Weddings on the Front Line
Muslims and Jews joined in love face ancient hatreds
TAMI ZER and SJIFRA HERSCHBERG | Oct 27, 2003
THE FOUR AMERICANS were on an innocent mission in the Gaza Strip to interview candidates for Fulbright scholarships to U.S. universities when a bomb exploded under their vehicle, killing three and injuring one. It was the second attack on an American diplomatic vehicle in Gaza since the second intifada began, and may signal a shift in strategy by militants to broaden the conflict. The attack was condemned by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and his security forces arrested three men belonging to a little-known terrorist group. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called for a broad crackdown, saying there can be no Palestinian state until the attacks cease.
In the shadow of such violence, meanwhile, there is another human drama that is rarely reported. It unfolds when Muslims and Jews fall in love and attempt to cross the cultural divide. A number of such couples recently told Maclean's about the dangerous obstacles they face.
WARM SUMMER air washed over Robyn Andraus and her boyfriend, El-or Lavan, as they sped through the darkness past the bombed-out Dolphinarium Disco in Tel Aviv. Just days earlier, on June 1, 2001, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside the club, killing 21 people. "Images of the dead were racing through my mind as we went by," recalls Andraus, 26. "I thought, 'How lucky we are not to have been blown to pieces.' " Then a van in front of the couple's motorcycle suddenly stopped. Four men leaped out and told them they were going to take revenge by attacking Arabs worshipping at a nearby mosque. "They had no idea that I was half Arab, half Jewish," says Andraus. "What would they have done to me?" The couple didn't wait to find out. "El-or held me with one hand, using the other to steer the bike. We ran away as fast as we could."
Andraus may never outrun her past. Her Jewish mother from Romania, who lost most of her family in the Holocaust, and her Arab father, from a prominent family living in the Israeli port city of Jaffa, married in the 1960s. Now Andraus and Lavan, a 26-year-old Jewish musician, are trapped between two cultures -- and ignoring family pleas to break off their engagement. "Getting married involves many dilemmas," she says. "How to raise a child? Which identity to endorse? Frequently you fear both sides."
For such couples, violence is a very real possibility in Palestinian-controlled areas. Not only must a Jewish bride or groom convert to Islam, such unions can bring charges of collaboration with the enemy, resulting in prison, beatings or death. Even without physical intimidation, getting married is daunting. Couples must apply to the rabbinical or Muslim court -- but neither will permit interfaith marriage, so people who wish to retain their individual faith get around the prohibition by going abroad(usually Cyprus)to marry. Others give up their religion and convert to the faith of their spouses. Still others convert to Christianity and are wed in a church. Even then, if the husband is Palestinian, there is often no guarantee he will ever be allowed to live in Israel.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority don't record the number of mixed marriages. But Tel Aviv lawyer Irit Rosenblum says that since the founding of Israel in 1948, thousands of Arabs and Jews have wed. "So many marriages occurred, and yet they are not acknowledged by either side," says Rosenblum, founder of New Family, an organization that wants legislation passed to allow couples to bypass rabbinical courts and marry under civil law. "I see the sorrows of our region reflecting through the eyes of these people."
FAHDI, 26, a Muslim Palestinian, and Yael, a 28-year-old Jewish woman from Jerusalem, want to marry and raise a family in Israel. The couple, who fear for their safety and asked Maclean's not to use their last names, met in a crowded market when Fahdi jumped to the rescue to keep a box of tomatoes from falling on Yael. "That's how we fell in love," she recalls. "He smiled at me through all those tomatoes and I thought to myself, 'He's the most handsome man in the world.' " The couple decided to marry, but both Israel and the Palestinian Authority stood in their way. When they approached the Israeli Ministry of the Interior for permission to live in Israel, they were given a mound of documents and told to go to the Palestinian Authority to have them filled out. They then travelled to Ramallah, but both were immediately arrested. Yael was released after two days and Fahdi was held for weeks and beaten. "They said to him, 'How come you're marrying a Jew?' " recalls Yael. "'You must be collaborating with Israel.'"
They were also told that if Fahdi wanted the documents completed, he had to go to Gaza, where he was born. While in Gaza, Yael stayed with Fahdi's family but was intimidated: officials from the Palestinian Authority repeatedly visited and accused Fahdi of being an Israeli collaborator. Yael was filled with doubts. "I would like us to live in Israel, not in Gaza," she says. "I can't see myself adopting the Muslim mentality. I can't see myself dressed like them."
Yael returned to Israel while Fahdi stayed in Gaza, but during one of their meetings she became pregnant. When told, Fahdi's family was outraged. "They said that all Jews, including those that will be born to us, should be slaughtered," Yael recalls. Some of her Israeli friends were just as cruel. "They asked me how can I marry an Arab," she says. "So I lost a few friends. I don't need such friends." Today, the couple is no closer to marrying. "We love each other and want to live together," says Yael,"but we're stranded between heaven and earth."
ARNA MER, the daughter of Gideon Mer, a distinguished Jewish professor of medicine, was one of the first Israelis to ignore parental warnings when she married Saliva Khamis, an Arab and one of the leaders of the Israeli Communist Party, in the 1950s. They were wed in a Catholic church by a priest who was drunk at the time. But Mer wouldn't realize how deep the divisions ran until 1958, when she joined a protest against the imposition of martial law on Arab villages in Israel. Mer was pregnant with her son Juliano, and went into labour. She was rushed to the hospital, "but the doctors refused to stitch her and she nearly bled to death," says her son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, 45, a well-known actor living in Haifa. "They knew she was married to an Arab. I experienced this racial lunacy from the day I was born." As he grew up, Mer-Khamis says, he constantly asked himself: "Do I hate Arabs and love Jews or do I love Arabs and hate Jews?" That question was on his mind when he met the parents of a Jewish girlfriend. "I was sitting with her translating an Arabic movie," he recalls. "Her father walked into the room. I eluded his questions, but he researched about me and forced her to leave me."
To compensate, Mer-Khamis for a time adopted his Jewish maternal name and joined an elite fighting unit of the Israeli army. "For a whole year my father wouldn't talk to me. He simply kept silent," he says. But he soon had to face his Arab heritage. The confrontation came in 1978 when he was stationed at the West Bank town of Jenin and a car arrived with three young passengers and their grandfather. When he refused an order to remove the old man from the car, he ended up in a fight with his commander and was imprisoned for a few weeks and left the army. "It was then that I realized," he says, "that I don't belong on the Jewish side."
Mer-Khamis has spoken out publicly on a number of occasions in support of mixed marriages. But he and his Jewish partner, Mishmish, decided to avoid the uproar their marriage would have caused by living together. As he watched his own daughter frolic outside their home in Haifa, Mer-Khamis told Maclean's she is free to marry whomever she wants. Rosenblum, for one, thinks Mer-Khamis's vow not to interfere in his daughter's future is courageous. "These mixed couples have a social mission," says Rosenblum. "I believe the future will show us that those who dared follow their hearts are the true leaders of a quiet course to peace in the area."
Perhaps, but love often vanishes under the stress of straddling two cultures, and the children of divorced parents can face years of emotional upheaval. The situation is complicated because religious courts decide custody. According to the Jewish religion, if the mother is Jewish, then so is the child. But according to Islam, religion is determined by the male and custody is given to the father. "Children are torn by the conflict," says Salah Tahaa, a programs inspector in the Arab educational system in Israel. "They are in a terrible internal struggle."
Sometimes the struggle is so painful children grow up hating their parents for marrying outside their race. Suad is one of those: walking on a beach at Tel Aviv, the 30-year-old woman admits that she once became so angry, "I imagined taking a knife and killing my mother." Her father was Arab and mother Jewish; Suad is beautiful with long black hair. As two boys on the beach stare, she looks down, saying bitterly, "If they knew, they wouldn't be wasting their gazes on me." Suad believes her parents should never have wed. "My only consolation," she says, "is that I was born out of love."
Given the emotional upheavals, Andraus's and Lavan's relatives are trying to convince them not to marry. "You're still young," Andraus recalls Lavan's uncle saying. "If you can't understand the importance of values, understand the importance of your children growing up with values." But Andraus says their children will learn the value of tolerance. "Life will put them to the test," she says, "but they will know that there is no such thing as good Arabs and bad Arabs, just as there are no good Jews and bad Jews. There are only good people and bad people."