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Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Christian Intermarriages in Israel: Romeo and Juliet Revisited

Review of two books: Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, by David K. Shipler, New York: N.Y.: Penguin Putnam, 2002, revised, updated version, 566 pp., $17.00; and War Without End: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for a Promised Land, by Anton La Guardia, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2001, 408 pp., $25.95.

Recipe for an interfaith marriage in Israel: imagine every problem that an interfaith couple or an adult child of an intermarriage can experience in the Diaspora. Multiply the problems by a factor of one hundred, occurring on a daily basis. Stir in an ongoing civil war, bring to an emotional boil.

Shipler, an American, was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times in the early 1980s; La Guardia, a British citizen, was a Jerusalem-based reporter for The Daily Telegraph during the 1990s. Both men fell in love with Jerusalem, but they see the Israelis and Palestinians with the clear vision of disillusioned lovers, unsparingly chronicling the violence that the Israelis and Palestinians have committed against each other, including the frequently cruel behavior of both sides towards interfaith couples.

Shipler devoted an entire chapter to interviews with Jewish Israeli-Muslim Arab couples (“The Sin of Love”), and there are scattered references to Jewish Israeli-Christian Arab couples elsewhere in his book. La Guardia interrupts his survey of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for short digressions on interfaith family issues in Israel.

Jews are legally forbidden to intermarry in Israel, unless one spouse converts to the other partner’s religion. If neither spouse will convert, the engaged interfaith couple must travel abroad to wed–ironically, Israel gives legal recognition to intermarriages taking place abroad. Shipler’s research indicated that in the 1980s these courageous couples were primarily Jewish women married to Arab men.

The interfaith Jewish-Arab couples Shipler interviewed in the mid-1980s were generally quite happy, living normal, prosperous lives, but they would not allow him to use their real names in his book. In some cases they had been abandoned by one or both sets of in-laws; lost friends; been subjected to physical violence; received verbal abuse and threats; experienced career problems; and they sometimes kept their affairs and intermarriages secret from family, friends, and coworkers for long periods of time. Some engaged couples cannot withstand the intense social pressures against their relationships and break up.

La Guardia’s book indicates that social attitudes towards interfaith couples in Israel have not improved since Shipler’s interviews in the 1980s. He quotes one otherwise quite liberal Israeli Jewish woman, who is married to another Jew, referring to intermarriage as “a silent, nonviolent genocide. It saddens me as a Jew.” Among other instances of discrimination, La Guardia notes that “there have been cases of Russian immigrants dying as Jews in terrorist attacks, only to be refused burial in a Jewish cemetery because of suspicions that they might be goyim [non-Jews].”

The adult children of intermarriage don’t have easy lives either. Some couples opt to raise their children as Israeli Jews, others educate them as Muslim Arabs, and some couples treat the kids as “neither” or “both.” An exasperated Jewish high school teacher told Shipler in the late 1990s, when he was updating his book, that her classrooms had growing numbers of children of Jewish Israeli-Christian Arab parentage, who weren’t certain if they were Jews or Arabs.

The adult children’s plight was highlighted in the story of Israeli movie star Juliano Mer-Khamis. His Arab Muslim father, Saliba Khamis, and Jewish Israeli mother, Arna Mer, were Communist activists. When Shipler interviewed Mer-Khamis as a young man in the middle 1980s, Mer-Khamis had already tried several identities: serving in the Israeli army as a Jew, quitting the army when asked to stop his Arab father’s relatives at a military checkpoint, living in Europe, contacting the PLO, rejecting terrorism, and returning to Israel to start an acting career.

I was curious about what had happened to Mer-Khamis after Shipler’s 1980s interview, and did some research. He has had a busy film career, playing both Israeli Jewish and Arab Muslim roles–who better suited? And he has become a passionate advocate for Palestinian Arab rights, while retaining Jewish ties. Here are two of his 2002 news appearances:

* An article describing the end of a Palestinian children’s theater troupe that Arna Mer and Juliano Mer-Khamis created in the Jenin refugee camp mentions that the theater has been destroyed, and that five of the young adult actors are believed dead, several of them in combat against the Israelis. Mer, it says, plans to recreate the troupe.

* A photograph shows Mer-Khamis marching in a demonstration against Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, in Mer-Khamis’s hometown, the predominantly Jewish port city of Haifa, accompanied by other Jewish and Palestinian activists. He has dark hair, a beard, and his eyes are filled with sorrow and anger. He is wearing a T-shirt with a huge yellow Star of David on it, and the word “Palestine” across the star’s center.

Other resources on interfaith families in Israel: Israel Religious Action Center (The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) is working on challenges to social and legal discrimination against interfaith families in Israel. Giving money to IRAC is a way to help Israeli Jews who are trying to help us. For the extremely informative English language version of their webpages, go to

Robin Margolis

Robin Margolis is the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, a rabbinical student at Rabbinical Seminary International, and currently lives “between” Washington, DC and New York City. Her views represent the Half-Jewish Network, not or her rabbinic program.


Author: Robin Margolis