How unusual are interfaith marriages in Israel?

Newly weds Maral Malka and Mahmoud Mansour

Street protests marred a wedding between a Muslim and a Jew in Israel this week, but interfaith marriage is on the rise

LAST UPDATED AT 15:26 ON Wed 20 Aug 2014

On Sunday, a wedding between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman was picketed by 200 far-right protesters, four of whom were arrested when they tried to break through a police line to disrupt the ceremony. The fracas took place against a backdrop of some of the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza since 2000, and led to a wave of criticism from commentators around the world, many of whom were outraged at the treatment of the young couple. But interfaith marriages, and the pressures that come with them, are far more common in Israel than many outsiders might think.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, interfaith marriages now account for one in ten unions in Israel, "with the non-Jewish partner often subjected to second-class treatment by the state". In spite of this, interfaith marriages in the country are still on the rise, the paper says.

One of the reasons for this is that the state not only classifies weddings between members of different religions as interfaith, but also those between a religious and non-religious partner.

The definition of non-religious people in Israel is broad. More than 320,000 immigrants who have arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s are classed as non-religious, as are many who qualify as Jewish according to the Law of Return – which allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to become an Israeli citizen – but do not qualify as Jewish according to the strict religious law (the halakha).

The most recent data on marriages in Israel comes from a report published by the Israeli Knesset six years ago, which found that there were 92,612 mixed married couples in Israel in 2008.

Such interfaith marriages, and especially those that take place between Jews and Muslims, are actively opposed by some within the extreme Orthodox community. The marriage at the weekend between Maral Malka, 23, and Mahmoud Mansour, 26, was picketed largely by "young Jewish men wearing black shirts," the International Business Times reports, who chanted anti-Arab slogans declaring Malka a "traitor against the Jewish state".

Other couples face different kinds of discrimination. Haaretz says that Thomas Lebreton, a Frenchman who married an Israeli woman named Rona Shulman, did not qualify for a state-issued gas mask due to the fact that he is not an Israeli citizen. Partnerships where one spouse is not Israeli are often "forced to undergo an arduous process and wait years to receive citizenship, during which time they are not eligible for many of the benefits and privileges conferred on Israeli citizens," Haaretz reports.

In spite of the pressures, many religiously mixed couples, such as Malka and Mansour, remain determined to marry in Israel. "We wanted to have a great wedding, one that no one has ever had," Mansour was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. "No one can break us." · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.