Think We’ve Got It Bad?


In this Middle Eastern country, a woman of the majority religion married a man from another religion. Her family had no problems with it, but the couple lives in fear of being exposed to the religious authorities as an interfaith couple. Meanwhile, the majority of this state’s young people support a couple’s right to civil marriage.

Israel, right? Try its neighbor to the north, Syria.

While Israel (justly) gets flak for its antiquated, inconsistent and prejudicial approach to interfaith marriage, the Arab countries that surround it are no better–and in many cases worse. Take Syria.

In Syria, it is illegal for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men (which is consistent with Islamic religious law). For the two to marry, the man must convert to Islam. However:

[even] the legal step [of conversion] does not protect [mixed-faith couples] from persecution and murder…

Attorney Du’a Moussa, who deals with women’s [rights], points out, ‘The Syrian penal code exempts families [from punishment] in cases of honor killings, and the murder of Muslim women who marry non-Muslim men falls under this category…’

Like Israel, public opinion toward intermarriage is mixed. According to a poll of 500 university students undertaken by the Syrian weekly Al-Nour, while nearly a third said a member of their family was intermarried, 40 percent said they would prefer to sever relations with anyone who married outside the faith. At the same time, however, 41 percent said they were in favor of interfaith and inter-sect marriages. Nearly 80 percent said they were opposed to or condemned honor killings of women who married non-Muslim men, which is good, until you realize that 5.6 percent–or 28 of the students polled–supported honor killings. Even Israeli’s haredi don’t take such an extreme position.

And consider this: in comparison to its Arab and Muslim neighbors, Syria is considered a “secular” state.

5 thoughts on “Think We’ve Got It Bad?”

  • Sorry folks – but when David Ben Gurion’s own grandson marries a Greek Orthodox woman, something not good is going on.

  • Dear Micah:

    I would have to respectfully disagree with you that Israeli’s approach to interfaith families is merely “unfair” as opposed to Syria’s “persecution.”

    First, the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families in Israel at:

    would be happy to talk with you — well, the subject matter is not happy — about persistent efforts by Israel to revoke the citizenship of Russian-Jewish interfaith families, deport the elderly non-Jewish widows and widowers of Israeli Jews whose citizenship papers aren’t in order, etc. It’s ugly!

    Not to mention an Israeli article I read which described how Israel only wants to take Falash Mura from Ethiopia who can prove — get this — seven generations of matrllineal descent. No American Jew could prove that.

    The descendants of Ethiopian Jewish fathers? Not Jews.

    The most recent ugliness — an Orthodox Israeli rabbinic court recently abruptly invalidated literally thousands of conversions of non-Jews — many of them intermarried — which means their kids suddenly aren’t Jews any more — due to a feud they have with another rabbi belonging to a different faction within Orthodoxy.

    The most recent ugly incident — a Messianic Jewish teenager who got part of his foot blown off, apparently through a bomb in a Purim basket that was probably delivered to his home by a hostile Orthodox Jew? — his mother is a Jew who converted to Messianic Judaism, and his dad is Latino Christian who now identifies as a Messianic Jewish pastor. He is the child of an intermarriage.

    And the English language, free, online Israeli newspapers regularly feature attacks on the growing number of adult descendants of intermarriage in Israel — over 300,000 — mostly children and grandchildren of intermarried Russian Jews — as “mixed rabble,” “non-Jews,” and other very uncomplimentary names. A Knesset committee proposed removing the patrilineal grandchildren of intermarriage from the Law of Return last year; boruch Hashem it did not pass.

    These attacks are not all written by the Orthodox; some are written by Israeli seculars. Both the Israeli seculars and the Orthodox have been very unwelcoming to the Russian-Jewish intermarried families. They discriminate against them on the job market, and are cold to them. Then they complain that some of these families have returned to Christianity or are practicing it.

    Israel’s record on interfaith families is just not excusable. No functioning Western democracy behaves this way nowdays.

    As I explained to one Orthodox Jew. what was the point of inviting intermarried Russian Jews and descendants of intermarriage to leave anti-Semitic Russia, where having a Jewish parent or grandparent is a bad thing, and moving them to Israel, where having a Christian or Muslim parent or grandparent is a bad thing?

    Chas v’shalom (may G-d avert it), I hope Israel will never have honor killings of the intermarried.

    But they do have an Orthodox group that is allegedly dedicated to rescuing Jewish women from “abusive” Arab husbands — a closer reading of their literature reveals that they are actually trying to break up all marriages of Jewish women to Arab men, because the children are “real” Jews and must be reclaimed from the dangerous influence of their Arab fathers.

    Robin Margolis

  • I suspect that your question is rhetorical, Josette, but if it’s not, here’s my best stab at an answer:

    Part of the reason for Israel’s unfair approach to intermarriage is that in the early days of Israel’s founding, David Ben-Gurion cut a deal with the religious authorities that they would support the new State of Israel if he would give them control over matters of personal status. He expressed concern about the deal at the time, but the survival of the fledgling state was at stake. Ever since, increasingly strict (and sometimes corrupt) Orthodox rabbis determine all matters of Jewish personal status in Israel: who is a convert and who isn’t, who is allowed to get married, who is allowed to get divorced, who is buried in a Jewish cemetery, etc. The big exception is the Law of Return, which is much more liberal in its definition of a Jew than the Chief Rabbinate is.

    However, there is also a cultural prejudice against intermarriage in Israel. Part of it is a particular sense of Israeli superiority over the Diaspora, where they see intermarriage and assimilation as problems of Jews in the Diaspora, not in Israel. In actuality, of course, it’s easy to be dismissive of intermarriage when nearly 80% of your population is Jewish–most Jews in Israel are married to Jews not out of a sense of Jewish commitment but simply because everyone they meet is Jewish. I suspect the opposition also stems from the traditional Zionist culture, which is secular but strongly pro-Jewish. Since their religious ties to Judaism are weak, they hold more tightly onto the notion of peoplehood and therefore reject anything, like intermarriage, that would appear to dilute the integrity of the Jewish people.

    And lastly, Israel was founded as a haven for Jews. It’s questionable whether there can ever be a full separation of church and state and if that’s even desirable (personally, I’m not sure). It’s a question that Israelis constantly grapple with.

    One big difference between Israel and Syria is that in Israel, intermarriage isn’t illegal, it’s just not recognized by the religious authorities. Interfaith couples often go to Cyprus to get married so as to gain limited legal status in Israel as a married couple. No one is thrown in jail for intermarrying in Israel. While Israel’s approach is unfair, I don’t think it reaches the level of persecution–which it almost certainly does in Syria.

  • I agree with Maskil–women’s rights, democracy, separation of shul/mosque/church and state should be things we expect from Israel, just as we expect these things in the United States. Is Israel’s tribal culture a result of being surrounded by such cultures?

  • Yes, but isn’t it sad that we have to compare Israel to Syria in the arena of religion and state for Israel to look just marginally better?

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