- An Assimilating Majority?Israeli Marriage Law and Identity in the Jewish State
On August 17, 2014, during a tense cease-fire amidst the Israeli Defense Force’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza, Mahmoud Mansour and Morel Malka celebrated their wedding in Rishon Letzion, a city near Tel Aviv. A media circus precipitated days before the wedding, with the nuptials holding the attention of local and international news outlets for two weeks even as violence in Gaza continued to ebb and flow. Initially, coverage of the wedding focused on the basic facts: although both Israeli citizens, the groom was Muslim while the bride was born Jewish; therefore, the match roused the ire of figures ranging from the bride’s father to the leaders of Lehava, a right-wing Jewish nationalist organization that planned to picket the wedding. In spite of attempts by the couple’s lawyer to obtain a court order against the Lehava protest, the demonstration was permitted at a distance of 200 meters from the wedding venue, enforced by dozens of Israeli police. Media coverage of the protests against the wedding—especially by English-language and international outlets—documented the racist anti-Arab character of demonstrators’ signs and slogans, which was generally attributed to the timing of the nuptials. Multiple articles cited Lehava’s founder, Bentzion “Bentzi” Gopstein, as stating “We are still at war and she [Malka] is marrying a member of the enemy,” evidently referring to Mansour’s Arab ethnicity rather than his Israeli citizenship.1
The timing was a convenience for Lehava, however, which capitalized on the coinciding hawkish mood in Israel, rather than the specific cause for the protest. Lehava—a Hebrew acronym for le-meni’at hitbolelut be-erets ha-kodesh (Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land)—emerged in 2009, and while picketing weddings is not a regular feature of its modus operandi, the rhetoric its members hurled at the Mansour-Malka wedding was par for the course. A slogan featured on many of the anti-wedding posters was “hitbolelut hi sho’ah le-am ha-yehudi” (assimilation is a Holocaust of the Jewish people), a sentiment which is neither new nor limited to Lehava, right-wing groups, or Israelis but is also found prominently within diaspora Jewish communities as well.
Yet in Israel, a state in which Jews are the majority of the population, how can Israeli Jews be the victims of “assimilation”? Indeed, if “assimilation” is usually a code word for “intermarriage” in Israel, as it is in the diaspora, how does it relate to the fact that the Israeli marriage system is administered by [End Page 73] religious authorities, a situation that prevents religiously mixed weddings from occurring on Israeli territory? In the days after the Mansour-Malka wedding, the Israeli press featured several op-eds reflecting on these questions, with at least two commentators blaming the Jewish state itself as the cause for what they identified as the core problem of the wedding: Malka’s conversion to Islam in order to marry in Israel.2 If only the Israeli state did not leave personal status law in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinate—these authors lamented—Mansour might have been able to convert to Judaism as easily as Malka converted to Islam. Better yet, a civil marriage system would have allowed Malka and Mansour to wed without anyone converting, allowing the couple true freedom of choice in defining their own, and their hypothetical children’s, cultural and religious identities.
While the Malka-Mansour wedding is not the first such marriage in Israel, its narration by the Israeli media can be read as the discursive culmination of a rising anxiety over the last two decades regarding the meaning of Jewish identity within a Jewish state, alongside differing notions of Israel’s responsibility to preserve the Jewish people. In this article, I analyze the Israeli media discourse surrounding civil marriage and the concept of “assimilation” through intermarriage in the context of a Jewish-majority state. First, I historicize the contemporary discursive associations of intermarriage with a loss of authentic Jewish identity, locating the origins of this discourse in the work of early twentieth-century Zionist intellectuals...