Why Interfaith Marriage Is on the Rise in Israel - and Why It's a Problem

As many as one in 10 Israeli marriages are interfaith, with the non-Jewish partner often subjected to second-class treatment by the state.

Gil Cohen-Magen

Rona Shulman and Thomas Lebreton had been together for six years and had two daughters before they decided to tie the knot. But they had to leave Israel to get married, because Thomas isn’t Jewish, and Israeli law does not permit marriages between members of different religions within its borders.

When they returned to Israel from France, where the ceremony was held, Rona and her two daughters received gas masks at the airport. Thomas did not.

“They said he wasn’t entitled to a gas mask because he’s not an Israeli citizen,” recounts Rona. “I asked them, ‘What’s he supposed to do if there’s a war? His family goes into a sealed a room and he stays outside?’ So eventually, we had no choice but to purchase him a gas mask.”

Click here for more on mixed marriages in Israel: A special project by Haaretz for Shavuot 2014.

According to various organizations that follow these trends, some five to 10 percent of all Israeli couples today are intermarried. Like Rona and Thomas, many find that their interfaith status puts them at a disadvantage in Israeli society.

In some mixed marriages, like theirs, the husband and wife are members of different religions. More often than not, however, an interfaith marriage in Israel means that at least one spouse is defined by the Interior Ministry as “without religion.” This is the case for more than 320,000 immigrants who have arrived in Israel from the Former Soviet Union since the early 1990s, and who fit the definition of Jewish under the Law of Return but not according to halakha (Jewish religious law).

Under the Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse is eligible to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship. According to religious law, a Jew is defined as anyone with a Jewish mother.

The latest Interior Ministry figures available on intermarriage in Israel are cited in a Knesset report published in 2008. (The ministry did not respond to requests from Haaretz for more up-to-date figures.) According to these figures, 92,612 mixed married couples live in Israel, with the non-Jewish partner being a woman in close to 60 percent of the cases. As a result, the children of the majority of these couples are not considered Jewish according to halakha and, therefore, they cannot be married in Israel.

Less than a year ago – and for the first time ever – the Central Bureau of Statistics published figures on marriages performed overseas. Interfaith marriages performed abroad are recognized by Israel’s Interior Ministry. The figures, which refer only to 2011, show that 51,271 couples were wed in Israel that year, and a further 8,995 were registered as having married overseas (though many of the ceremonies had taken place prior to that time).

Of the total number of marriages performed overseas, 10 percent were between Jewish men and women defined as “other” (a tag that generally refers to Israeli citizens from the Former Soviet Union who are not defined as Jewish by halakhic law); 32 percent were between Jewish men and foreign non-Jewish women (and whose religion is not specified); 2 percent were between Arab men and foreign non-Jewish women; 7 percent were between men defined as “other” and Jewish women; 5 percent were between men defined as “other” and women defined as “other”; 8 percent were between men defined as “other” and foreign non-Jewish women; 15 percent were between foreign non-Jewish men and Jewish women; and 3 percent were between foreign non-Jewish men and women defined as “other.”

The rest were primarily couples made up of two Jewish spouses, with mixed Jewish-Arab couples comprising barely a fraction of a percent (three cases of Jewish men married to Arab women, and 16 cases of Arab men married to Jewish women).

Two categories of intermarried couples face special challenges in Israel. The first is couples like Rona and Thomas, in which one spouse is not an Israeli citizen and – despite being married to an Israeli citizen – is forced to undergo an arduous process and wait years to receive citizenship, during which time they are not eligible for many of the benefits and privileges conferred on Israeli citizens.

The second category is made up of couples in which the woman is defined as “other” – a citizen of Israel though not a Jew as per halakha. In such cases, unless the woman goes through a full Orthodox conversion, the children of this couple are not considered Jewish by law and, therefore, cannot marry in Israel either.

This is the reason why Maya (who requested that her last name not be published) is considering converting. The daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, Maya immigrated to Israel from Saint Petersburg three years ago, obtaining citizenship under the Law of Return. A year ago, she became seriously involved with a full-fledged Jewish Israeli, and the couple are thinking of marrying.

“The truth is, my boyfriend doesn’t really care if I’m considered Jewish or not,” confides Maya. “The reason I’m thinking about conversion is because of the kids. Right now, I’m just exploring the option but not making any commitments, because if it turns out to be too difficult, I won’t go through with it.”

Useless solutions

Ludmilla Oigenblick is the former head of a now-defunct organization known as the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families, which advocated on behalf of the more than 300,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union classified in Israel as “other” or “without religion.”

None of the solutions available to this very large group of citizens who cannot marry here are really solutions, she argues – especially not Orthodox conversion. “In order to undergo an Orthodox conversion in Israel, you have to embrace an Orthodox way of life,” she says. “These are not people who want to embrace an Orthodox way of life.”

Although non-Orthodox conversions are another option for those who want to feel more Jewish, she notes, they don’t solve the problem either – since these conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. Therefore, any children born of women who have been converted by the Conservative or Reform movements in Israel would not be considered Jewish.

A third option – known as “brit zugiut,” which came into effect a few years ago – is a type of civil marriage available only to couples in which both members are defined as “without religion.” Since this is not the case for most mixed couples, only a few dozen such marriages have been performed in Israel since the law passed in 2010.

Vu Linh met her Israeli boyfriend about 10 years ago, when he was traveling around Asia and made a stop a near her home in Vietnam. After she followed him to Israel, they first considered what many other couples in their situation have done – going to Cyprus to get married. But her boyfriend came from an observant Jewish family, and it was important for his parents that they not only have a proper wedding in Israel, but also that their grandchildren be recognized as Jews.

In deference to their wishes, Linh decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion. “I took classes for over a year, I kept Shabbat, I kept kosher, I did everything I was supposed to,” she says. But ultimately, the rabbinical court refused to approve her conversion. She and her partner continue to live together as a married couple and already have two children, an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. Asked if she has plans to put them through conversion, she replies, “If they really want, they can do it themselves when they grow up. But for now, I don’t want it.”

A survey conducted by New Family, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of common-law, same-sex and interfaith families, found that one in 10 families in Israel is mixed. (Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, cited in the 2008 Knesset report, reported a lower rate, of one in 20). As she has written in these pages, Irit Rosenblum, New Family’s executive director, estimates that the rate will go up sharply in the coming years, with many of the children of non-Jewish women who immigrated to Israel from the Former Soviet Union, during the big wave of the 1990s, now approaching marital age.

The New Family survey also found that 57 percent of mixed families in Israel observe Jewish tradition, as compared with only 33 percent in the United States.

Nicole Maor, an attorney with the Israel Religious Action Center – an advocacy organization affiliated with the Reform Movement in Israel – notes that, in the past year, the Interior Ministry has begun cracking down on interfaith couples.

“What we’ve seen quite a few cases of since last summer is non-Jewish spouses of Israelis, who come from countries that don’t usually require visas to enter Israel, being stopped at the border and asked to show their visas,” she notes. “We later discovered that the ministry did introduce a new regulation a few years ago requiring visas for such couples, but only began enforcing it over the past year.”

At present, then, a non-Jew visiting from the United States doesn’t need to arrange a visa in advance, but a non-Jew from the United States who is married to an Israeli does.

Yadin Elam, an attorney who has represented many mixed families in their battles with Israeli bureaucracy, says a new and growing subcategory of interfaith couples face particular challenges these days: Israelis married to African asylum seekers.

“First, the authorities request all sorts of documentation, which these asylum seekers can’t obtain because it requires that they return to their countries,” he says. “Second, they need to be able to prove to the authorities that these aren’t simply fictitious marriages designed to get them a visa.”

Giulio Castelli
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