By: Chaya Steinman
We have all heard the appalling statistics about intermarriage in the United States, about the thousands of Jews who are swept away each year by the raging currents of assimilation. Their children are lost neshamot (souls), who will never know of their Jewish heritage, or, even worse, they are not Jewish at all, a generation of Jews eradicated. We cry for our brethren and hope they return, and we wonder if perhaps the alarming intermarriage rate is the inevitable result of living as such a small minority in America.
Yet across the ocean, in the holy land of Israel, where Jews comprise over 76 percent of the population, yeshivas and Torah institutions fill the country and even the most secular citizens have some inkling of Jewish identity, there is an even more shocking intermarriage phenomenon taking place: Jewish women marrying Arab men. The concept is more than unsettling. How could “benot Yisrael” marry “beneh Yishmael,”, their ancient nemesis? Or, for the hilonim (secular Israelis), the more appropriate question is, how can Israelis marry Arabs, members of the nation that continually threatens the existence of a Jewish presence in Israel?
On the surface, a liberal thinker might not be offended in the slightest by these interfaith unions; after all, love does not discriminate. And, moreover, these “progressive” nuptials perhaps represent hope for peaceful Palestinian-Israeli coexistence. However, delving deeper into the stories of these marriages reveals a darker, more disturbing side. The Arab-Israeli home is, almost without exception, far from harmonious. It is characterized by abuse and misery, and offers no easy way out.
As Jews, we are instinctively moved when we hear of the suffering of our people. But an emotional response does not suffice to alleviate the grief. A tragedy of this magnitude should not be just a wake-up call, but a call to action. We must ask ourselves how we can save the unfortunate Jewish women and children trapped in Arab villages, and, perhaps even more importantly, we must find a way to prevent this situation of entrapment and torment.
The Story: Seduction, Abduction, and Abuse
Unfortunately for the 20,000 or so Jewish women dating Arab men and the 3,500 who are already married to one and living in an Arab village, the story is often essentially the same. The girl is usually secular, oftentimes an immigrant, living in a mixed Arab-Jewish area toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. (Girls from wealthier, better-educated communities and more traditional homes are not immune to the problem, though it occurs more commonly among the lower classes.). The family life is problematic; she is not receiving love, consideration and respect at home. Internally, she lacks Jewish pride and self-esteem, and, more often than not, her community lacks strong spiritual leadership and unity.
The process begins as an innocent flirtation, perhaps with an Arab working locally, and she enjoys the attention. He speaks to her in fluent Hebrew, dresses in the most modern styles, and seems not so different from any other Israeli guy. In fact, in many cases she is unaware that he is Arab, as he uses a Jewish pseudonym to conceal his true identity. He showers her with gifts and treats her like a queen. He woos her with compliments and wins her affection. A Jewish girl rescued from an Arab village gave the following description of this process of subtle seduction:
“A woman can be vulnerable. She craves compliments and validation, especially if she is insecure and comes from a difficult family situation. They know it and take advantage. So she is on the street and he draws her attention. At first she might ignore him, but she’s still flattered. The next time she sees him he starts to talk to her, and eventually, she agrees to go out with him. She might be ashamed that he is an Arab, but then she gets swept away by all his compliments — ‘You are my heart, my eyes, my life; I’ll be here whenever you need me…’ She feels, ‘I’m everything to him.’ If she rejects him, he acts devastated; he cries, says he can’t function, that he’ll kill himself, so she has mercy; oh, he cares about me so much, I’ll go back to him. It always starts this way.[i]”
And thus the Arab man succeeds in establishing a relationship with a vulnerable Jewish girl desperate for love. From here it is not long before he convinces her to marry him, convert to Islam and move to his Arab village.
Once she is married, her fairytale romance turns nightmarish. The pleasantries of the courtship, the gifts and the compliments all abruptly end and she is forced into the role of his subservient slave. The Koran permits, even encourages, spousal abuse:
“The Koran bestows on man the right to straighten her out by way of punishment and beating provided he does not break her bones nor shed blood. Many a wife belongs to this querulous type and requires this sort of punishment to bring her to her senses! (Abdul-latif Mushtahiri)[ii].”
Normally, when an Arab husband crosses the line and the abuse reaches levels considered inappropriate according to their village standards, the wife’s family steps in and intervenes. In his article, “Violence Directed at Women in the Socio-Cultural Context of Arab Society,”, Mohammed Hajj Yechi points out that using the law and police system to correct domestic violence is heavily frowned upon. In fact, a woman who alerts the external authorities can expect excommunication for “undermining the stability and solidity of her family.” But for this Jewish lady, separated from her family, her culture and her life, the situation is even worse. She is left to suffer the abuse alone, with no one to turn to for help. Arab sociologist Dr. Abadi Nasser explains, “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.”
In addition to violence, the Koran permits a man to marry up to four wives, and this practice is widespread among Arabs even today. With his one Jewish wife, the Arab man will surely take a second, “proper” Arab wife. As one would expect, tensions run high between the Arab and Jewish wives. The Jewish woman is subject not only to beatings from her husband, but also to vehement hatred from the second Arab wife who lives alongside her.
And then, as though all this is not sad enough, children inevitably enter the picture. These innocent Jewish neshamot are being raised as Arabs, “go to Arab schools, speak Arabic, and celebrate Muslim holidays”.[iii] Halachically, these children are Jewish, but according to Islam’s rule of patrilineal descent they are Islamic. In practice, they generally do not fit in anywhere. Having a Jewish mother is fodder for teasing and verbal abuse by other Arab children. Oftentimes these children of mixed marriages harbor deep resentment towards their Jewish mother and rebel against her. In fact, the internal identity struggle raging inside these children seems to manifest as hatred towards all Jews. According to Dr. Nasser, “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.”
Once the woman is entrenched in the Arab lifestyle, wearing Arabic clothes, speaking the language and raising children in an Arab village, the idea of fleeing from her misery would seem to require nothing short of a miracle. In the event of a divorce, according to Islamic law, the children remain with the father. Therefore, if the Jewish mother wishes to see her children, she must stay in the Arab village with her husband. Moreover, many of these Jewish women fear that if they fled, their husbands would find them and their children and force them to return. One woman recounts:
“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.[iv]”
And, even if she does leave, in many cases her Jewish family wants nothing to do with her and she has no family to escape to. In short, it seems that these Jewish women who end up in this unfortunate situation must live out their years in anguish, never to escape the beatings and abuse.
A Way Out?
Fortunately for these trapped women, help is available. There are organizations tackling this problem dedicated to performing the missva of pidyon shevuyim (redeeming Jewish captives). The extreme ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews) that motivates them is succinctly described by one member of these groups who wishes to remain anonymous, as follows: “The Jewish soul is a precious, all-too-rare resource, and we are not prepared to give up on even a single one. That’s why we fight with such intensity.”Extracting these women, and, in many instances, their children, requires careful planning, a staff of trained rescuers, and an abundance of siyata dishmaya (Heavenly assistance). The rescuers, who display incredible mesirut nefesh (selfless devotion) to save Jewish women, work as volunteers, and many had formerly served in elite IDF units. One volunteer rescuer explains the planning process:
“I’ve sat with our staff and pored over updated maps of the area. We have to be able to get in and out of the village, together with a frightened Jewish woman who often has a child or two. We’ve got to know all the routes in and out of the village and be prepared for all eventualities. Only when we have all the answers do we embark on our mission.[v]”
Understanding that success comes only with Hashem’s help, the rescue team of Yad L’Achim, one of these prominent organizations, recites Tehillim 121 before risking their lives to save a fellow Jew. Once the Jewish woman and children are safely removed from the Arab village, they are offered lodging, supportive social workers and counseling in order to advance the rehabilitation process as much as possible.
Nipping it in the Bud
In hearing about these awful situations, we tend to feel hopeless. After all, what can we possibly do to stop the seduction and abuse of Jewish women? But for one local Jewish leader, one thing was clear – inaction was not an option.
After learning about the tragic situation of these Jewish girls in Israel, Rabbi David Cohen of The Sephardic Renaissance and the Jewish Youth Renaissance Center in Brooklyn decided he must confront the problem, but he didn’t know where to start. Even though he had at his disposal over 70 volunteers–ready to act– for an entire year, he grappled with the issue internally, analyzing the problem from different perspectives to come up with a strategy. Then, late one night, on a visit to Beitar Illit, he met a young man and they struck up a conversation. The young man informed him of the dire situation in a nearby development complex called Daf Yomi, where a group of families were struggling in many respects. The young man and his friends were looking for a way out of their situation along with many of the parents who searched for a more productive system in educating their children. Many of the families were run by a single parent and the children were not receiving proper supervision. Moreover, there was no strong religious leadership in the community.
Rabbi Cohen saw this conversation as a clear act of hashgacha peratit (divine providence), which eventually led to the initiation of the Neighborhood Renewal Project. Starting with just eight boys, under the efficient guidance and dedication of Rabbi Amram Eisen, Cohen instituted a program in which they received a stipend for learning Gemara and studying a vocation. As a bonus incentive, they will be awarded driving lessons upon succeeding in the learning program. When the mothers of the Daf Yomi neighborhood observed the benefits of the classes for their sons, they requested shiurim (lessons in Judaism) and other disciplines for themselves. Mrs. Orly Douieb has been assigned to be in charge of the ladies department – giving classes and discussing their concerns and needs, keeping on the pulse of how The Neighborhood Renewal Project, or the newly government recognized Hit’hadshoot (Renewal) program can be of help. Soon thereafter, the fathers jumped on board and began to attend Torah classes, too. And then, finally, the girls became interested in the program, as well, under the strong leadership of Ms. Hodaya Douieb and her crew of over twenty dedicated volunteers, from all over Beitar Ilit. Cohen provided them with a program that offers a warm meal for the children, group activities and madrichot (counselors) that work with each girl on an individual basis. This program not only fills the void that these girls may have, but is also taking them off of the streets where they used to roam unsupervised. The beauty of Rabbi Cohen’s approach is that it acts as a preventative measure for these tragic intermarriages, while at the same time rejuvenating a community.
Within a matter of months, the Daf Yomi neighborhood experienced an amazing transformation. The original eight young men who began the program are on their way to becoming true beneh Torah, and the rest of the community is receiving the physical and spiritual sustenance that had been sorely lacking.
“The boys are busy,” Rabbi Cohen explained “and that keeps them out of trouble. With weekly tests and great incentives the boys one hour learning session has turned into four and they have already finished a perek (chapter) in Masechet Ta’anit. The siyum was celebrated with a festive barbeque and words of Torah from each of the boys”
A mother of one of the boys in the program is very ill. One day in shul she requested of everyone to listen to her and she tearfully announced, “If I must go to the next stage, I now can do so calmly knowing that my son has become a ben Torah.”
The project has also initiated special job and skills training programs to enable these young adults to move on to a more self-sufficient life style.
In addressing the problem of spiritual leadership, Rabbi Cohen appointed Rabbi Avraham Moshe, a noted speaker in Arachim (world renown Outreach Program) as the community Rav. Rabbi Cohen’s next step in the renewal project is to hire 10-15 young rabbis to work further with the young boys, providing not only guidance and teachers, but also a respectable livelihood for the rabbis. It’s truly a holistic approach – dealing with the entire family, the entire neighborhood. “And this is just the beginning,” Rabbi Cohen notes.
The success of Daf Yomi is incredible. Within the first three nights of a new Matmedeem Program that began on Hanukah, the number of boys attending grew by five times the first day’s attendance. This daily program is being led by Rabbi Evyatar Hazan. Upon seeing the enormous success of the Matmedeem Program, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Beitar Ilit Rabbi Yaakov Toufik AviEzri has thanked Hit’hadshoot for the past performances of this Neighborhood Renewal Programin Daf Yomi and requested the same treatment for the adjacent community, Kaf Hahayim. Rabbi Cohen has plans to expand the project to help them, as well. He has received calls from neighborhoods all over Israel that want to institute the same program.
A task force of young and dynamic leaders, in Brooklyn, who are concerned about the situation in Israel is being formed in order to raise serious funding for this project. These members are the crème de la crème with representation from many of the community synagogues.
Rabbi Cohen received warm blessings for the project from Maran Hacham Ovadia Yosef shelita, Harav Haim Kanievsky shelita, and Rabbi Meir Mazuz shelita, Rosh Yeshiva of Kisse Rahamim. “These girls are marrying out not out of personal choice but due to hunger, lack of Torah education, and threats from the Arab boys to the girls and their families” Rabbi Cohen explained. “By reforming the entire neighborhood with leadership and community organizations, the families will know and help one another – feeling a sense of belonging. This in turn will help countless young Jewish girls come back to their roots and strengthen their Jewish pride so that they can maintain the Jewish continuity for future generations. We cannot afford to be complacent. This issue must be dealt with by the entire Jewish community to help save these girls from being lost to our Nation forever.” As Professor Ephraim Hazan from Bar Ilan University put it “the Hit’hadshoot activities in Israel are an idea whose time has come.”
Tax deductable donations can be made out to Jewish Youth Renaissance Center (501C3) and mailed to 825-829 East 15th Street, Brooklyn NY, 11230. For more information contact Rabbi Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (718) 434-1757.
[i] Friedman, Andrew. “Saved on Yom Kippur.” Yad L’Achim 22 Nov. 2009.
[ii] You Ask and Islam Answers, page 94.
[iii] Yad L’Achim.
[iv] Jaffe, Mayaan, “When Jewish Women Marry Arab Men: Third in a Series,” Arutz Sheva, Dec. 2004. Israeli National News. Nov..22, 2009.
[v] “Daring Rescues,” Yad L’Achim, Nov. 22, 2009 .