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The difficulties faced by modern interfaith couples and other non-traditional families in Israel is the focus of a great Jerusalem Post piece by Ruth Eglash, “Challenging the consensus of the Israeli family.”
The article uses the story of a Russian-born Jew and her Moroccan Muslim husband as the jumping off point for a discussion about the obstacles faced by Israel’s 800,000 non-traditional families. The couple had to go to Paraguay to get married, jump through bureaucratic hoops to have the marriage recognized in Israel and undergo a DNA test to “prove” that the man was father to their child.
Israel’s laws regarding personal status are riddled with inconsistencies. While the state does not recognize interfaith marriages performed in Israel, for purposes of the Law of Return, one need only have one Jewish grandparent to be recognized as a Jew and have unfettered citizenship rights. However, once a person who is recognized as a citizen but does not have a Jewish mother wants to get married, the Chief Rabbinate will then tell them they are not a Jew. This exchange of letters between David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and Isaiah Berlin, one of the leading liberal thinkers of the 20th century, from 1958, recently published in The New Republic, shows how mixed marriage has been a perplexing issue for Israel’s issue since its early days.
In the first letter, written by Ben-Gurion, the revered leader asks how the state of Israel should register children of mixed marriages whose mother is not Jewish. The question isn’t about citizenship–the Law of Return guarantees that–but about how they should be identified in their identity card, a document every Israeli is required to carry (if an identity card sounds a bit Orwellian or Stalinist, consider the threats Israel faces on most of its borders). There are spaces on the identity card for “Religion” and “Nationality.” Ben-Gurion wonders how these children should be classified:
Ben-Gurion asks Berlin, and other thinkers who have been asked to reflect on the issue, to take into consideration Israel’s status as a democracy committed to the concept of equal rights under the law as well as the unique situation in Israel where assimilation is more of a threat to non-Jews than it is to Jews.
In his response, Berlin first states that Israel should only come to Jews outside of Israel on matters of great import and this issue doesn’t qualify, but if asked for his opinino by a man as great as Ben-Gurion, he will certainly do so. As a secular liberal, Berlin’s personal choice is that anyone who defines themselves as a Jew and can be reasonably shown to have been affiliated with the Jewish community should be able to declare themselves, and their children, Jewish, and be recognized as such by the state. However, recognizing the difficulties such a radical solution might face in Israel, he also suggests the possibility of creating temporary categories of classification. At the same time, however, he says, “nothing would be more iniquitous or ruinous than to permit the emergence of a permanent category of citizens of inferior status–half-Jews, with incomplete civil and political rights; an abominable caricature of anti-Semitic persecution in other countries.” Indeed, he says if the religious establishment is too resistant to the “free integration of such persons,” then it would be better to bar their immigration than to “expose them to the horrors of minority status.”
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