As Minister Compares Intermarriage to Holocaust, Voters' Patience with Netanyahu May Wear Thin | Opinion

A politician recently characterized certain events in America today as "a second Holocaust". Was it AOC? Did everyone condemn this public figure for daring to make this comparison? The answer is, of course—No, on both accounts. The person who made the comparison is no other than Israel's own Education Minister, Rabbi Rafi Peretz. In his utterance of the words "a second Holocaust," Peretz was referring to the soaring rates of intermarriage among American Jews and his perception of their rampant assimilation into American/western culture.

In all honesty, once, I had agreed with him. I delivered a speech to a large group of Jewish students days before I first moved to Israel, (44 years ago this June), in which I spoke about the fact American Jewry was doomed, and that moving to Israel was the only solution. Over the course of the ensuing decades, after spending more than a few years back in America —including a period during which I became the founding President of a Jewish day school (a school in which more than a few students were the products of intermarried couples), I jettisoned my simplistic black and white views on the future of American Jewry. There is a virtual rainbow of beliefs and practices among American Jews and a myriad of outcomes for its future. Moreover, although the community as a whole faces many challenges, American Jewry remains steadfastly vibrant, sometimes even more so than it had been in my youth.

Peretz's views are very much rooted in his own religious history. He began his army service as a pilot. Later on, he grew to be religious, became a Rabbi, and ultimately served as the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army. This metamorphosis took place completely within the narrow confines of the exceedingly conservative Israeli orthodoxy community.

While Israelis are, by-and-large, not all that concerned about American Jewry, Peretz's declaration, widely covered by Israeli media, boosted alarm bells among many, regarding whether they want a government in which Peretz would be the person responsible for educating their children. Peretz replaced Education Minister Naftali Bennett. While also religious, Bennett is the product of American Reform parents, whose wife is not religious, and who himself came out of the high-tech world.

During his term as Education Minister, Bennett emphasized the need for more Math and English classes in schools. He talked about the necessity of preparing students for the 21st century. Bennett was the sort of religious Minister of Education with whom most Israelis are comfortable. In contrast, upon accepting the Education post, Peretz spoke first about his plans to arrange for every Israeli 7th or 8th-grade student to receive a Bible at the Western Wall.

Peretz then went on to proclaim that an essential role of the school is to imbue its students with strong values. He then continued, stating that the values students receive in school are more important than how well they do in Math or other secular studies. While no one is against teaching students values, the main criticism leveled against Israeli schools in recent years has been that it is not preparing students for the challenges of the future. Addressing that dilemma is what Israelis expect from their Education Minister.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu does not win again, in this repeat election, it might be partially due to his appointment of Peretz to the ministerial position he would likely hold if Netanyahu forms a right-wing/religious government—because Israelis will have received a preview of a result that is precisely what they do not want following the next election.

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman forced this new election, or more correctly, blocked Prime Minister Netanyahu from forming a government in the previous election. At the time, Lieberman's claim was that although he was in favor of a right-wing government, he was unwilling to agree to an administration dominated by the religious parties. This time, Lieberman's campaign slogan is to "make Israel normal again". He has vowed to do everything in his power to force the Likud and the Blue & White party to enter into a coalition, without the religious parties. So far, Lieberman's campaign strategy appears to be working. In the last election, Lieberman's party earned five seats. Current polling shows him with up to nine seats.

Lieberman has always been good at reading the will of the Israeli public. In a recent poll, 68 percent of voters favored a government made up of the two main parties—without the participation of the religious parties. In recent months, there has been increasing push-back against religious regulations in Israel. Just this past week, Ramat Gan (one of Tel Aviv largest suburbs) announced it would start running special buses on Saturdays.

Most observers expected this upcoming race to be a rerun of the last election campaign; with the Prime Minister's alleged corruption being the main issue, once again, or perhaps a shift in focus to the mystical Trump peace plan. Neither of those issues seems to be at the forefront, nor is the election being impacted (at least to date) by rising tension with Iran, as it resumes its nuclear program. Instead, it turns out Lieberman may be correct. This election truly might be determined by how important it is to voters that the Orthodox parties do not gain additional power over the day-to-day lives of the average Israeli. Much could change between now and election day (a little over two months away). But at least for now, this election is being fought partially over very different issues than the last one.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​