Yair Netanyahu Girlfriend Drama Sparks Echoes of British Royal Romance Scandal

For Israel, Dating a Non-Jew Like Marrying Divorcee

Our Royal Scandal: King Edward once abdicated his throne for love. Hopefully it won’t come to that for Yair Netanyahu.
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Our Royal Scandal: King Edward once abdicated his throne for love. Hopefully it won’t come to that for Yair Netanyahu.

By Asher Schechter

Published January 30, 2014.
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(Haaretz) — “Israel is freaking out.” “Yair Netanyahu spits on his grandfather’s grave.” “Bibi’s son is dating a Gentile!”

It’s been quite the week for the Netanyahu family, judging by the flurry of hysterical headlines reacting to reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyu’s son is dating – gasp! – a “shiksa.” The reported love affair between Yair Netanyahu and Norwegian girlfriend Sandra Leikanger is being treated by Israel as the most scandalizing love story since King Edward and Wallis Simpson shamed the British throne.

It all started rather innocently: The prime minister purportedly revealed that his son was dating a (non-Jewish) Norwegian girl in a meeting with his Norwegian counterpart. The story was picked up by Norwegian newspaper Dagen, which put a face and a name to the story: Sandra Leikanger, a 25-year-old student who met the 23-year-old Netanyahu Jr. while studying with him at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.

Then the whole world – the Jewish world, at least – it seems, went berserk. The reason: Leikanger, the potential future spouse of Israel’s Crown Prince (his father is “King Bibi,” after all) is not Jewish. Imagine that! Gevalt!

Netanyahu Sr. is now trying to do damage control, denying the whole thing and claiming Jr. and Sandra are merely classmates. But it’s too late; the damage has already been done.

Indeed, it’s been a long time since the shtetl was so excited. The question we should have been asking – “Is this piece of gossip even newsworthy?” – was quickly pushed aside by people who insisted on making it news at all costs. After all, Netanyahu Jr is the closest Israel has to a crown prince, and “Waity Katie” enthralled Britain for years, so why not us?

It seems everyone has opinions about Jr.’s purported fling. From the right, the last few days have seen a slew of self-appointed Tevyes shouting, “Tradition! Tradition!” Lehava, a right-wing anti-assimilation organization that aims to “save daughters of Israel who were seduced by goys,” was so outraged it sent two letters, one to Netanyahu Sr., one to Jr. himself.

“The implications of your son’s acts, even though he is supposedly a private person, are far-reaching, both for your family and for the State of Israel,” wrote the organization’s chairman, Benzi Gopstein. “This is the son of the prime minister of the Sate of Israel, homeland of the Jewish people. … Your late father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, is rolling in his grave because of what your son is doing.”

Gopstein was a bit more subtle in his letter to Jr., offering to meet with him and Leikanger “so that we can converse in person, and understand the significance of this matter together.”

“I am sure,” he wrote, “that your girlfriend, who is wise and intelligent, will understand you have to end the relationship as well.”

Others responded with what could only be called panic. “Woe to us, if, God forbid, this is true,” said Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who described the affair as “a big heartache.” Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, ever the stoic, summarized the entire matter as “very unfortunate.”

But the most virulent attack against Jr.’s puppy-love came from Jr.’s own uncle. Haggai Ben-Artzi, Sarah Netanyahu’s estranged brother, made his discontent public, asking Jr. (through reporters), “Have you lost your mind?!”

If Jr. and Sandra get married, Ben Artzi promised, “I’ll walk the streets and tear the hair off my head.” In the meantime, he threatened, he’ll physically ban Jr. from going anywhere near his grandfather’s grave.

That’s the right wing. On the left, the entire thing has been greeted mostly with a sarcastic chuckle and not a few memes.

There are those who mentioned, quite accurately, that even if Jr. and his Scandinavian beloved were to get serious, their love has an expiration date: Given that there are no civil marriages in Israel, and with the Chief Rabbinate being what it is, the two could never get married even if they wanted to. Sandra could convert to Judaism, of course, like Netanyahu Sr.’s second wife, but even that’s no guarantee nowadays.

And for the general public, the whole affair has been met with a lot of gossipy excitement over the exotic new blonde who might someday be “one of our own.” Gossip sites rushed to dig up details about Jr.’s supposed sweetheart, and Jr. himself – all of a sudden – was transformed into the celebrity he was born to become.

It’s the same kind of mix between excitement and outrage that surrounded the affair between supermodel Bar Refaeli and Leonardo DiCaprio. The same kind of foreign-blonde-adoration that made Mandy Rice-Davies – a former stripper and convert, star of a little tidbit of British history known as the Profumo Affair, in which a senior British politician was caught with his pants down – a mythological superstar in 1970s Israel. Israel as a small, provincial country has always had an attraction/repulsion for foreign, glamorous blondes.

And Scandinavian women? Forget about it. Israel has a well-documented fascination with Scandinavian women – you need only consider cult films like the Lemon Popsicle series – that goes back at least 40 years, to the days when young Swedish volunteers would come to the kibbutzim and enthrall everything and everyone.

Nevertheless, the allure of exotic foreign mystique is clearly not enough to quell the detractors. Assimilation is, still, even today, a sensitive subject that touches upon one of the rawest nerves of the Jewish soul. So far Jr. and Sandra seems to have gotten a pass from most of the Israeli public because it doesn’t seem that serious (Boys will be boys, as they say; plus it’s not like he’s their son). But if this – whatever it is or isn’t – starts to look serious, there’ll be a lot more critics. Just because we let girls study in Israel, doesn’t mean they can just snatch up our boys, worried Jewish mothers all over the country will mutter. Puppy love is all well and good, they’ll say, but can’t both puppies be Jewish?

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