The curse of Ezra
Intermarriage is one of the most sensitive subjects for Jews and Arabs living in this land. This article, written by Gershom Schocken, is being republished on the 20th anniversary of his death.
The main reason the rabbis oppose encounters between Jewish and Arab youths is that such meetings might lead to intermarriage. Even give the small chance that this would be the result of such interactions, there's no denying that the rabbis have touched on a most sensitive issues for Jews and Arabs living together in this land.
Ezra the Scribe is the person who banned intermarriage between the Jews who had returned from Babylon to the Land of Israel and the other nations already living here. He not only declared this prohibition but also forcibly broke up many mixed marriages that he discovered when he returned to Jerusalem from Persia. These were mainly between priests and members of distinguished families.
Another legacy of the period of Ezra and Nehemiah was the decision to forfeit Jewish sovereignty in the land. If we ignore the brief interlude of the Hasmonean period, then from that time until the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews in the Land of Israel, and obviously in exile, were not a sovereign people, but rather, a religious group ruled by other nations. Jewish life was limited to stringent observance of the Torah commandments and the laws created by the rabbis during the period of the Mishna and Talmud. And one of the most important prohibitions was the ban on intermarriage.
This prohibition had not been in effect beforehand, when the Israelites lived as a sovereign people in their land, following the conquest of the land and during the First Temple period. Just witness the mixed marriages of Boaz and Ruth the Moabite, Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba, and the marriages of King Solomon and King Ahab to Gentile women. Particularly illuminating is the case of Bathsheba: King David was considered to have committed a terrible sin for violating her marriage, even though she was married to a Gentile.
So long as the children of Judah and the children of Israel dwelt as a sovereign people in their land, it must have been apparent that coexistence with other peoples in the land or in neighboring lands was likely to lead in some cases to intermarriages. They did not, however, declare a ban on such unions. All this changed in the time of Ezra the Scribe, when mixed marriages were officially prohibited. As far as the rabbis are concerned, this ban is still in effect today, even if in practice it is ignored in most countries of the Diaspora.
When the founders of Zionism moved to re-establish the Jews as an independent political entity, they did not take into account that the ban on intermarriages might create problems for the Jews returning to their land. Indeed, some of the prominent leaders and thinkers of the Zionist movement were themselves intermarried. Mixed couples also arrived here during the various waves of immigration, but it never became a problem until the religious gained power after the establishment of the state.
Ever since the state was founded, the religious establishment has undergone a process of radicalization, as it attempts to impose on the sovereign Jewish nation those prohibitions and bans that applied when they existed solely as an ethno-religious group. Although it won't be able to succeed, the more it tries, the more it prevents the formation of normal relations among the different ethnic groups in the country.
This realization has not yet filtered into the public consciousness. But the fact is that there is not one sovereign nation in the world that bans marriages with members of other nations. On the contrary, nearly all the European nations (not to mention the United States ) were formed by merging different nations. The process usually took place when one nation conquered lands inhabited by members of another. These were bloody wars, resulting in thousands of casualties. But one day, the killing stopped and joint living began, the weaker nation usually adopting the lifestyle and language of the conquerers.
There were certainly variations on this theme. Often, the conquering nation was influenced by the culture and social norms of the nation it dominated, the outcome being a merging of different cultures. When the Normans conquered England in the 11th century, the conquerors, indeed, became the feudal lords of the conquered land, but the Normans' language did not become the language of England; rather, a new language was created. The English language we know today was borne out of a merging of the French dialect of the Normans with the Anglo-Saxon language of the conquered people.
At about the same time, Germanic tribes spread eastward and conquered large swaths of land inhabited by Slavic nations. The conquered Slavic communities usually became Germanized within a few generations. Once they adopted the German language, the process was reinforced through mixed marriages, first among members of the ruling classes, but eventually, also among the common people. The Germany nation, as we know it, therefore, has assorted ethnic foundations, and even today, there are differences between Germans in the west and south of the country and Germans in Saxony and areas east of the Elbe River. But they are still one nation.
In Israel, we are witnessing a process not all that different from that which transpired in Europe 900 years ago. We conquered a land in which a local Arab population had lived and evolved over the course of more than 1,000 years. After wars that caused numerous casualties on both sides, and after some of the original inhabitants of the land were exiled, the State of Israel was left with a sizable Arab minority that is constantly growing becauses of higher birth rates.
In this situation, it is natural that the two nations begin a process of merging through a process in which, as the conquered nation gradually accepts the culture and lifestyle of the dominant nation. This is not a completely unilateral process, and it cannot take place without conflict and pain. But numerous examples in Europe and the United States provide a basis for hope that the outcome could be positive.
In practice, the process has already begun, and interestingly, it is happening despite the Arab world's declared hostility toward the State of Israel and its refusal to recognize its existence. But facts speak louder than ideologies and declarations. Today in Israel there are quite a few Hebrew-speaking, Arab intellectuals, who have adopted many practices common in Israeli society, without abandoning their own unique characteristics. A case in point is relations that have evolved between Israeli government institutions and the Druze community. Even among other Arab communities, there are many who would be willing to get closer to Israeli society (which thus far includes only Jews ) if only they were given the chance.
Here enter the prohibitions and bans of the rabbinic establishment that has a monopoly on matrimonial laws. Add to that the deeply entrenched preconceptions of non-religious Jews dating back to pre-Emancipation and pre-Zionist days, when the Jews were merely an ethno-religious group, not a sovereign nation. This is what has delayed and prevented the emergence of a unified Israeli nation, whose ethnic composition includes people with Arab-Palestinian roots as well.
Each one of us knows Arabs who would willingly join our social and cultural world, if only they were allowed to. There are still mixed marriages in this country, despite the religious ban and the fact that it's impossible to conduct a civil marriage in Israel. And there are children born out of these marriages. So long as we persist in our hatred of the other and insist on maintaining the seclusion that characterized us when we were an ethno-religious group, we are helping create a group of people in this country that does not belong to either one of the two nations - a group of "coloreds," as exists in South Africa (the offspring of mixed marriages between whites and blacks ).
Occasionally, we read stories in the papers about such people. There was S.Y. Agnon's great-nephew, whose mother married a member of the distinguished Nashashibi family. There was the grandson of the legendary Professor Gideon Mer, an early researcher at the Hebrew University, who lived for many years in Rosh Pina and helped combat malaria in this country; his daughter married an Arab from Nazareth. Some time ago, a young Jew recited the mourner's prayer, the Kaddish, at a Muslim funeral, when his Arab father was buried. There are dozens of mixed families, the results of marriages between Arab men and Jewish women, living today in Arab communities in Israel.
I have no doubt that most of these families would have preferred to live in Jewish communities because the males spouses are usually professionally integrated in Jewish society. But we refuse to absorb them socially. After all, there is hardly a possibility that an Arab could buy a home or rent an apartment in a Jewish city, and when this does begin to happen - as it already is in Upper Nazareth - it sparks a public uproar. Non-religious Jews are also prejudiced against their Arab neighbors, still influenced by the vestiges of the rabbinic ruling that forced seclusion on us. Some attempt to present rational arguments for their opposition to Arab neighbors, citing security concerns. But this is merely an excuse they use to conceal their emotional repugnance. After all, our cities fill up daily with tens of thousands of Arab workers. Often, it's difficult to pick them out because they speak, look and behave like us.
The timing of the publication of this essay may raise some eyebrows. The rifts among Israel's citizens run deep - both with regards to politics and ideology. Tension in the occupied territories are running high. Israeli society finds itself in the midst of a pivotal social and economic battle. Who has time to consider the rather "strange" issue addressed here? But the issue is strange only because we are trapped by prejudices that have been controlling us since the beginning of time. In fact, this issue is no less important than any of the other issues on the national agenda. If we continue to ignore it, it will only become a bigger problem.
This is not meant to be an advocacy piece on behalf of mixed marriages. Even if these unions were possible, they would presumably remain a marginal phenomenon. But to ensure the formation of an Israeli nation composed of all the ethnic groups in this country, the barriers between them must be knocked down. That includes restrictions on marriages between members of different groups. Had we not granted the rabbinate a monopoly on matrimonial law, and if there were a civil marriage law in Israel, a substantial obstacle would have been eliminated. Ezra the Scribe's prohibition may have been justified for an ethno-religious group. But for a sovereign nation that needs to coexist with another nation from a different background and establish normal relations with neighbors beyond its borders, this prohibition, which symbolizes Jewish alienation, has become a curse. If it persists, it will perpetuate ethnic tensions within the country and guarantee the permanent isolation of Israel in the region. We must liberate ourselves from the curse of Ezra.
August 29, 1985
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