Israel may not be the most hospitable environment for young Arab-Jewish couples, but these duos are resolutely going against the grain this Valentine’s Day.
Michal met Ahmed on a warm February day in Jaffa nearly five years ago. He was working at a puzzle-store and Michal thought he was cute.
“We met for coffee soon after that and we ended up really hitting it off,” she said, “and we thought, lets continue this – so we did.”
Arab and Jewish mixed couples tend to encounter difficulties in Israel. But Michal, 23, who works at a pro-peace NGO, and Ahmed, 25, an engineering student at the Technion in Haifa, are a young success story.
They have requested exclusion of their last names for privacy.
On Valentine’s Day, the widely practiced celebration of love, the two will spend their time just like any busy couple juggling work, school and love.
“For tonight, we will probably just study, maybe drink some beer and eat some chocolate,” Michal said. “We’ve never been a couple that does flowers and all that stuff,” said Ahmed.
Mixed marriages are rare in the Jewish state and are opposed by many in the country in both Jewish and Arab communities.
For mixed couples to cement their relationship with marriage, they must travel abroad or convert, as interfaith marriages are prohibited both by the Chief Rabbinate and the Sharia courts.
According to Michal, a supportive family – on both sides – has helped the couple maintain their relationship. “My mom comes from a liberal rabbi background and studied at an interfaith seminary, but I don’t think [interfaith relationships] ever hit her quite so close to home,” she said. She added that her father is supportive but more cautious. “Dad said, ‘I support you and I love you,’ but asked questions like ‘How will you raise your kids? Will they be raised Jewish?’” By creating what they call a “bubble,” Michal and Ahmed have been able to maintain a semblance of normality in their relationship. “We’ve done a really good job of creating a nice bubble for ourselves. Where we live, our friends, our workspaces – they are all really accepting.”
Their bubble was shattered once early on in their relationship, when Michal was living with eight other Jewish women while doing her National Service in Jaffa, working at an intercultural nursery school. “They flat out said ‘don’t bring your Arab boyfriend here,’” remarked Michal.
“That is just a part of the life here,” Ahmed said about the incident. “They only knew the Arabs that they see on the news.”
Last year, the novel Borderlife
about an Israeli-Palestinian love story was removed from the national high school curriculum by the Education Ministry, forcing the issue of mixed relationships to the forefront of Israeli consciousness.
“Intimate relations, and certainly the option of institutionalizing them by marriage and starting a family... between Jews and non-Jews, are perceived by large segments of society as a threat to separate identity,” said Dalia Fenig, the acting chair of the pedagogic secretariat at the time of the book’s removal.
Extreme-right groups like Lehava, led by Benzion Gopstein, actively campaign against mixed marriages and are known to show up and protest at Jewish-Arab weddings.
According to Itamar Radai, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center and academic director of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, the number of Jewish-Arab marriages is not increasing, and the phenomenon remains at the margins of largely ethnicity-based relationships. “Generally, it is a taboo in the society. There are a low number of cases each year, usually Jewish females to Muslim males,” Radai said.
Mahdi, a 17-year-old from the Arab town Jadeidi-Makr in northern Israel, has been dating a Jewish-Israeli for the past seven months. They also have no special plans for Valentine’s Day in particular, aside from their usual once-a-week get together.
Mahdi is in a peculiar situation. Along with navigating the usual minefield of teenage youth, he is also a vocal right-wing activist and self-proclaimed Zionist, pitting him against the majority of Israeli-Arabs.
Mahdi said he is ostracized by his community and is hoping to convert to Judaism.
“During the last Eid [al-Fitr holiday] I was hanging out with my girlfriend in the Acre mall and there were many people from my village. And they looked at me – my girlfriend was in her army uniform – like I am a traitor,” Mahdi said.
Yet Mahdi’s relationship is also disapproved by many in the far-right political community that he associates himself with. “When [the far-right activists] knew that I am hanging with a Jewish girlfriend, they didn’t except that. Not because I am Arab, but because it is not accepted in the Torah, and they don’t want her to be a Muslim,” stated Mahdi, who added that he and his girlfriend have been cursed by both “Jewish and Arab extremists.”
Nevertheless, spending their first Valentine’s Day together in a state that sees their relationship as a threat to Jewish continuity, Mahdi is resolute in the future of his relationship. “Love can beat every single problem,” he said.