JERUSALEM – The love life of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son is setting off sparks – in Israeli politics.
News that Yair Netanyahu, 23, is dating a statuesque non-Jewish Norwegian university student was not only a juicy item for the gossip pages. It also unleashed an uproar from religious lawmakers opposed to intermarriage, and prompted debate over the Jewish state’s relationship with the outside world.
According to reports in Norwegian media, the Israeli prime minister boasted to his Norwegian counterpart, Erna Solberg, about the relationship during a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week and informed her that his son recently visited Norway with his girlfriend, Sandra Leikanger. A photo of the smiling young couple appeared in both Israeli and Norwegian newspapers.
On Monday, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said he believed the relationship actually caused Netanyahu and his wife great “heartache.” Arieh Deri told a local radio station the relationship was no mere personal matter because Netanyahu is a “symbol of the Jewish people.”
“I know friends of mine who invest tens of millions and more, hundreds of millions to fight assimilation in the world,” Deri told the Kol Barama station. “If, God forbid it’s true, woe to us.”
Other groups called on Netanyahu to put a stop to the relationship. Even the prime minister’s brother-in-law, Hagai Ben-Artzi, took to the airwaves to speak out against it.
“Yair should know that if he does such a thing, if he doesn’t break off the relationship, then … he is spitting on the graves of his grandmother and grandfather who loved him so much and raised him,” Ben-Artzi told Kikar Shabbat, an ultra-Orthodox news site.
Ben-Artzi, an outspoken Jewish nationalist who is often critical of the prime minister, said he had not spoken to the family in months. “Maybe they weren’t in touch because they were afraid to tell me,” he said.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment, as did Leikanger.
Israel always had an ultra-Orthodox minority of devout and conservative Jews, who currently account for just under a tenth of the population. Thanks to their political clout, the ultra-Orthodox oversee weddings, divorces and burials – meaning that the younger Netanyahu would not be permitted to marry his girlfriend here – if they one day get serious – unless she converts. Orthodox Jewish Law prohibits intermarriage.
Noah Slepkov, an associate fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said the debate reflects changes taking place within Israel.
While intermarriage has long been a “huge deal” in the United States, Slepkov said, where roughly half of American Jews marry outside the faith, it has been a nonissue in Israel because Jews and Arabs almost never marry.
But that has begun to change, due to an influx of foreign workers and the trend of Israelis studying and working abroad in an age of globalization. “It’s certainly a trend that’s at the beginning,” Slepkov said, but one that nonetheless can make conservative Israelis feel threatened.