Neither Muslim nor Jewish: Meet the Woman Waiting for Israel to Up Update Her Religion in Its System

'Ofra,' who has suffered years of abuse finds herself at the mercy of Israel's Interior Ministry who has failed to update her religion in its system after she officially 'returned to Judiasm'

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Orly with her cat.
Orly with her cat. Credit: Nadia Shira Cohen / NYT

On one hand, she’s being pursued by her Muslim in-laws. On the other, she’s being ostracized by Jews. And presiding over all is the cruelty of the Interior Ministry.

All she wants is for someone to hit a single key on the computer — the one that would change her status in the official registry and let her and her children begin a new life. So she could stop running away, being afraid and feeling that she doesn’t belong.

She’s afraid of her identity becoming known, so we’ll call her Ofra. She’s an intelligent, impressive woman, and when she starts telling her life story, it’s impossible not to be amazed by her strength.

At 17, she was living on a park bench. That was the safest place she’d managed to find, after escaping from a father who treated her with brutal violence and a mother who turned a blind eye.

Throughout her childhood, her father was in and out of jail. Her mother was dysfunctional, and she and her siblings were in and out of institutions. The bench became the only place where she wasn’t hassled.

When the owners of the restaurant where she worked heard she was sleeping in the nearby park, they let her sleep in the kitchen after her shift and the cleanup were over. She made her bed among the pots. For her, that was an improvement.

And then he arrived, an impressive young man from a well-off family from an Arab town. He courted her, and all she wanted was for him to take her away, because she had nowhere to be.

“He came with a proposal,” she said. “If I wanted a place to live, he’d give me everything, on condition that I convert to Islam, because his father insisted on it. So I converted.”

FILE Photo: The battered women's home in Herzliya, Israel. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

All it took was four sentences and a few minutes for the Muslim religious court to confirm her conversion. The very next day, confirmation arrived from the Interior Ministry as well. She was registered in Israel’s Population Registry as a Muslim.

They married, and she moved into his home. And then she discovered his true face.

“I got pregnant with my first child, and he started beating me. Broken bones, ambulances, everything I’d fled from at home returned, in a big way.”

She gave birth prematurely because of the beatings and tried to run away, but he found her and brought her back. With no support and no place to stay, she didn’t have a chance.

She got pregnant again, and the violence began again. This time, he went to prison as she was about to give birth. But his family was waiting for her outside.

They told her she could choose: Either she returned home with the children, or they would take the children back without her. She had to choose between her children and a miserable life, and she chose her children.

She had four children in all. Her life became increasingly intolerable. At one point, she managed to run away with the children, but her husband found them and kidnapped the children. For four years she didn’t see them at all, and it’s hard to describe the feeling that her life is an ongoing hell.

Thirteen years ago, he fell ill and died, and she managed to rescue the children and get away home-free. Or almost free, because his family has been searching for them ever since. She lives in terrible fear, because friends and acquaintances of the family have already found and threatened her, and she’s had to move again and again.

FILE Photo: A shelter for battered women in Hadera, Israel. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Now she and her children live in a pleasant neighborhood in the center of the country. She works hard to support them, but life is still very difficult. Not only because they are pursued and frightened, and not only because her husband registered his business in her name, so his enormous debts are also pursuing her, but because of that computer key that no one in the Interior Ministry has pressed.

Even though she underwent a process of “returning to Judaism,” and the rabbinate confirmed her Jewishness, the Interior Ministry hasn’t updated its computers. So everywhere she goes, she suffers the discrimination that is the lot of Arabs in Israel, from the fact that her children aren’t drafted into the army to the hypocrisy of neighbors who won’t rent to her. She tries to hide it, but her secret follows her everywhere, from her job to her medical provider (where they speak to her in Arabic, since she’s registered as an Arab).

The regulations say all you have to do to register as a Jew is show the Interior Ministry the religious ruling and your ID — the same process by which Ofra had registered as a Muslim. She immersed herself in a mikveh, and the rabbinate declared that she and her children were Jewish.

Three years ago, she gave all the documents to the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry. The rabbinate’s decision should have been treated as a court ruling. But the ministry operates by its own laws.

Every time she goes there or telephones, they string her along. Listening to a conversation she recorded with ministry clerks is infuriating.

She explains that she’s submitted all the documents. The clerk says she has to physically go to one of the ministry’s offices. She explains that she’s been there several times. He acknowledges this, but says he sees no confirmation in the computer that the documents have been submitted. And so on and so forth.

Gal Keret and Roni Livneh from the Orly and Guy hotline are assisting Ofra, and they’ve contacted the ministry repeatedly. But the ministry hasn’t even bothered to respond.

“I haven’t seen one happy day in my life, not one day,” she said. “Not one normal day in my life. I don’t even know what that is. And I only need one.

“I’m afraid,” she added. “I know that anything could happen to me. But my children — I’m afraid for them.”

The Interior Ministry permitted its female employees to strike on Tuesday to protest violence against women. Perhaps it would be equally sensible to hit a single computer key in order to help a woman who has suffered from such violence.

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