When Israeli-Arab news anchor Lucy Aharish married Tsahi Halevi, an actor on the international TV hit “Fauda” last month, the level of official resistance to the announcement was striking.

The union received the expected condemnation from right-wing and religious quarters. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the ultra-orthodox Shas party said that intermarriage was immoral since “assimilation is consuming the Jewish people.”

Oren Hazan of the Likud said that Aharish had “seduced a Jewish soul in order to hurt our nation and prevent more Jewish offspring.” The Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home party remarked that Halevi was “one of the lost Jews who had given in to assimilation.”

Negative reaction also crossed over from the right into moderate-to-secular quarters.

Yair Lapid, who according to polls is likely to soon take the helm at Israel’s second-largest political party, the centrist Yesh Atid, condemned criticism of the marriage as “disgraceful.” Yet even he expressed a preference against intermarriage: “There are fewer Jews in the world than there was during the Holocaust — and there is something right in trying to grow.”

Miri Regev, the secular but traditional Minister of Culture and Sport who was brought to tears when the Israeli national anthem was played during her recent visit to Abu Dhabi, made similar comments.

“It is no secret that I oppose mixed marriages. I think we need to uphold our Jewish identity,” she said.

“Having said that, love won. I wish them the best.”

Anyone but an Arab

Jews have traditionally practiced endogamy and thereby preserved their faith throughout the generations. This attitude has been preserved in the Israeli religious establishment. Issues relating to marriage are controlled by the religious community to which couples belong. As a result, Jews, Christians, and Muslims typically marry within their faiths.

While Judaism passes through the mother, Islam passes through the father, putting the two faiths at odds when it comes to which religion the children of a Jewish mother and Muslim father, or vice versa, would adopt.

In order to circumvent religious laws, couples can get married abroad, with their union recognized by the government. However, the preservation of Jewish endogamy remains of paramount importance to ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel.

A quick perusal of the comments section of any Israeli news item on the marriage confirms that condemnation is widespread beyond the political and religious leadership. However, resistance towards intermarriage is more a legacy of the past than a serious problem actually faced by Israeli Jews.

While interfaith marriages are an existential problem for the American Jewish community (as high as 58% according to some sources), in Israel only 10% of marriages are interfaith. In addition, the highly Jewish atmosphere in the country – a Jewish calendar system, public celebrations of holidays, and so forth – means that interfaith children are highly likely to adopt Jewish identity and values.

Secular and more traditional non-orthodox Jews, who together make up two-thirds of the Jewish population, have liberalized their views towards marriage. According to a poll taken this year, the vast majority of secular Jews (81%) are interested in breaking the religious monopoly of the rabbinate over marriage services.

So why the resistance? Fears of intermarriage are compounded by antipathy to Arabs, particularly Muslim Arabs.

Another poll taken in 2014 by the Haaretz and the Dialog company found that a strong majority of secular Israeli Jews would oppose a relative marrying an Arab. Yet only a third of secular Jewish Israelis are opposed to a relative marrying a non-Arab Christian. When all Jewish denominations are analyzed, the distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs remains and the disapproval is even more stark: 72% percent of all Israeli Jews oppose their own relative marrying an Arab.

A case in point is the creation of a thuggish organization named Lehava (flame) in 2005. While the group ostensibly works to prevent intermarriage between Jews and members of any faith, it has an unmistakable anti-Arab message. Its founder Bentzi Gophstein is a noted student and disciple of the rabbi Baruch Kahana, who called Israeli-Arabs a “cancer” and believed they should be eliminated.

Isaeli supporters of the right-wing Organization for Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land (LEHAVA) chant slogans outside the wedding hall where Mahmoud Mansour, an Arab-Israeli, and Morel Malcha, a Jewish-Israeli, were married on August 17, 2014. Photo: Gali Tibbon / AFP
Israeli supporters of the right-wing Organization for Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land (Lehava) outside the wedding hall where Mahmoud Mansour, an Arab-Israeli, and Morel Malcha, a Jew, were married in 2014. Photo: Gali Tibbon / AFP

While the group has published letters against Israelis marrying Christians, they have resorted to violence in order to deter Arab men from dating Jewish women. Members of the group have been prosecuted for posing as attractive Jewish girls on dating sites, and then assaulting Arab youths who showed up to meet them.

Not about demographics

This is not a demographic issue. Only 20% of the population of Israel is Arab, while roughly three-quarters of the population are Jewish. If the entire population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is considered, the numbers are roughly equal. However, most Israelis do not consider the possibility of a one-state solution to be likely. After all, the Israeli government will do anything (including unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories) to avoid it.

The resistance to Jewish-Arab intermarriage reflects a general deepening mistrust towards Arabs in Israeli society. When a house in the Afula neighborhood of Yizrael was sold to an Arab family, a local demonstration was arranged calling to prevent the sale. Flyers were circulated asking for support to prevent “the sale of homes to those who are undesirable in the neighborhood. The Deputy mayor of the city supported the residents and remarked that “the residents of Afula don’t want a mixed city, but rather a Jewish city, and it’s their right. This is not racism.”

The level of criticism towards Aharish and Halevi has been somewhat dimmed by the fact that both are charismatic and popular figures among the Jewish majority. Yesh Atid party’s Lapid, despite his stated preference for Jewish in-laws, said in a later interview that if his son brought Aharish home he would be happy because “I know her and love her.”

Given the public popularity enjoyed by the two individuals in question, the criticism and resistance to their union among secular leaders only suggests that anti-Arab sentiment is rife throughout Israeli society.

A poll conducted last year by the Center for a Shared Society found that 46% of Israelis would not want Arab neighbors and 73% are against providing lands for new Arab villages.

Given that assimilation is not a serious problem in Israel, the numbers suggest that the intermarriage issue is not one of protecting the Jewish faith but rather the deep animus of an ongoing ethnic conflict.