The son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is smitten with a young Norwegian woman, which would be a sweet story if it was not threatening the peace and stability of an entire nation. Netanyahu reportedly told Norway's leader Erna Solberg that his son Yair is dating a Norwegian student Sarah Leikanger, in what seemed like innocuous, dad-braggy chit-chat, but that sparked an outburst of Shakespearean lament by Israeli politicians, who think that Yair should stick to Jewish paramours.
Norway's Dagen newspaper reported on the exchange between Solberg and Netanyahu, adding that the young couple met at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, where Sarah, 25, and Yair, 23, are both students. Once sources confirmed that Leikanger is not Jewish, Israeli right-wing leaders reacted the way they would if Yair was their own flesh and blood, but worse.
The leader of Shas, an ultra-orthodox religious political party, Nissim Ze'ev did not skimp on speculation when talking about the relationship:
It’s a big problem. As the prime minister of Israel and the Jewish people, he must display national responsibility via the values he presents inside his own household. I bet it pains him. Any Jew who wants to maintain his roots wants to see his son marry a Jewish girl.
He also inserted a nice little plug for Jewish girls:
There is no shortage of beautiful, successful girls without sowing in the fields of others.
Shas's chairman Aryeh Deri said that if "heaven forbid," this is true, "it is no longer a personal matter — it is a symbol of the Jewish people." Moshe Feiglin, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, also disapproves of the match:
All I can say is that this is very unfortunate.
Even Netanyahu's own brother-in-law (who is not close the PM), said Yair, "is spitting on the graves of his grandmother and grandfather who loved him so much." So maybe he should think about that.
Bentzi Gopstein, leader of anti-assimilation group Lehava, said Benjamin Netanyahu's father would turn over in his grave if he heard the news. Of course, the opposition leaders are also taking this as an opportunity to remind everyone that Benjamin Netanyahu was himself, from 1981-1984, married to a non-Jewish woman, so obviously he did not set a sterling example for his son.
Right-wing leaders are especially concerned because Judaism is inherited matrilineally, which means that any Netanyahu-Leikanger offspring would not be Jewish, assuming Leikanger does not convert. (They are not even close to engaged, for what it's worth.) Anxiety over interfaith marriages is long-held fear within Orthodox and some Conservative Jewish communities, and the incident appears to be an opportunity for the vocal right to highlight the issue. In November, Gopstein said he is worried about increasing rates of Jewish-Arab relationships.
If Yair and Leikanger stay together in spite of all the attention paid to their romance (and, you know, all the normal reasons people break up) and decide to tie the knot they won't be able to do so in Israel under the country's current marriage laws. All Jewish Israeli marriages are conducted by the strict rabbinate, which not only requires both parties to be Jewish (and of opposite genders), but has incredibly strict conversion laws, which require an individual to convert and for the conversion to be deemed acceptable before the two can be joined. Interfaith and secular Jewish couples traditionally hop to Cyprus to get married, where marriage laws are more relaxed and women don't require permission from their husbands to get a divorce, as required by Orthodox Jewish law. (For civil purposes, the state recognizes almost all marriages performed outside of Israel.) So conservative ballyhooing, in addition to being upsetting and xenophobic and a grimy way to gain political traction against an opponent, is largely irrelevant.
Non-politician Israelis, however, hold more diverse opinions on the union (at least according to their tweets.) One noted that he's happy to see Yair Netanyahu shake up Israel's far right, and one added that if Yair really wanted to anger the right, he would marry Leikanger in Oslo. Another quipped that the only way the scandal could be better would be if Yair was dating a Norwegian man.
According to the Jewish Press, the head of Norwegian group With Israel for Peace, a non-religious Zionist group commented to local paper Grimstad Adresstidende that the relationship is "good news," adding "It's nice that Netanyahu could tell Norwegian journalists about it."
For what it's worth, we're happy to see Yair criticized for who he loves instead of who he hates. As a teenager, Yair reportedly posted anti-Arab tirades on his Facebook page. We hope he's grown more open-minded with time, and that the country's political leaders will follow suit.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.