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Breaking taboos: Jewish-Arab couples in Israel

This article is adapted from The Branch, a monthly podcast exploring individual relationships between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. The Branch is produced by Hadassah and created by Dina Kraft, a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Sign up here to be notified when new episodes are published.

Michal Baranes says her mother cried for two days after she told her she was in love with a young man who was not Jewish like her, but Muslim and from an Arab village in the foothills of Jerusalem.

Mixed romantic relationships are a taboo most Israelis and Palestinians, Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel seem to agree upon: it’s a line not to be crossed.

Listen to The Branch Ep. 18: Love Wins

When I set out to do this episode on these so-called “mixed couples,” I knew they were rare. In Israel the term is used to refer to any relationship that crosses religious or ethnic boundaries: Jews and Muslims, Jews and Christians, Muslims and Christians—not to mention smaller, more minority religions. Then, there is the additional layer of citizenship, which makes life far more difficult for an Israeli married to a Palestinian.

Still, I thought it would be easy enough to find a couple to interview. Yet almost every lead I followed ended with the same polite, but firm decision to decline. Some had taken several years after they were married to even tell their own parents. Baranes and Yakub Barhum, her partner of 24 years, had also been initially reluctant to be interviewed. It’s exhausting being a curiosity, inherently interesting because your choice of a life partner they told me. People always want to know, Baranes said: “Who is that person who crossed the line?”

Because I also wanted to give voice to those couples not ready to be public about their relationships and to the range of experiences people have, this episode also features a Jewish Israeli woman married to a Muslim Palestinian man who only spoke to me on the condition I did not use her real name or her own voice (She is referred to as Karen in the episode), and the daughter of a Jewish-Muslim Israeli couple named Layla Habashi.

Karen explained why, in part, the scrutiny is not particularly welcome. “When people hear Israeli, Palestinian (couple) they put a lot on it. And at the end of the day, any relationship is about two people. That’s the most important thing about a relationship. But I think because the context is so polarized and harsh, people want to put their own aspirations or dissatisfaction onto a relationship between two people.”

Today Baranes and Barhum live in Ein Rafa, the pastoral village where Yakub grew up and where most of his family still lives. When she moved in she was the only Jew living there. Their home is surrounded by lemon trees and strawberry bushes, a vegetable and herb garden where the scent of sage and lemongrass mix. The fruit trees and the garden supplies much of the produce for the restaurant they run together called Majda. The food is reflection of their own fusion: a mix of Palestinian recipes from his family and Libyan and Iraqi dishes from her own. It has drawn the attention of famous chefs including Yotam Ottolenghi, author of the influential Jerusalem cookbook. Anthony Bourdain featured Majda on his CNN show, “Parts Unknown” in 2013.

The couple never officially married, in part because Israel does not recognize inter-religious marriage. Couples from different religions must marry abroad if they are going to have their unions recognized. But Baranes’ mother has long accepted their relationship. Barhum’s family did too after also initially balking at the idea.

“It’s never easy. For parents it’s always hard for them,” Barhum said.

Before they even embarked on a romance, both Barnea and Barhum hesitated. They feared the impact on their families. People of many faiths and ethnicities face similar concerns. Mixed marriage brings up fears of loss: of traditions, of community, and of continuity. And entering such relationships can be seen as a betrayal to one’s family and heritage.

Barhum explained how the dynamic changed for his parents. “After the kids came, their grandchildren, everything looked totally different. they accepted them. The very day we returned home from the hospital my mother hugged and kissed Adam (their first born) and gave her blessing. That was the most important thing. And the children love both sides so much.”


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