When Israeli Women Marry Arab Men: Third in a Series
17:23 Dec 01, '04 / 18 Kislev 5765
Thousands of Jewish Israeli women marry Arabs, unwittingly entering a trap of torture. Mayaan Jaffe goes behind the scenes to see how some of them are rescued.
Black eyes. Bruises. Blood. Out of the refuse of a Gaza town, Aliza [all names have been changed] emerged a broken woman. With tears streaming down her face and her body shaking with trauma, Aliza described how she was locked in the home of a man she once thought she loved, treated in ways too crude to print before being left alone to rot.
Aliza met her Arab lover via the internet, and like most girls in her situation, she was promised the world in exchange for a Muslim conversion and a marriage license. Less than one year later, she was left beaten and betrayed. Almost a statistic, Aliza spent all the money she had ($250) to take a cab to the Erez Crossing, and with the help of the rescue organization of Lev L'Achim, she reentered Israel proper and left her life in the Arab "prison" behind. She immediately relocated to America for safety reasons, where she continues to undergo psychological treatment, attempts to obtain a divorce from the Muslim court, and puts her affairs in order.
Stories like Aliza's are commonplace. While every woman's tale has a unique flare, the basic plot repeats itself, proving again and again that no matter how in love you think you are, marrying an Arab in Israel means the end of your relationships, the end of your freedom and independence, and sometimes, G-d forbid, the end of your life. Unfortunately, according to Ze'ev Shtigletz who runs Lev L'Achim's assimilation division, no matter how many times girls hear the facts, when they are serenaded and pampered they become convinced that for them things can be different.
FROM ANY SECTOR, FROM ANY HOME
Since the founding of the State of Israel, more than 3,000 Jewish girls have converted to Islam and married Arab men via the Muslim courts, Shtigletz says. Additionally, some 2-3,000 women are married to their Arab counterparts by common-law marriage, while another 10-20,000 girls are dating Arabs at any given time. This last category, says Shtigletz, is an important component of his occupation. The goal is to get the women away from their Arab boyfriends before they become so immersed that they give up their family, friends and ultimately their selves to tie the knot.
It can happen to anyone. While the majority of Jewish women who date and/or marry Arab men are secular, of low socio-economic status and from largely mixed neighborhoods, there are also plenty of examples from high-standing and/or well-educated families, and even from traditional homes. Shtigletz travels across the country lecturing at any school that will have him, reaching out to parents and teachers, urging them to educate their youth. Public schools often refuse, declaring him a bigot, and religious schools frequently deny the problem even exists.
Shtigletz holds private meetings with girls who have been referred to him by fearful family members and friends. He uses scare tactics, citing heartrending examples of unfortunate young women, but mostly relies on the facts to encourage the girls to drop their Arab friends. Shtigletz is neither a pessimist nor a bigot. "Putting aside the Jewish law that one is not allowed to intermarry," he says, "facts on the ground make evident that intermarriage between Jews and Arabs in Israel is a dangerous idea." He explains that physical abuse is rampant among the Arabs, and empowered Arab wives are few and far between.
"I once was told about a girl from Ramat HaSharon who was dating an Arab boy and considering marriage," says Shtigletz. "Her family had tried to convince her to break it off, but nothing would work. I went to visit her, we spoke, but she seemed distant. Suddenly G-d sent me the idea that I should call an Arab woman to prove my point…
"I asked the Jewish girl where her boyfriend was from, and she said Taibe. I opened the Taibe phonebook and called a number at random… A woman answered. I told her that I was Jewish and that I wanted to ask her a few questions. She agreed. I asked her how old she was and she answered 25. I asked her how many kids she had, she said six… I told her, 'I have my sister on the other line. She is listening to us. She is thinking of marrying her Arab boyfriend. Tell me: should she do this?'
"The woman said, 'Do not let her make this mistake. No way!'"
Shtigletz asked her why she so strongly opposed the match, and the woman responded with a question: "'What, she would like to be beaten?'"
Playing the devil's advocate, Shtigletz replied, "Are there no decent Arabs?" She said no.
"'All Arabs hit! All Arabs hit! They don’t always call what they are doing beating their wives. They say they are just giving us a spanking. But what is a spanking for? Because the coffee wasn't hot enough, or I didn't put in enough sugar, or his friend made him angry - this or that, it's all worth a spanking.'"
The young woman heard her Arab counterpart and promptly broke off her engagement. Lev L'Achim helped her to find a new group of friends, and later a Jewish spouse.
Arab sociologist Dr. Abadi Nasser admits spousal abuse is somewhat commonplace in Arab households. But, he says, unlike in Western society where the abused appeals to the court for protection, Arab couples work out these problems within the extended family.
"The Jewish and Arab cultures are different," Dr. Nasser explains. "In the Jewish culture the people are more connected to the law. So what is the Jewish woman's reaction to being hit by her spouse? She goes to the police. In the Arab or Muslim sector, the women only turn to the police if the violence gets past a certain point."
In his essay entitled "Violence Directed at Women in the Socio-Cultural Context of Arab Society" (Being Different in Israel: Ethnicity, Gender and Therapy, University of Tel Aviv, 1999), Mohamed Hajj Yechi makes a similar point:
"…A Jewish woman from a Western background who uses the law to evict her abusive husband from the home… is likely to be received with sympathy and support by her community, family and friends. On the other hand, an Arab woman who makes use of the law in a similar way is likely to face excommunication by her community, and will be blamed for undermining the stability and solidity of her family."
The notion of turning to one's family for help in times of marital crisis is an even greater problem for the Jewish woman married to an Arab. What Shtigletz explained, Dr. Nasser verified:
"In a mixed marriage, the Jewish woman has cut off her connection with her extended family and she has no way to return to it. She is ready to take the beatings because she has nowhere to turn… If you are the Jewish spouse of an Arab you know that if you go to the police you have nowhere to return to. Your family won't take you… The Arab knows if he is married to a Jewish woman he can beat her because she has nowhere to turn… The percentage of violence in mixed marriages is higher even than it is in Arab-Arab relationships."
But that is not all. During his doctoral studies at the University of Tel Aviv under Professor Yochanan Peres, Ph.D., Nasser learned that the obstacles encountered by a Jewish-Arab couple are great and the probability that a marriage of this nature will last is unlikely. He said that at the time of his research (1991), more than 70% of mixed marriages in Israel ended in divorce.
Dr. Nasser divides the conflicts that arise for the parents and children of mixed marriages into three categories: naming children, schooling, and serving in the army. He says the name given to a child of a mixed marriage will affect the rest of his life. If the child is given an Arab name, it is a sign that the mother wants the child to live like an Arab or Muslim. Clearly, a child with a Jewish name won’t be accepted by his Arab community; most mixed couples move to Arab villages after getting married. The only solution is to give the child a name that is acceptable on both sides, explains Nasser, but this is a short-term resolution:
"When they give a name that is acceptable on both sides, this is to say that they are not at peace with their identity. They have not yet decided [whether] to raise the child as a Jew or as an Arab… The child will be teased in school for having a Jewish mother and he will turn from his Jewish identity."
When the child enrolls in school, the conflict of what type of education to provide the child arises. Living in an Arab village, the children will be schooled like the rest of the Arab children there. He will learn Arabic and Arab traditions, and he will celebrate Muslim holidays. But, because he will always know in the back of his head that he is different, he will rebel. For a glaring example, Nasser claims the number of children from mixed families involved in attacks (rock-throwing, etc.) against the Israeli Defense Forces during the last intifada (roughly 1987-1992), was greater than those from pure Arab families. "They wanted to prove they were more Arabic than their friends," Nasser explains. "They wanted to show that they were Arabs despite their Jewish mothers. They wanted to be accepted, and so they threw more stones than the average Arab."
The next obstacle occurs when the child turns 18 and receives his draft letter to the Israeli Army. Here begins a major conflict. By Israeli law, he is Jewish, in the likely event that his mother maintained her Jewish identity in the Ministry of the Interior. On the other hand, Islam recognizes patrilineal descent, thus that by Islamic law he is a Muslim.
"The boy is in a state of conflict," Nasser says. "If he doesn't go to the army, he is defecting and the IDF will find him. If he chooses to enlist, he is defending the Jewish nation and he will have no home to return to. He will be going against everything he grew up with – all the anti-Israel rhetoric, his friends, etc. ... Most of these children choose not to go [to the army]."
Because these children suffer from the stress of their parents' decision to intermarry, close to 100% of them choose not to do so themselves. They marry Muslim women, have Muslim children, and a generation of Israel is lost.
The Jewish wives must remain in the village if they want to see their children, and they suffer – terribly. This is what Shtigletz and his partners at Lev L'Achim are trying to avoid through their education and prevention projects. However, there are many women whose predicaments they learn about only after it is too late, and many others that have been trapped for years and are only now appealing for help. Rescuing the suffocating souls of Am Yisrael is the second component of Shtigletz's job.
In 1998, Lev L’Achim received over 900 distress calls from Jewish women who were experiencing brutal and systematic abuse at the hands of their Arab husbands. This number is continually growing, Shtigletz says, despite the ongoing anti-Jewish violence. Shtigletz, and other dedicated members of this division of Lev L’Achim, launch clandestine missions to rescue women trapped in their husbands’ Arab villages.
Despite risking their lives, the success stories are plentiful and many a Lev L'Achim legend deals with these missions.
There is the story of a poor girl, Lettie, who was living in Haifa when she fell in love with a well-dressed Arab named Mahar. An informer on Palestinian activities for the Israeli army - at the time he was the #3 man on Hamas’ most wanted list - Mahar was above the law, and beat his wife regularly without fear of the authorities. When he came home one day with a second wife who despised her, Lettie knew it was time to escape. Her main concern was how to get out with her two daughters.
She sent a secret message to a friend, who brought the case to the attention of Shtigletz. The rabbi arrived on the block to inspect the situation, and casually asked a man walking down the street which house belonged to Mahar.
Unfortunately - or not - Shtigletz had approached none other than Mahar himself. The Arab stealthily followed behind as Shtigletz checked out the house. Confident that Lettie was the only one at home, he boldly knocked on the front door.
A moment later he was inside, had already confirmed Lettie’s story and was outlining a plan for escape. Suddenly he turned around to discover that Mahar had entered the house behind him and had been listening as he spoke with Lettie.
The hulking Mahar, who worked unloading ships, towered over the diminutive Shtigletz. From behind his back the Arab drew two long knives, their razor sharp blades poised to strike.
“I'll kill both of you right now!” the Arab growled. “How dare you plot to steal my children from me?”
“I suppose your new wife will be very happy to hear that she now has to take care of them,” Shtigletz calmly replied. “I’m sure she will treat your Jewish daughters like princesses,” he added for good measure.
Mahar slowly put down his knives, his brow furrowed in consternation. “What are you suggesting?” he asked in a more subdued tone of voice.
“I’m simply suggesting that you clean your hands of the whole mess,” Shtigletz declared. “Give us a few moments and Lettie and her girls will be gone. No need to worry about supporting them. No need to deal with the friction that is making your new wife so upset.”
“What about my girls?” Mahar persisted. “I won’t have them exposed to the decadence of Israeli society!”
“No problem,” Shtigletz assured him. “They will be placed in a religious school with separate classes for boys and girls.”
Mahar smiled broadly at this, and before long Lettie was throwing all her possessions in boxes.
“These boxes are too heavy for my bad back,” Shtigletz informed her, loud enough for Mahar to hear. Sure enough, the burly longshoreman was soon making several round trips from his house to Shtigletz’s car, unloading the boxes in accordance with Shtigletz's directions. The last box was particularly heavy, and Mahar’s new wife appeared from the background to heft it together with him. With a guarantee that he would be allowed unlimited visiting rights to his girls, the Arab waved goodbye to his Jewish wife and daughters as they sped away with Shtigletz.
Needless to say, they left no trail behind, and Lettie and her girls have not heard from Mahar since.
Once liberated, young women like Lettie are generally brought to Lev L'Achim's unmarked hostel, where a security camera monitors the electrically locked door, and where they undergo psychological treatment and counseling. There were 32 women and 42 children at the hostel between 2003 and 2004.
Still, the transition from living in an Arab village to living in the hostel is not an easy one. Hostel director Chaya Stashevsky says the women are in constant conflict. Sometimes the woman thinks she still harbors affection for her former Arab husband, having lived with him for years and even sharing children with him.
“We don’t have everything at the hostel. We give a lot of love, but our love is temporary, and the anxiety of what awaits a woman when she will go out of this shelter sometimes paralyzes her psychologically,” Stashevsky explains.
Esther, for example, escaped from her Arab husband two months ago. An immigrant from the former Soviet Union, she met her Arab husband of seven years while working in a factory just one year after moving to Israel. She says while they were dating he treated her like a queen, and despite the warnings from her parents and friends she saw nothing wrong in their relationship. But it was all a guise…
The beatings, abuse and humiliation she was forced to undergo are detailed here.
Suffice it to say that after years of physical abuse, she finally turned to Lev L'Achim, which came to her rescue and turned her life around – though she is far from optimistic about the future.
A round of interviews in the hostel offers more gruesome tales. Women tell of being pushed down flights of stairs, watching their Arab sisters-in-law being burned to death and having all their teeth knocked out by a rake. The sadness is inherent, the pain intense. But in the end there is a silver lining.
Arielle came to the hostel just before Passover last year. In a meeting with three leading rabbinical authorities from America who had come to examine the workings of Lev L'Achim last spring, she tearfully pours her heart out:
“I was married to an Arab man for 12 years, and every day I plotted how to escape. I wanted to leave, but I was scared to leave. I was afraid of what he would do to me or to my children if we left him. I lived in fear all of my married life.”
Today, Arielle says she is on the path to life. “I am so happy to be out. The minute I was able to leave, it was like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders. If only I had done it earlier.”
There is no quick fix. Counseling and self-esteem building are huge components of the process. But those women who are motivated and determined to survive will do so. It is a constant fight, but a worthwhile one.
Are Arab women who intermarry in a similar situation? Dr. Nasser says as of 1991, only 18 Arab women had married Jewish men since the founding of the State. "Why? Because she will be hunted down and killed by her family. The family would rather have her dead than married to a Jew."
Lev L'Achim, on the other hand, would rather have the girl safe than married to an Arab:
"I don’t think the girl understood when she got involved in this situation what hell it would be. What would you do if your daughter was in this situation? You would save her. These are our brethren. A Jewish woman is our sister. Her children are Jewish. Any Jewish woman who wants to restart her life, to return to Judaism, can rest assured that Lev L’Achim is with her all the way."
Lev L'Achim is an outreach organization working to bring the lost souls of Israel back to their roots.
Mayaan Jaffe runs Jaffe Reporting and PR.