Photo: Yoni Hamenachem
“Would you like your daughter to marry an Arab?”
Ever since I argued that the rabbis’ wives’ letter, which warned Jewish women to stay away from Arabs, is an embarrassing disgrace, I heard the above question in 200 different versions, yet every time it was hurled at me with the same victorious, all-knowing tone, as if the debate was over there.
The answer is no. I would not be happy if my daughter married an Arab, just like I would not be happy if she married a catholic, a Pakistani Muslim, or Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari; I admit that I would not want her to marry a Scotsman either, because the notion of men in skirts seems odd to me, at least until summer returns and I have a chance to tan my legs.
The liberals will surely argue that every person has the right to fall in love with no regard to religion, creed or gender, but I am not that liberal. Instead, I tell my children that the fact we are Jews who live in Israel is not a geographic or historical mishap. They are part of a dynasty, an idea, a spiritual relay race where they must not drop the baton. Besides, marriage is a complicated business as it is, so it’s better to marry someone who at least knows exactly what a Seder is and realizes that Treblinka is not a ski resort.
However, the debate is not over there. Not at all.
The rabbis’ wives’ letter, just like the rabbis’ letter that came before it, is a despicable document for two reasons: The first reason is that they did not talk about the Jews there, but rather, only smeared the Arabs. After all, they could have explained to their daughters that they are part of the most beautiful story in the world; a story that includes Maimonides and Freud and Moses and Agnon, and the drama of the Bible and emotional storm of the Talmud. It also includes the beautiful principle whereby one does not insult others publicly.
Instead, the rabbis’ wives chose to argue that the Arabs will drag Jewish girls to the village by the hair and there they will be subjected to “curses, humiliation, and beatings.” How lowly, how pathetic, and what a terrible underestimation of Judaism’s power to win in and of itself.
The second reason is that they chose to publicize their letter. Because there are things that people tell their children when they are at home, behind closed doors, as they should not be uttered in public.
Private vs. public sphere
Years ago, when we still lived in central Tel Aviv, we had a nagging neighbor. I assume I’m not the first or last person to ever encounter this, and as tends to happen in such situations, this neighbor – who was also a great fool - used to lecture to me at length when we’d bump into each other (unsurprisingly, one of his views was that “all these Arabs just want to pick up Jewish girls.”)
One of these times, my eldest son was with me, and he was quite stunned by the flow of nagging we were attacked with. When we got home I told my son to stay away from this neighbor. If he sees him, he should say hello politely and quickly go home, I said. The thing I did not do was hang a sign in the elevator reading: “Dear neighbors, a nagging neighbor lives in our building. You are hereby requested to avoid him as much as is possible.”
Why? Because there is a difference between the private sphere and the public sphere.
The rabbis and their wives may say whatever they wish in private conversations. I may not like their views, but a person is allowed to say anything in his or her own home. To the private sphere’s credit, in most cases it encourages a deeper discussion, and there is a certain chance that after the rabbis’ wives end their dubious lecture, their daughters will ask questions such as “aren’t there Jews, including religious Jews, who beat up their wives?”
The public sphere has other rules. You cannot post billboards across Israel that claim that all Ashkenazim are thieves or air ads that claim that all Russians are drunk and are the cause of car accidents. Similarly, we cannot argue that all 1.6 million Arabs living here – most of them work, raise their families, and just like us prefer to marry “one of theirs” – are serial wife-beaters overwhelmed with perverted desire for Jewish flesh. Even if someone is so hateful as to believe this, it still does not grant one the right to yell this out publicly.
It’s clear to me that some people say such things, but people tell each other terrible things all the time. They say terrible things about haredim, about Arabs, about the wealthy, about the complainants in the Katsav case, about gays, and about soccer fans. The reason these things are not publicized openly is that we have to keep living together.
One of the things that hold together a human society is the existence of basic politeness among its members. Rude people often take refuge behind the claim that “this is the truth!” in order to hint that those who do not utter it out loud are hypocrites. Telling the truth is a noble value, but I assume that even the rabbis’ wives would agree with me that zealous seculars should not be allowed to charge at religious people on the street and scream: “I ate pork yesterday! It’s really delicious!”
When we refrain from passing people in line who sit in a wheel chair this is not hypocrisy, just like meeting an elderly woman and not telling her that she really aged is not hypocritical. It merely marks the recognition that good manners are the glue that enables coexistence and without them we won’t be able to survive here together.
We live in an interesting era. The Internet, Facebook, synagogue pamphlets, and the plethora of TV channels and cellular networks in our lives increasingly blur the boundary between the public and private sphere. A person sits at home by the computer and the entire world crawls in, including a soccer game from Spain and a rabbinical sermon held in New York. When this person goes out he brings along his bookshelf, mailbox, and the chess game he hasn’t finished yet. Everything is intermixed and the feeling is that we’re allowed to say anything, because everyone talks all the time and nothing really matters.
Yet this is not true. The letters of the rabbis and their wives should not have been published simply because they are an insult – a grave, blunt, and needless public insult hurled at people most of whom had done nothing wrong. These letters were also an insult to anyone who thinks that Judaism represents more beautiful, nobler values than xenophobia.
So no, I would not want my daughter to marry a non-Jew. But more than that, I would not want her to marry someone who is not a human being.
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