Dispatch from the Institute: So You Think You’ve Got Problems?

By Hannah Greenstein


The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI’s services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
NOTE: This month’s article was originally published in the professional supplement to “The Inclusive,” the quarterly newsletter of the Jewish Outreach Institute. If you would like to receive a free subscription to “The Inclusive,” please complete the
feedback form on the JOI website.

Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land, A Film By Michel Khleifi, Puts American Intermarriages into a Whole New Perspective

While the American Jewish community still has a long way to go before interfaith couples feel included in organized Jewish life, there’s an increasing tolerance and even a number of entry points for intermarried couples, if sought out. But intermarriage isn’t just about America; it’s now a global trend, happening even in the very center of the Jewish world itself–no, not the Upper West Side of Manhattan–Israel. Intermarriage in Israel can cost an individual the loss of his or her life! That’s what we learn in the documentary Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land.

In the film, producer and director Michel Khleifi explores the issues involved in interfaith marriages, including between Israelis and Palestinians, individuals from conflicting religious nations on shared land. This is a riveting film that, while originally released in 1995 and popular on the Jewish film festival circuit a few years back, is still relevant today.

Khleifi picks a large variety of interfaith couples for his film. Ethnic combinations run the gamut. Most couples have not only had to choose one religion, but also unfortunately have had to choose only one spouse’s family with whom to remain in contact. Some spouses have not seen their own families since their decision to marry outside their faith. The couples interviewed in this film experience conflict not just with family, but also with friends.

The choices the couples make are complex and fraught with consequences, yet what is most striking about every couple is that they seem happy with each other and with their decisions. One Arab woman, married to a Jewish man, explains how her brothers are still trying to literally kill her for the disgrace she has brought upon her family. On the other hand, she says she is very happy in her decision to marry a Jewish man and that his parents have always accepted her. She explains that with him, she leads the liberal lifestyle she always yearned for but was never allowed in Muslim Arab society.

An interesting issue that arose between a Jewish man and his Christian Arab wife was that of circumcision. They had decided to practice little in the home and let the children choose their own religion when they become adults. However, the Jewish husband still wanted his son to be circumcised. The couple laughs in telling the story because ironically enough, the son was indeed circumcised, on their coffee table . . . by a Muslim sheikh!

The film also addresses issues of religious law. Interspersed among the family stories, religious leaders in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities discuss the legality of intermarriage. In each religion, different consequences arise depending on the gender of those who marry out of the religion. For example, a Muslim man may marry a woman who is not Muslim as long as she converts, but a Muslim woman may never marry a non-Muslim man.

One of the most striking stories is of a Jewish woman, originally from Jerusalem, who converted to Islam and lives with her husband and their many children in Nablus. The extent to which she is acculturated into Arab society is remarkable. She has become a well-respected matriarch of her Arab community, and her sons–despite their mother’s religious origin–even get embroiled in anti-Israeli politics.

Some will see the couples in this documentary in a hopeful light: perhaps their unions are the start of peaceful coexistence between warring factions in Israel. These couples clearly illustrate that love knows no religious, ethnic, or racial bounds. Then again, one look at the reactions of families and friends shows just how far we still have to go.

The issues between intermarried couples in Israel seem somewhat parallel to those in North America, but at much higher stakes for personal lives. The obstacles these couples face can make our own intermarriage issues seem downright petty in comparison! On the other hand, the emotional anger we’ve all experienced at one point or another in our family lives makes this film eminently understandable. Discussing the pain and irrationalities that other families put themselves through may help us in exploring our own issues in a more sympathetic manner.


About Hannah Greenstein

Hannah Greenstein is a program officer for the Jewish Outreach Institute. In the fall she will begin her rabbinic studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.