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Of Genes and Ministers
Yossi Gurwitz

A senior German banker, Thilo Sarrazin, got himself in hot water a couple of days ago. His sin: expressing his belief in the theory of a “Jewish gene,” common to all Jews. That comment, for very understandable reasons, struck very discordant chords in Germany, and Sarrazin may be asked soon to look for a less stressful job.

Strangely enough, the belief in a “Jewish gene,” or a “Cohen gene” common to all Jews is actually pretty common around here. This, as Prof. Shlomo Sand noted in his “The Invention of the Jewish People”, is a way of bypassing a very uncomfortable truth: that the chances that the Jews who conquered Palestine being actual descendents of Roman-era Jews are rather small (No, Virginia, the Romans did not “exile the Jews”). So, mutatis mutandis, were Sarrazin an Israeli banker, his remarks would pass without mention.

A bizarre twist on this theme came recently from Eli Yishai, political leader of the influential Judaist * party Shas and Minister of the Interior. He told the Jerusalem Post that genes are a matter of religious persuasion. To bring the quote in full: “He then chose to cite unspecified academic research into the issue of “Jewish” genes, and asserted – curiously – that “a convert, if he converts through the Orthodox, he has the Jewish gene. If he doesn’t convert through the Orthodox, he doesn’t have the Jewish gene. As simple as that.” Note that “curiously”: it’s a mainstream media outlet’s way of letting you know the person they’re interviewing has an abnormal number of bats in his belfry. (You also get a glimpse of Yishai’s grasp, or lack thereof, of the English language. By “the Orthodox” he means “the Orthodox rabbinate”.)

So, our Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister believes that, should you change your religion in a particular way, your physical body would be changed. You would suddenly have a new gene, which you did not have before you went into the mikveh. And we’re talking about 2010: we’re not discussing the Age of Miracles here. Yishai actually thinks that when you accept rabbinical Judaism, you undergo a mutation. Either that, or Yishai has no idea what genes are, which apparently does not prevent him from blabbing about them in public.

I saw the JPost quote this morning, and am still slightly in shock. A good friend joked that this is actual progress: Yishai’s usual frame of reference is the 17th century, and now we see him reaching for late 19th century-early 20th century ideas.

But it’s not all that funny.

* * * * *

Yishai is a religious fanatic, or if he isn’t, he’s one who makes a convincing show of being one. Gideon Sa’ar, our Education Minister, makes every attempt to look secular and his statements are – at least by the admittedly very low bar set by this government – rather progressive. He supports the gay community, for instance, and voted against the deportation of the foreign children.
But Sa’ar has appointed Gabi Avital as Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Education, and Avital is anything but a progressive. He made a lot of noise over the weekend, when he said in an interview that he cannot “believe” in evolution and does not accept global warming. This is not actually news: Avital said as much back in February (Hebrew), and at time he was much more explicit: there can’t be any global warming, he said, because it would be against God’s promise not to bring about another deluge. He further said he would revise school textbooks, so that children would be exposed to “other theories” beside evolution.


* * * * *
The real problem with Yishai and Avital’s comments, as I see it, is that they do not cause a political storm. For a short while, Sa’ar was under mild pressure to sack Avital, but he overcame it easily. And no one in his right mind thinks there is anything, anything at all, that will make Netanyahu dismiss Yishai. We just know that a minister who thinks that getting baptized changes your body’s chemistry will continue to be there, no matter what; we know the Chief Scientist of the Education Ministry, the guy whose job is to review textbooks, would hold his position even though he is a mental doppelganger of Sarah Palin – and that there is nothing

I cannot recall the last time a senior official was forced to resign (unless it was because he was charged with a crime), and to the best of my knowledge the last minister resigning due to public outrage was Ariel Sharon in 1983, and that took a botched invasion of Lebanon, the Beirut massacre, the largest demonstration in Israeli mythology, and the murder of an Israeli peace activist, Emil Greenzweig, in a terrorist attack. The feeling, and it is very common, nothing will make a senior official resign. At most, he’ll mouth some words about “accountability.” Netanyahu and Barak, for instance, did precisely that after the assault on the Mavi Marmara: claimed to be accountable but did not, in fact, resign.

And this disconnect between the basic duty of an official to serve the public and the understanding that they are, in fact, as credulous as children and as accountable as kittens, is one of the main reasons why Israeli democracy is dying.

* Judaist: a person who is convinced in the superiority of Judaism and who is committed to making Jewish law the law of the land. Invariably, a Jewish Orthodox.
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