When ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are Reuven and Jamila

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine, August 28

The war in Gaza has been hard for Hala K., a Muslim from Nazareth, and her Jewish boyfriend Shai. They were on the verge of not talking. “My relationship survived it, at a certain point there was a lot of anger, we were arguing but we decided to calm down,” she explains. “We accept we have different opinions.”

But in mid-August, Hala, a slender spunky 25-year-old MA student in English literature, saw some interesting news online. A Jewish woman was marrying an Arab man from Jaffa. “I posted about this marriage on Facebook and supported it. Love, there is no such thing as protesting. It is unthinkable. How can you protest, it is nothing to protest, it is their personal life.”

THE ISSUE of intermarriage or mixed marriage in Israel stirs controversy from time to time and this was especially the case 12 days ago with Morel Malka and Mahmud Mansour. A small protest, approved by the Supreme Court, by members of anti-assimilation group Lehava took place close by. Newspapers editorialized about it and Knesset members showed support for the couple.

Even the newly elected President Reuven Rivlin spoke out: “Manifestations of racism emerge when it comes to mixed marriages between Jews and Arabs.”

Outside Israel, intermarriage is particularly concerning because of fears that the Jewish community is declining. The 2013 Pew Survey of US Jews found that 58 percent intermarry and, among non-Orthodox, the number is an extraordinary 71%. But in Israel the statistics are significantly lower. A 2006 headline on Ynet claimed a “new record” of 70 Jews had converted to Islam. “The trend took a drastic turn,” claimed the article, up from an average of 40, with most being cases of “women marrying Muslim men.”

A wedding

A wedding

A 2012 Knesset report said that the number of Jews converting to Islam in Israel had grown to around 100 a year. Israelis who want to intermarry must do so abroad, although most of these cases are not Arabs marrying Jews. In 2011, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 8,994 weddings were performed abroad and there were thought to be a total of 92,000 mixed-marriage couples in Israel.

Data show that only 27 of these couples were Arab- Jewish, but nonetheless provoked biting emotions among the Israeli public. A dialogue poll conducted for Haaretz by Dr. Camil Fuchs revealed that 75% of the Jewish public and 65% of the Arab public – with Muslims reaching 70% and Christians only 50% – do not want to marry people from other faiths.

As for protesting, 72% of Jews surveyed said they would try to prevent a relative from marrying an Arab (Muslim or Christian), whereas only 53% said they would do so if the relative were marrying a non-Arab Christian. Fifty-two percent of Muslims would object to a relative marrying a non-Muslim.

ONE OF the issues that some commentators think would reduce the controversy over marriage is to have civil marriage, as in most Western countries. Joel Alan Katz, editor of the Religion and State website, argues, “If there was civil marriage there would be less media attention.”

Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, argues that it is understandable that Jews care about maintaining their tradition in family. “The best way to look at it is that love is bigger than organized religion. It feels like loss from a view of peoplehood and tribal tradition, but two people finding each other and getting married is not a political issue.”

While he acknowledges the hurt that accompanies a family when a child chooses another religion, Creditor says that “anger, violence and political protest has no place in personal choice.”

Reform Rabbi Philip Nadel, an educator from central Israel, thinks the love story should be seen for what it is: “Two people fell in love, and let them live their lives.” As for the debate, it reveals how “isolated” communities are.

“How many joint [Arab-Jewish] businesses, how many areas are there people working together? Marriage is a hot button [issue] of assimilation and religious issues; but our communities are isolated, so these people become a symbol.”

Orna

Orna

ORNA AKAD, a playwright, director and author, has written on the subject of racism in Israeli society and is passionately outspoken against the country’s policies, such as with the West Bank and Gaza. Twenty-five years ago, Akad married a Muslim named Fuad from Jatt in northern Israel.

“I was giving workshops in Re’ut-Tzadaka, a youth movement for Jews and Arabs, and Fuad was also a guide in this movement. We were very good friends and I was quite young,” she says.

At first, Akad didn’t think it would work to get involved romantically; she describes wanting a “feminist guy” to support her having a career and says she was actually suspicious of Fuad. She points to a turning point in their relationship. After seeing the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, Akad says they saw themselves in the characters. They married in Cyprus in a civil ceremony and describes both families’ reactions as hesitant. “But as soon as we established our relationship the close family was okay with it as long as we are happy.”

As a secular Israeli, she sees the issue of religion as unimportant, and views Judaism as a culture. They have two children, Mai and Adam, and decided to raise them in neither religion. “Over time you forget you are Jewish or Arab, but when you leave the country they remind you,” she says, referencing security checks. Akad argues that one of the main problems in Israel is the lack of being able to be “Israeli” as a nationality.

In 2013, the Supreme Court rejected a case brought by Prof. Uzzi Ornan, a linguist and social activist, to be registered in the population registry as “Israeli” with the court saying it had ramifications for Israel’s raison d’etre as a Jewish state.

“I think Israel should become more like France, the UK or US, where the nationality is the same as the country so it is not according to your religion. To be Arab is not a religion, a Jew can be Arab; what is the difference between a Jewish Iraqi and an Iraqi. They speak Arabic and have that culture, that is being an Arab,” says Akad.

Akad didn’t convert to Islam when marrying, as Malka did for Mansour. But she supports the woman’s decision. “That is the man she wanted and that is what he wanted and I don’t see a problem with it,” she says. Akad thinks Israeli society has some positive models of Jewish-Arab couples and coexistence in popular culture, including the documentaries by Arab-Israeli film director Ibtisam Mara’ana and the show Avoda Aravit (“Arab Labor”), which depicts a Jewish-Arab couple among its characters. Akad’s own book, Wadi Mileh, published in 2012, tells the story of a Jewish professor teaching in Zichron Ya’acov who falls in love with an Arab teenage girl from Fureidis.

THE LONG and often fraught history of Jewish-Arab romances goes back many years. During the British Mandate there were several high-profile intermarriages. Famed novelist S.Y Agnon’s niece, Esther Wiener, married Jawad Nashashibi, a member of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent Muslim families, in 1940.

In 2011 it was revealed that in the early 1950s the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) had embedded Jewish agents in Arab communities in Israel to report on them. Shmuel Moriah told Ynet how he recruited 10 men who were then trained in Koran and local Palestinian dialect. Many of the men married “young Arab women.” In one case, an agent in Jaffa, masquerading as a Muslim, married a Christian-Arab woman who converted to Islam to marry him. In 1964, when the security services decided to remove the men, they were flown with their wives to France and Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then-IDF chief rabbi, converted three of the wives to Judaism.

The children “experienced serious trauma in their childhood. They tried to recover, to forget their past, where they come from, but they couldn’t,” he says. Elements of this true story can be found in popular fiction. Eli Amir’s Yasmine describes an adviser to the Jerusalem mayor after 1967 who falls for an Arab woman in east Jerusalem. The Israeli series Hatufim (Homeland in the US) includes the twist in which an Israeli soldier kidnapped in Lebanon marries an Arab woman. Similarly, in Alon Hilu’s acclaimed book The House of Rajani, the character Isaac Luminsky, who is based on pre-state Zionist Haim Kalvarisky, is imagined having an affair with a wealthy female Arab landowner.  The issue of the dual identity of children, has been explored in some media reports.

IT IS NOT a surprise, when considering the religious- ethnic nature of the conflict between Israel and Palestinians, that relationships between Jews and Muslims continue to be viewed as a political issue with a titillating nature. In the 1980s, the far right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane – who won a seat in the Knesset for his Kach Party – claimed, “The amount of intermarriage in Israel is on the rise, but even more startling is the number of Arabs who live with Jewish women.” He asserted it would lead to greater “intermingling.”

Among the Communist Party of Israel, several leading members intermarried before 1967, including Palmah fighter Arna Mer-Khamis from Rosh Pina, who married Saliba Khamis, a Christian-Arab communist leader. Her son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, served as a paratrooper and later directed the 2004 film Arna’s Children about a Palestinian theater in Jenin to which Arna devoted the last years of her life. Juliano was murdered in 2011 in Jenin by Palestinian gunmen, still trying to maintain his mother’s project.

Stories about Jewish-Arab couples always seem to have sense of exoticism when they are told. The daughter of a Muslim-Druse couple in Jerusalem is chastised for becoming Israeli, serving in the paratroopers and marrying a Jewish man. A Jewish boxer from Hungary is viewed suspiciously for having a lavish wedding in Bethlehem to a Palestinian woman.

In popular culture, in the television show Ramzor, a character dates a Christian-Arab woman and ends up being tied to a cross for it. Similarly Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm included a “Palestinian chicken restaurant” storyline with a graphic love scene in which David’s Arab femme fatale compares their love-making to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

THE STEREOTYPE often spread in gossip about Jewish- Arab couples is that it involves Jewish women who are “lured” or “duped,” and nationalism plays a strong role in this narrative. Lehava’s cards, which can be found littered about the ground in Jerusalem, say “Jewish women for the Jewish nation.” The organization Learn and Return – Preventing Abuse of Jewish Girls in Israel, runs a website claiming “there’s a new war fought with roses instead of guns,” and “hotlines receive 1,000 calls a year from trapped girls.”

Patty Kupfer, of Learn and Return, says her organization has seen a rise in Arabs pretending to be Jewish to lure girls with “gifts and flattery.” She says many of these women come from dysfunctional homes and lack caring father figures. “We oppose intermarriage in Israel between Arabs and Jews, and are reaching out to Jewish girls who have Arab boyfriends, giving them the love, support and direction they lack to avoid being lured into abusive relationships.”

But women who spoke to the The Jerusalem Post – who didn’t use services such as Learn and Return – indicated a very different reality.

Adriana

Adriana and Muhammad

“I met Muhammad, who had grown up in Spain,” says Adriana, an Argentinian Jew who moved to Israel 12 years ago. The two first connected by their shared Spanish heritage. As the two became more serious, Muhammad asked Adriana if she wanted to continue, revealing for the first time that he is Muslim.

The two moved in together.

Any opposition from Muhammad’s family towards the relationship mostly stemmed from a difference in age, as Adriana is 10 years older.

“They were also concerned we were living together without marriage. It was impossible to marry here [Israel], so we went to Argentina to have a civil marriage.”

Her family initially expressed concerns, which were allayed when they met her future husband. Yet, Adriana recalls societal discrimination over the years. When the couple wanted to live in a Jewish part of Jerusalem, some landlords wouldn’t rent to them and she often had to have the apartment contract in her name. Among their friends, no one minded that they were a mixed couple, but she says they had a very Spanish culture at home. “We spoke Spanish together and with my friends. He was shy, I don’t think he had a lot of friends.”

Raising her children also presented challenges. She worked to get them into a school that stresses coexistence and has encountered bigots in public who cursed her when she mentioned her kids are half-Arab. “Now, with the war issue, people that were more moderate are going to the extremes. In this time, it is hard.” Today, the couple is divorcing, but Adriana says she doesn’t regret the marriage. “We had two wonderful children,” she says. “I encourage people to follow their hearts.”

MANY OF those that responded to requests for interviews were not from Israel but living in the US or Europe. “Arabs and Jews might have a lot that separates us, but when you put us in an American setting, we have a lot in common,” says Ray Hanania, a Palestinian- Christian journalist and comedian. He met his Jewish wife in 1993 while working in Chicago and the two married four years later. Hanania, who grew up in Jerusalem, describes their courtship as traditional; he even asked her father for permission to marry. For them, the biggest issue was not their own identification with culture or religion, but how to instill it in their children. Hanania believes that the kids “should be raised as whatever the mother’s faith is because she raises them.”

While their son celebrated his bar mitzva last month, the family have taken trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories. “I recognize that you are in an environment where being Arab and Jewish is part of the conflict. I’ve known a lot of people who are Arab, Muslim, Jewish, Christian; it always seems to be that love rises above all the other issues.”

Ray Hanania and his wife

Ray Hanania and his wife

BUT EVEN where there is love, other societal norms and prejudices can intervene. Among practicing Muslims, even those who outwardly appear secular, most interviewed said it would not be acceptable for a Muslim woman to marry outside the faith. Mira al-Hussein, an academic in the United Arab Emirates, said in a conversation via Facebook that it isn’t just about religion.

“With my family, a non-Emirati is the same, Muslim or not. So if I were to marry a Jew, I’m sure they’d react the same way to my marrying my ex [a Turk].” And, she adds with a giggle, “the Jewish husband will have to convert in order for them not to disown me.” Religion is very important, it is “ingrained” in Muslim society.

“There are double standards. If the woman is Jewish, the Arabs or Muslims probably wouldn’t have a problem and would approve it,” because in Islamic law the children will be Muslim, she says. What about the case of Huma Abedin, the Saudi- born, one-time assistant to Hillary Clinton, who married former US congressman Anthony Weiner? “Her father founded an interfaith institute, so I guess she must have been raised to be tolerant.”

Hussein is understanding of how Israeli society reacted to the Mansour-Malka coupling; “with the current political situation, even two friends – Arab and Jew – having tea or coffee will spark tension.” For Hala and her boyfriend Shai, this is indeed the case.

Hala

An Arab woman who once dated a Jewish man

Hala sees Israel as a very divided society. Even among her Jewish friends she tires of being introduced always as “Hala, the Arab,” and the conflict in Gaza has made things worse.

She moved to the US with her family when she was four, staying for nine years. She says she came back with an American mentality and is drawn to Tel Aviv’s mixed and liberal atmosphere. She met Shai at a swanky Tel Aviv bar, when he heard her speaking Arabic with her friends.

The two have been together for less than a year. Hala says the main issue making her relationship difficult – and others like it where Arab women might date Jewish men – is Arab society. “I haven’t brought him home to meet [my family]…I think it is more tradition and society.” She says the problem is not with her family, that she wasn’t raised as an “Arab” or “Muslim,” but that “Society is stronger.

They [my family] would oppose it because of what people would say.” While she sees no point in converting for marriage and doesn’t believe in religion, she is pessimistic about society. “There are small sparks of hope. When you see people who set differences aside and see each other as people.”

ZIYAD ABU-HAWA is handsome and gregarious. He has lived in Tel Aviv for seven years. “I guess my parents always knew I was gay. I went to tell my father when I was 16, and he said I liked boys; he knew. And I told my mom when I was 17. Time healed everything.” Ziyad feels that the gay community is more tolerant and accepting of Arabs and Jews dating than society. “I brought my first boyfriend home and he was doing military service and dad was like ‘its not enough you are gay, you bring a soldier home,’ and also the mother of my boyfriend didn’t want to accept [me as] an Arab, she didn’t mind the gay issue.”

When it comes to politics, he is able to accept the differences that he has with his boyfriend Yossi. “He is more a Republican [center-right] kind of Israeli….It affects us in general as human beings, who got sick of living and hearing and staying here. It is not because we fight. Our nationalities don’t complicate things for us personally. He hasn’t done miluim [reserve army service] for two or three years and I hope he doesn’t get called up.”

Ziyad and his boyfriend and their dog Jesse

Ziyad and his boyfriend and their dog Jesse

Ziyad observes the irony of having Jewish and Arab friends in a situation like this. “If you don’t have an extreme opinion: When I speak with Arab friends they say I am too pro-Israel and Zionist and Jews think I am too pro-Arab.”

He was supportive of the Mansour-Malka marriage. “I would have preferred it if she hadn’t converted and they accepted each other as they are.”

He sees Arab society in general as less tolerant about some things, but not when it comes to marriage. “It isn’t forbidden to marry a Jewish girl, but [for an Arab woman] to marry a Jewish guy. In Judaism mixed marriage is not accepted, but in Islam the man can marry. That is why the conflict [about Malka] was from the Israeli side.”

Many voices in Israeli society have come out with statements in support of tolerance, while others have expressed understanding of the contentious issue.

Health Minister Yael German sent a telegram of congratulations to Mansour and Malka on their union. “I believe in equality in all manners of life, including marriages. It is the right of every human being to make his choice of his life partner. Love is beyond politics, religion and gender.”

She says that there are extremists on both sides and the “liberal majority” is not heard enough. “I went to say ‘mazal tov’ [to the couple] to make sure we are being heard. I believe the majority of Israelis believe in coexistence and fulfilling it in their day-to-day involvements. I would like to live in a democratic, Jewish and equitable state, and I will continue to work hard to achieve it.”

But Finance Minister Yair Lapid said that he would be bothered if his children sought an intermarriage and decided not to raise their children Jewish “It would really bother me. I think the Jewish people is small… I think we need to preserve it,” he told reporters.

Ed Rettig, a consultant who directed the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem and did his PhD examining issues of Jewish identity thinks the outcry against the wedding was shocking. “It is the first time I’ve seen discussions of miscegenation outside the US context.”

He says that in the US one might choose an identity, such as media personality Geraldo Rivera, who was from a mixed background, but in the Middle East, one’s “identity is fate” often. He sees a contradiction in how the public discussed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s son dating a Norwegian girl and this marriage.

The issue looks to continue to make headlines in Israel. In 1945, a Palestine Post article said that a “Moslem [sic] here becomes Jew.” Ahmed Daoud had become Abraham Ben-Abraham.

Palestine Post article

Palestine Post article

He was “one of the most Orthodox Jews in Mea She’arim” and worked as a butcher and provided meat “to the full satisfaction of Jewish housewives.” One day his relatives from Beit Hanina paid a visit.

His father had died and an inheritance had to be divided, would he come? When he got to the old family home an argument ensued and his brother began to beat him. A passing police patrol extricated Ben-Abraham from the quarrel. More than 68 years later, it was reported that three sisters with the last name Dabas had come to the Gaza border in February 2013 and asked to enter Israel.

They had been born between 1979 and 1984 to a Jewish mother and Palestinian father in Nahariya. He moved to Gaza when their mother died and after the disengagement in 2005, it became difficult for them to visit Israel. They are still in Gaza apparently, like Ben-Abraham, partisans to a larger conflict.

2 responses to “When ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are Reuven and Jamila

  1. I’d be interested to know the distribution of religious identity among Israeli mixed-marriage couples and their descendants. Outside Israel, it’s assumed that the descendants of Jews who intermarry–if not the intermarried couple themselves–will end up adopting the religious identity of the majority, by default. Is that not true in Israel as well? Perhaps intermarriage in Israel is actually a net gain for Jewish population, in the long run? Or are there government policies which interfere with that process?

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