Haaretz recently published Or Kashti’s article concerning the Israeli Jewish organization “Hemla” (which means “mercy”), which runs a “shelter” for female youths. “According to the organization, the shelter is geared toward ‘female youths from broken homes who are at risk of shmad’ – a Hebrew term that denotes coerced conversion to another religion”, notes Kashti.
One should not be in doubt as to who the villains who threaten to “coerce” these girls are. In a promotional flyer released two years ago, the head of Hemla, Elyakim Neiman, described intermarriage between Jewish women and Arab men as a “national plague.” He said, “We are doing our best to save these girls before they reach [Arab] villages and give birth to ‘Ahmad Ben Moshe.’” A promotional leaflet boasted that the woman who runs the shelter, Rachel Baranes, has dedicated her life to “saving the daughters of Israel from the claws of the Ishmaelites,” which is a term referring to ‘Arabs’.
An article published in 2009 in “Eretz Israel Shelanu” (Our Land of Israel), a newsletter associated with the radical right, describes Hemla’s boardinghouse as the only shelter for Jewish girls “rescued” from Arab villages.
This may all seem like a bizarre anti-miscegenation religious-nationalist fringe aberration, one which would be funded by donations from extremists. But here is the upshot: The Israeli Social Services Ministry massively funds the shelter, in fact funding half of its expenses costing 2.6 million shekels a year ($685,000). The Ministry has recently agreed to increase funding for the institution to 1.3 million shekels a year, doubling the level of its support since 2012.
To understand just how central the issue of anti-assimilation in Israel is, we may note comments by Member of Knesset Yair Lapid about it just over two years ago. A ‘centrist’ and ‘liberal,’ Lapid, interviewed on an Israel Waves radio program, found it important to state his essential honest view about this: “It would bother me if my son married a non-Jew… It would bother me greatly.”
Lapid was responding to a massive demonstration by members of Benzi Gopstein’s anti-miscegenation group Lehava outside the wedding of a couple, where the woman had converted to Islam and married a Muslim. As Haaretz notes, Gopstein and Lehava have in the past been closely linked to Hemla. Gopstein was a member of Hemla for years, until leaving in 2014. That year, Hemla paid Gopstein’s wife, Anat, 66,000 shekels ($17,300) for “seeking out girls” for the shelter, according to documents from the NGO registrar.
Such acts of seeking to avert intermingling between Jews and non-Jews are not limited to ultra-religious right groups. Israeli municipalities have enacted such programs. Here is an example of the Petah Tikva municipality in 2009, reported by Yediot Aharonot (notice, ‘men from minorities’ is a euphemism for ‘Arabs’):
“A special team in the youth department of the Petah Tikva (near Tel Aviv) municipality will locate [Jewish] girls in the habit of meeting with men from minorities and will assist them. The decision comes after a relationship was discovered between a girl from the city and minority men from Jaljulya who murdered Arik Karp last month on a Tel Aviv beach.
“The problem of minority men is well-known,” said the chief of the youth department, Moshe Spektor. “Our attempts to deal with this problem are real and sincere. The municipality is making an effort to examine the matter in cooperation with the police.””
Kiryat Gat in the south has also been running programs to avert contact between Jewish girls and Muslim, particularly Bedouin, men. As Haaretz reported:
The programme enjoys the support of the municipality and the police, and is headed by Kiryat Gat’s welfare representative, who goes to schools to warn girls of the “exploitative Arabs”. The programme uses a video entitled “Sleeping with the Enemy,” which features a local police officer and a woman from the Anti-Assimilation Department, a wing of the religious organisation Yad L’ahim, which works to prevent Jewish girls from dating Muslim men.
The term “Shmad” is a very interesting one in Jewish tradition. Whilst referring to conversion, its root is the Hebrew letters SHIN, MEM and DALET – SH-M-D, a root which refers to “annihilation”. The Hebrew noun for annihilation is thus HASHMADA. This is a very loaded term to use for conversion – and it betrays a perception inherent in Judaism, to regard conversion as a sort of betrayal of the ‘tribe’, causing it to shrink.
Avigail Abarbanel has recently written a crushing article, “Why I Left the Cult”, wherein she regards precisely this aspect:
“I know what annihilation means to you. It doesn’t just mean killing. Annihilation means that the Jewish people, that Jewishness itself would no longer exist. To you ‘assimilation’ is also annihilation. They taught us that at school. We were taught that assimilation was despicable, cowardly, treacherous to our people. Whenever Jewish people marry non-Jews in their own countries, and when all traces of Jewishness, whatever it is, become diluted, you worry. You think it’s the end. Because there are no individuals, only the group, when the group goes individuals go too. So you feel any perceived threat to the group as a personal threat to each one of you. That’s why you cry antisemitism so readily and reflexively, whenever you perceive the slightest threat to your cult state.”
The idea of “deserting the tribe” has also translated itself into ostensibly secular Zionist discourse. Israelis have been historically cautious to not proclaim too much nationalist chauvinism in this respect, probably so that others would not see them as an extremist Jewish cult as it were. But the term for Jewish immigrant was and still is – “oleh” – an ‘ascender’. The opposite term (for a Jew emigrating from Israel) is, as one may guess, “yored” – a ‘descender’. Even a ‘secular’, ‘leftist’ leader like Yitzhak Rabin regarded the ‘descenders’ as “trash” (noted by Uri Avnery).
I have had various conversations with secular Jews, who, knowing that I was married to a non-Jew, voiced their concerns about “mixed marriages”, the shrinking of the “Jewish nation” and so on. In my own wedding (with my ex-wife), I made a speech regarding this aspect. I mentioned the “oleh” and “yored” terms, to the noticeable embarrassment of the many Jewish Israelis assembled in Copenhagen, and noted this concern inherent in many Jews, of the “disappearance” of the Jews – not by genocide, but by ‘intermarriage’, and in Zionist perception, by emigration. I had fulfilled both sins.
You would think it was the end of the world to live ‘abroad’ and marry a ‘shiksa’.
For many Jews, it seems, it is the end of the world, especially if it is an “Arab”. Even my Jewish, secular, leftist, liberal contacts were not ashamed to opine that a marriage between an Israeli Jew and an “Arab” can’t work. They said this outright in a conversation with my non-Jewish ex-wife – that is to say, marrying an ‘Arab’ is considered an even graver transgression than marrying a non-Arab, non-Jew.
The general perception amongst the municipalities, religious organisations and vigilante groups involved in anti-miscegenation campaigns is predominantly that it is (Jewish) ‘girls’ that are to be protected from (Arab or Muslim) ‘men’. This focus adds a sexist element to the conviction, suggesting an ostensible ‘mission to protect’ the ‘weak’, ‘naïve’ and ‘ignorant’ side against the insidious and cunning ‘men’:
“The problem is always with Jewish girls dating Arab men. The Arab guy comes and buys them things, treats them well. They fall for it. They can’t see what they are doing” says one of the leaders of a vigilante patrol group named Fire for Judaism, which works closely with the police and is funded by private donations.
Returning to the Hemla organisation, its name means “mercy” or “compassion” in Hebrew. This seems to be based in the idea that they are doing everyone, especially the girls, a ‘favor’. Because the girls don’t know what’s good for them.
By Jonathan Ofir