Think Again: Can we talk honestly?

Just because the state is in many respects constrained from acting does not mean that the public, too, must hide its collective head in the sand to avoid confronting this negative phenomenon.

couple 311 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
couple 311
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
A few months back, a group of national religious rebbetzins set off one of those two-day media storms for which Israel is famous when they issued a public call for Jewish girls not to socialize with Arabs. Charges of racism immediately poured down on their heads. The issue has come to the fore once more with allegations that at least one store in a national chain forced Arab workers to sign an agreement not to fraternize with female Jewish employees.
That earlier storm was not without heavy doses of hypocrisy. Some of the Arab spokesmen who denounced the rebbetzins’ letter as proof of the endemic racism of Israeli society would kill their own daughters if they were dating a Jew.
The rebbetzins were not addressing themselves to women working in hi-tech and suggesting that they refuse to work on projects with an Arab graduate of the Technion or avoid normal collegial relations with Arab co-workers. They were talking about teenage Jewish girls, often very young teenagers, becoming “involved” with Arab men. How many Jewish Israelis, if they are being honest with themselves, would really feel indifferent to their own daughters’ involvement in such relationships? If they were 12?
By now, we have all seen enough videos of Jewish women rescued by Yad L’Achim from Arab villages – some even from the Gaza Strip – to know that the story can turn out very badly. Some of us have even visited hostels for the women thus rescued and their children and heard their stories. I spent the afternoon of 17 Tamuz watching videos of Jewish girls describing their relationships with Arab men at the offices of the Learn and Live organization, a fitting way to spend the fast.
When they were dating, their Arab boyfriends could not shower them with enough gifts, could not stop telling them how much they loved them. Once married, they found themselves imprisoned, cut off from their families, watched constantly by their husbands and his family members, who threatened them – quite credibly – that they would kill them if they tried to escape. Often they were treated as little more than chattels.
They are viewed as slatterns by the women of the village, and their children are never allowed to forget their Jewish origins. Often those children become the most vehement Jew haters, as a means of overcoming the stigma of their origins. When fighting breaks out between Israel and the Palestinians, these women may be beaten by their husbands, even attacked with an axe, as scapegoats for the Jewish people.
We are not talking about a small phenomenon. The Interior Ministry estimates that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 children of Jewish mothers and Arab fathers in Israel. And that number does not include those living in the Gaza Strip or the Palestinian Authority, and may not include those whose mothers converted to Islam when they married. (When the women convert, their chances of keeping their children, even if they manage to escape, are reduced because all divorce proceedings are governed by Islamic law.) A recent Jerusalem Post article on the situation in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood spoke of 60 Jewish girls who have disappeared into Arab villages over the last 10 years, most never to be heard from again.
And the problem is growing. Tzachi Laloosh, who runs the Learn and Live youth centers in Safed, told me that when he opened the centers four years ago, he was working with seven Jewish girls in ongoing relationships with Arabs. Today he is working with 63 such girls, and Learn and Live has 600 such files for all its centers in the North. Two counselors for another haredi organization that runs a hot line for girls in relationships with Arabs told me a year ago that they receive between 150 and 250 referrals a month, despite minimal advertising and a focus primarily on the religious community.
The phenomenon of Jewish girls dating Arab boys is increasingly visible in every place where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity – Acre, Safed, Haifa, Beersheba – and in Jerusalem neighborhoods like Pisgat Ze’ev and Pat. The intersection of Bar-Ilan and Shmuel Hanavi streets, better known for Shabbat confrontations, is a popular meeting place late on Friday nights for Jewish teenagers and Arabs from nearby villages. Sometimes the Arabs pretend to be Jewish – wearing kippot, tzitzit, even reciting blessings before eating – but mostly they do not bother with such initial deceptions.
A liberal, democratic state such as Israel cannot make distinctions between citizens based on religion or ethnic identity. Thus, the Israeli education system will not be warning students of the potential danger of relationships with Arabs or bringing survivors of such relationships to speak to the girls about their experiences. It is not the fault of young Arab men that there are so many Jewish girls raised in dysfunctional or abusive homes, or who crave male attention as they mature because they do not receive proper reinforcement from their own fathers. Nor are the young Arab men seeking anything different than their Jewish male contemporaries. They just happen, in many cases, to be more successful Lotharios – more patient, freer with gifts and compliments, better able to spot girls who are vulnerable. And the results of the relationship, if it ends in marriage, are more difficult to reverse when things go badly.
But there are two areas where the state has abdicated responsibility. The first is its general reluctance to help Jewish women trapped in Arab villages to leave, even where there is evidence that they are being held against their will. It has fallen almost completely to organizations like Yad L’Achim to mount expensive and dangerous operations to do so. And the second is in its reluctance to enforce laws against statutory rape in cases where the Jewish girls are young teenagers. The halachic rule is that the seduction of a minor is considered rape because she cannot give consent, and the same presumption is embodied in the statutory rape law.
Just because the state is in many respects constrained from acting does not mean that the public, too, must hide its collective head in the sand to avoid confronting this negative phenomenon. Citizens of Norway are entitled to know that a European woman is six times as likely to be raped by a man of non-European origin as one of European origin. Citizens of Malmo, Sweden’s thirdlargest city, which is heading toward a majority-Muslim population, have a right to know why the rate of robberies in the city is nine times that of Copenhagen, and to ask what is being done about the packs of Muslim teenagers who terrorize non-Muslim teenagers.
Nor are we freed from responsibility to act just because the state cannot. Organizations like Learn and Live or Yad L’Achim, which have established centers for at-risk youth and work with girls already involved with Arab men, deserve our support. An ounce of prevention at an early stage of a relationship can prevent the need for a costly rescue operation years down the line.
Long and arduous efforts are required to prevent Jewish girls from being lost for good. A talk with a woman who’s been there and back is no more likely to convince the miniskirted 13-year-old, her head turned by a new cell phone or a ride in a fancy car with a powerful boom box, than pictures of the lungs of long-time smokers are to convince teenage smokers to give up the habit. She always knows better that “her Arab” would never treat her like that.
In many cases, a lot of bruises went into creating the chutzpadik young girl standing there today – dropping out of school, an impoverished background and constant feelings of material deprivation, low self-esteem due to strained familial relationships. But with patience, lots of love, and the help she needs to aspire to something more, those bruises can be healed and she can be saved from relationships that too often spell self-destruction.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.