New Article: Burton, Israeli Marriage Law and Identity in the Jewish State

Burton, Elise K. “An Assimilating Majority?: Israeli Marriage Law and Identity in the Jewish State.” Journal of Jewish Identities 8.1 (2015): 73-94.

 

URL: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_jewish_identities/v008/8.1.burton.html

 

Excerpt

The concept of assimilation in Israel, and its discursive attachment to intermarriage, is haunted by its origins in a historical context pre-dating the Israeli state, in which many Jews could hardly imagine a society in which they represented the majority culture. Israeli Jews are still inundated with collective memories of being a persecuted minority, most prominently during the Holocaust. Eli Ben Dahan, the deputy minister of Religious Affairs, explained his reference to the Malka-Mansour wedding as part of the “silent Holocaust” by claiming that Israel is the only country in the world in which “ha-peruzah ha-yehudit” (the Jewish diaspora) is increasing rather than decreasing, because in Israel there are no mixed (read: civil) marriages. Echoing the assumptions of early Zionist intellectuals such as Ruppin and Zollschan, Ben Dahan prophesied, “if we allow mixed marriages [here], we would cause the Jewish people to become diminished in Israel as well.”

But the “diaspora” logic favoring the religious marriage system is clearly counterproductive for the preservation of the Jewish people if one considers op-ed headlines like “Israel Forced Morel to Convert to Islam.” Kamir, author of this op-ed, rebukes her fellow Israelis: “The conversion of Morel to Islam is a reminder to all that have not understood: the connection between religion and state in Israel… is the same thing that pushes Jews to renounce their Jewish identity.”  In terms of the Zionist ethno-religious nationalism that underpins the social infrastructure of the Israeli state, Malka and Mansour “are not two citizens permitted to enter a marriage agreement, but [like] a bird and a fish—two species that do not intermingle.” In order to marry, Malka was thus compelled to change her identity and join her husband’s religious community. The solution, Kamir suggests, is “a little more freedom and trust in humanity, and a little less existential Holocaust anxiety,” which would allow Israeli Jews of both sexes to make decisions according to their individual conscience.

Put more bluntly, the Israeli state’s embrace of halakha to adjudicate both an individual’s “authentic” Jewish status with regard to their eligible marriage partners is, in actuality, the force that “diminishes the Jewish people” within Israel. Despite the fearmongering and racialized discourses of assimilation and intermarriage that demonize attempts to introduce civil marriage in Israel, the absence of civil marriage primarily inhibits the integration of self-identified Jews who do not satisfy the Chief Rabbinate’s definition of Jewish identity. Ultimately, Israeli discourse against intermarriage is marshaled to defend and promote the interests of small constituencies of practicing Orthodox and right-wing ethnic nationalists, whose political influence is already completely out of proportion to their representation in the Israeli population. But its effects are more far-reaching and damaging than its immediate political implications because its claims offer such a narrow reading of what it means to be authentically Jewish. As a result, Israeli citizens are compelled to interpret their Jewish identity in terms of whether they are descendants of a “truly” Jewish matriline. Jewish women additionally carry the burden of sacrificing not only their own, but also their children’s, legal Jewish identity if they choose to marry a non-Jew, thus engaging in “assimilation,” regardless of their individual relationships to Judaism and Jewishness. Zionism’s call for a Jewish nation-state, which in turn requires discrete definitions of Jewishness to implement and enforce a national legal system, has therefore precluded the possibility and acceptance of more diverse conceptualizations of authentically Jewish marriages and lives.

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