Solving the Mixed Marriage Riddle in Israel: From Ben-Gurion to the Present

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.

“The consensus says that a family in Israel can only be a man and woman united in an Orthodox Jewish marriage,” states [Irit] Rosenblum [director of the New Family Organization, which advocates on behalf of non-traditional families in Israel]. “That means single-parent families are not allowed, gay parents are not allowed, common law unions are not allowed, civil marriages are not allowed and interfaith marriages are not allowed.”

Moreover, she says, while unconventional unions are largely accepted – even if not practiced – by most of mainstream society, the establishment and the legal system do not provide for them or recognize them in the same way they do the traditional nuclear family.


The problem, which even a rabbi interviewed for the article recognizes, is that Israel does not allow for civil marriage. In 1953, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate was given sole control over all matters relating to marriage and divorce–and the Orthodox have held onto their monopoly over such matters tightly.

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:

f the mother is non-Jewish and has not been converted, but both she and the father agree that the child shall be Jewish, should he be registered as Jewish on the basis of the expression of the desire of the parents and their declaration in good faith that the child does not belong to another religion, or is any further ceremony of any kind required, in addition to the agreement and the declaration of the parents, for the child to be registered as a Jew?

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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One thought on “Solving the Mixed Marriage Riddle in Israel: From Ben-Gurion to the Present

  1. Dear Friends: I enjoyed reading the summary of the JPost article and am very glad that you brought it to our attention.

    I was somewhat surprised that the article summary did not mention another interesting part of the article — the existence of an Israeli organization called “New Family,” led by Irit Rosenblum, which is fighting the legal and social discrimination against non-traditional families in Israel, including discrimination and abusive treatment of interfaith families by the religious and secular authorities in Israel.

    Her organization can be reached at:

    http://www.newfamily.org.il/english.asp

    I would encourage members of interfaith families to contact her group and offer donations and publicity.

    I would also suggest that http://www.interfaithfamily.com perhaps consider starting a webpage, “Israeli Interfaith Resources,” — if one does not already exist — along the lines of the pages you have listing U.S. outreach organizations — and list organizations like “New Family” that are fighting for our rights, or otherwise assisting interfaith families in matters of conversions, intermarriages, etc.

    That way, groups like “New Family” would become known to the American interfaith outreach community.

    I had not heard of them before and am very appreciative that your article summary indirectly brought them to my notice.

    Regarding Isaiah Berlin’s comment nearly half a century ago that:

    “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.”

    Sadly, Berlin’s prediction has come to pass, in both Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.

    But as the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I would encourage members of interfaith families to fight back against this discrimination by joining interfaith family organizations and pressing for lobbying within Israel and the Diaspora on these issues.

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    http://www.half-jewish.net

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