The Israeli political parties started running their campaign ads on TV this week. One that has caused a minor upset is this one by Shas, the large religious fundamentalist party that sits in most coalitions and is usually put in charge of the Interior Ministry. The ad shows a Jewish man at his wedding to a tall, blonde “Russian”. Assessments are that a third of the one million immigrants who arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union – commonly termed Russians – were not Jewish according to the strict criteria used by the rabbis.
The ad suggests that the racial purity of the Jewish people is under threat from fast-track conversions demanded by Avigdor Lieberman, whose party draws heavily on the support of the Russians. Shas and the rabbis want to keep their control over such conversions, insisting on a rigorous approach that allows only a few hundred conversions a year.
Criticism of Shas for the ad’s racist message is more than a little hypocritical. Israeli governments, led by secular parties, have in fact always treated intermarriage as a threat to the Jewish state and its “demographic strength”. That’s why there is no civil marriage or civil institutions, and why Shas keep being given the Interior Ministry. Every government has insisted on segregation between the Jewish population and Palestinian citizens in living spaces, education and, to an extent, in the workplace, fearful that otherwise the situation might encourage genuine friendships, real coexistence and ultimately intermarriage.
In 2009 the government paid for an ad campaign urging Israeli Jews to inform on relatives who might be considering marrying a non-Jew.
And local authorities have set up teams of advisers and psychologists to dissuade Jewish teenage girls from dating “Arab boys”, while the police have turned a blind eye to Jewish vigilante groups using violence to achieve the same end.