In Israel, a love considered ‘treason’

May 17, 2017
Author Dorit Rabinyan

Israel’s Education Ministry gave Dorit Rabinyan a gift in late 2015 by banning her book “Gader Haya” from the list of required reading for high school literature classes.

The ministry reasoned that the book threatened “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” because it portrayed a love story between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. Those identities, the ministry insisted, are best kept “separate.”

“Young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation,” the ministry said in a statement.

What foolishness.

Telling young people what they can’t do only makes them want to do it more. The Israeli public responded voraciously by buying the book. It topped best-seller lists, sold out within days and made international headlines.

Although the book is a work of fiction, it is based on the author’s sad, true love story, which most certainly broke her heart but barely dented her Zionism.

“I really gained so much of my Zionist patriotic identity due to getting close with my partners on the other side,” Rabinyan told me during her American book tour last week. Her novel recently was published in English under the title “All the Rivers.”

“My choice to believe in the future of harmony and coexistence comes from a reconfirmation of my position as a believer that this piece of earth between the ’67 line and the shore of the Mediterranean should be Jewish,” she said. “A Jewish democratic state with a neighboring Palestinian democratic state. Never had this loyalty been validated with such truthful discussion and debate than when I was looking [at the conflict] through the eyes of the one I aspired to live in harmony with.”

Before she fell in love with real-life Hassan (in the book, “Hilmi”), Rabinyan said her peace activism “was all sterile, paper, slogans, shouting out in the same demonstrations for 30 years.”

It wasn’t until the ultimate confrontation with The Other — in the bedroom — that her political position, “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” was “tested to its core.”

“[I had] to acknowledge how much we have in common, how similar we are,” she said. “There’s a saying from [comedian] Sarah Silverman that I love: She says, ‘What’s the difference between Israelis and Palestinians? They’re all brown and noisy.’ ”

It’s a quaint idea, but it shows the limits of humor. According to Uri Ram, one of Israel’s leading sociologists and the president of the Israeli Sociological Association, an Israeli-Palestinian love affair represents a transgression of the highest order.

“This is the major taboo,” Ram wrote to me in an email.

It’s so taboo, it almost never happens. So few statistics exist regarding this rare phenomenon, the lack of any established pattern or trend makes it an irrelevant field of study.

“The type of relationship described in the book is not only difficult to imagine and a cultural taboo, it is also physically impossible to maintain,” another Israeli sociologist — this one asked not to be named, citing trepidation in discussing this subject — wrote in an  email. “Palestinians from the territories are not permitted entry into Israel and Israelis cannot visit the Palestinian Authority, either, so there’s an actual physical and legal barrier there.”

An Israeli-Palestinian romance “could only happen in an ‘extra-terrestrial’ setting like New York,” — as is the case in Rabinyan’s life and work — “where both sides can disconnect themselves from the norms and social mores of both their societies,” the sociologist added.

Perhaps that’s why Israeli-Palestinian romance has captivated the artistic imagination, flourishing in art and literature — including A.B. Yehoshua’s 1977 book, “The Lover.” The theme is particularly prevalent in Israeli theater. According to the Palestine-Israel Journal, this type of art is perhaps “a metaphor for the desire for conciliation; for there is nothing like a ‘love story’ to represent a yearned-for peace.”

In reality, this love is seen as nothing but betrayal.

“Israel is not a liberal democracy, but an ‘ethnocracy,’ ” Ram explained. “[It] bases its dominant Jewish nationalism on an ethnic model of citizenship based on blood, compared with the model of territorial citizenship. Intermarriages [or inter-relationships] are not considered as a private deviation from norms, but rather as a transgression of the boundaries of the national community.

“They are considered a treason of Zionism.”

Imam Abdullah Antepli, the founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life and a senior fellow of Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute, agreed that interfaith relationships pose a threat to traditional tribal orders. But there is a special place in hell for those that occur within an ongoing and violent political conflict.

“Interfaith marriages of all kinds undermine the basic human desire for continuity and survival of a tradition,” Antepli told me, “but especially if that fear is in the context of a political war.”

As a proponent of interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims, Antepli frequently experiences condemnation by members of the pro-Palestinian community.

“My ‘sin’ is that I engage and talk to Zionist Jews, [and that] I’d like to create a space where pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli Jews can have a conversation,” he said. “Imagine going beyond this action and falling in love with that Zionist. Imagine trying to raise children.”

Falling in love with your ‘enemy’ is the ultimate treachery. “One of the ways you can betray your own people the worst is [to] fall in love with the people who hurt your people.”

Beyond the political stalemate, intermarriage is forbidden in Jewish religious law, and civil marriage does not exist in Israel, making intermarriage legally impossible. But within Islamic law, Antepli told me, there is flexibility — even encouragement — regarding intermarriage between Muslims and members of the other Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths.

Historically, Muslims harbored less cultural anxiety over intermarriage than Jews, because they often were a powerful majority in the regions where they lived. Jews, on the other hand, were minorities who often experienced intense hostility from their host cultures and depended on in-group marriage to survive.

American Muslims, however, find themselves in a different position today. As a minority in the U.S., the community is beginning to grapple with cultural anxieties about assimilation.

“The day after the Pew study came out about American Jews, [showing the high] rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jewish communities, there were nine voice messages at my office from Muslims around the country, telling me, ‘Imam Abdullah, you seem to know something about Jews and Judaism — tell us how we will not end up like the Jews!’”

Sometimes, cultural norms and religious law can diverge. According to the Quran, it is “kosher” for a Muslim man to marry a Jewish woman, just as Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, did.

“He used romance, family ties and tribal relationships in a very sophisticated and successful way,” Antepli said. “But only after violent conflict ended.

“With the existing bleeding wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no viable solution on the horizon, I think it’s very difficult to bring our communities there. [Intermarriage is] way too far for even the most progressive, inclusive, peace-loving Muslims and Jews.”

Danielle Berrin is senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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