent Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Morocco by Ashkenazi Jews.

      Ethiopian Jews have claimed prejudice within Israel. About 80,000 of them currently live in Israel.

      PM Ehud Barak issued an apology in 1997 toward Oriental Jews for prejudice against them within Israel.

    • This was a very helpful comment, which really helps to illuminate why certain right-wing people, mostly Orthodox religious, are making such a public stink about this relationship. It seems that, contrary to Juan Cole’s assertion, it is not necessary to point to “race” to account for why the Orthodox critics cited by AGP make no mention of the possibility of young woman’s conversion.

      Google brought up this article which seems to speak to this issue: link to usatoday30.usatoday.com

      In general, I’ve given a lot of credence to Juan Cole, whom I have seen as a reasonable and impartial observer of the Middle East, but reading this blog post and his comments have really made me think twice.

  13. Yair Netanyahu who started a Facebook page showing his hatred for Islam, and displaying bigotry, is now dating a Norwegian Christian? I think this is one of life’s ironies…he now faces a backlash based on racism and hatred, and a good dose of reality.
    He will now feel the intimidation and hatred he has dished out to Arabs and Muslims, from this backlash, and realize to be on the receiving end is not that great. However, the arrogant young Netanyahu can justify the fact he is not dating a Muslim, just a blond, Christian gentile from Norway , considering how his attitude has been so far. I would have said leave the kid alone, but knowing his reputation for being a racist, I say just desserts.

  14. My first thought is a question: excluding the realms of disease and famine have there been any greater scourges wrought upon humanity than politics, religion and ethnicity?

    • “My first thought is a question: excluding the realms of disease and famine have there been any greater scourges wrought upon humanity than politics, religion and ethnicity?”

      One answer to your question is that politics, religion, and ethnicity are not in themselves, and by definition, scourges. Rather, it is the approach to each by human beings that is the scourge. Human beings, acting “en masse” and irrationally, create the scourge.

  15. “Let us just say that the son of the Norwegian prime minister started dating an Israeli university student in Oslo, and Norwegian politicians said it was “painful,” and “a big problem,” and called on the PM to intervene to stop it, and warned that the PM’s grandchildren would not be Norwegian because of this racial admixture. Can you imagine?”

    The same could be said when Ovadia Yosef, former chief Rabbi of Israel said “Goyim were born to serve the people of Israel,” and at his funeral Netanyahu and Peres praised him as if he were a saint.

    I think that more and more people are beginning to realise that there is as much racism coming from Jews as there is being directed at Jews.

    Meanwhile our leaders in UK state “I am proud to be a friend of Israel”

  16. Humans made in the image of Yahweh . There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free there is neither male or female for we are all one in Messiah Yeshua. Love not hate……….

  17. “she was studying at university in Israel.”
    Why on earth would an non-Jew want to study in Israel, be allowed to and for what purpose,?

  18. Israel will become a less racial nationalist state when it turns over authority to decide and administer rabbinical law to liberal Reform.
    But it won’t, since liberal Reform now say Jewish identity can be passed thru the father only and have much less strict rules for conversion. The “toughest Jews” have to be in Israel, you see-even many liberal Jews will whisper that to a non-Jew. The dividing line re essential Mideast politics comes when a Jew is willing to reject Zionism in toto, and opt for a one-state solution, full right of return for all Palestinians.

    But there could never become a time when Israel as a Zionist entity would define Christian ex-Jews as Jews. The law of return specifically says Christian converts are ineligible for return and are “ex-Jews.”
    This is a 2000 year old paradigm….you can be a Buddhist Jew
    or a Scientologist Jew but not a Christian Jew-according to the
    inherently anti-Christian by degrees rabbininate. And you gotta be tough to maintain territory you stole from the natives.

    But try telling all that to the ‘Christian’ Zionist cult of Hagee and Co.

    • There are perhaps more than 100,000 Russian Christians who have come to Israel under the Law of Return — by claiming a Jewis grandparent. They are not, however, recognized as Jews by he rabbinical authorities and therfore cannot marry a Jew in Israel unless they go through an orthodox conversion — or have the wedding outside the country. See: link to forward.com

  19. “If the issue was just religion, then the Norwegian young woman could just convert, assuming she was of a mind to and the whole thing got serious. But the commentators above clearly discount that possibility.”
    And the commentators below – not to mention the commenhaters above! – clearly dismiss altogether any possibility that young Netanhayu could convert!

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