Ethnoreligious Mixed Marriages Among Palestinian Women and Jewish Men in Israel: Negotiating the Breaking of Barriers

Maha Karkabi Sabbah's article takes a look at intermarriage between Arab women and Jewish men in Israel.

Lucy Aharish
Television anchorperson Lucy Aharish, an Arab citizen of Israel, whose marriage to Jewish actor Tsahi Halevi raised controversy in Israel.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, via CC BY-SA 3.0 

Scholars agree that intermarriage is one of the most important tests for determining societal structure and exposing the flexibility of social, racial and religious boundaries. In the crossing of racial, ethno-cultural, religious, or class boundaries through partnering, intermarriage not only tells us about individual choices, but also reveals the scope of social divisions and the relationships between groups within a society[1]. Jewish-Palestinian intermarriage is a unique case that offers the opportunity to shed some light on the implications of ethno-religious mixed marriages among spouses who differ in ethnicity, religion and culture and enhances our understanding of intermarriages in the context of ethnically divided societies.

Using ten in-depth interviews with Christian and Muslim Palestinian women who live in Israel and are married to Jewish men, three questions stand at the core of this research: 1. What circumstances affect the choice of intermarriage among the Palestinian women in Israel? 2. Are there circumstances that allow women to cross social borders? 3. How do these women negotiate their “breaking of barriers” in their relationships with their community and with their husbands’ community?

Theory and Background
Kalmijn contends that the occurrence of intermarriage depends upon three components: the preference for certain attributes of the spouse (assortative mating), the availability of opportunities for meeting, and the existence of formal and informal sanctions[2]. According to Assortative Mating Theory, intermarriage is more likely to happen among individuals of similar socio-demographic and human capital characteristics, such as age, education, income, and socio-economic background[3]. A number of studies have found that most partners in interracial unions share a similar educational background. The frequency of ethnic intermarriage also depends on the extent to which individuals can meet potential partners. Several reports have pointed out that educational attainment increases the opportunities to meet members of the out group[4]. Another dimension of intermarriage is the existence of formal and informal sanctions. Historically, marrying outside of one’s group was either officially forbidden, or resulted in sanction such as denigration, abuse, and/or a lowering of one’s social status by the group[5].

Palestinian-Jewish relations have been shaped by a continued conflict that began years before the establishment of the state of Israel. Although Arabs who live in Israel are citizens, they are subject to various forms of discrimination that have contributed to social and economic disparities[6]. Despite this, the Palestinian population in Israel has undergone important demographic, social, and economic changes over the past decades, including a decline in birthrate, a weakening of the extended family structure, a rise in individualism and a rise in the standard of living. Particularly important is the expansion of education – especially among women. These changes have affected Palestinian women’s marriage patterns, such as delaying marriage and more women remaining single[7]. Overall, however, traditional patterns of marriage and gender roles have been largely preserved.

As a result of extreme segregation, the interaction and meeting points between these groups is limited. Traversing these borders through a romantic relationship becomes impossible and inconceivable for most Israelis. When, despite these barriers, such romantic relations are formed, stereotypes and the Israeli-Arab conflict have a lasting influence on them[8]. The low rate of ethno-religious mixed marriages in Israel have also been affected by the fact that there is no separation of religion and state as far as personal status law is concerned. There are no alternative procedures or mechanisms in place for conducting civil marriages. Therefore, interfaith marriages are legally accepted only when one spouse converts to the other partner’s religion.  According to the census data from 2008[9], only 2.1% of Israeli Jewish men were married to Palestinian women. The percentages vary greatly according to the woman’s religion: most of these marriages were with Christian women (97%) and only 3% of these marriages involved Muslim women.

The study shows that women with higher levels of education shared similar views and attitudes about the importance of religion and ethnic affiliation in the assortative mating process, and that they believed that ethnicity and religious differences between spouses should not affect their choice of who they marry. However, the inherent geographical and social segregation of Arabs from Jews in Israel has affected both Jewish and Arab perceptions of socially eligible partners and potential mates. Therefore, encounters between Palestinian women and Jewish men were still not perceived by the women as expanding the boundaries of the local marriage market. As a result, the interviewees described the way in which they perceived the relationship in the beginning, as being something non-obligatory and in which marriage did not appear to be a realistic option.

The women, both Christian and Muslim, negotiated their marriages with the families. They described varied social sanctions, including rejection, anger, and in some cases, the breaking of all contact (the interviewee who experienced this sanction commented that it softened over time). Since Palestinian society is a collective one, women in intermarriages are compelled to deal with both their nuclear and extended family’s reactions. However, there are some different circumstances that influence the social responses from the woman’s family, such as, the absence of a patriarch, growing up in a secular environment, and the family’s desire to avoid their daughter’s singlehood.

Encounters with the Jewish family (the majority group) were influenced not only by the women’s ethnicity but also by religious affiliation. In most of the cases, the family exhibited opposition to the marriage, mainly reasoning that the spouse’s religion would affect the children’s religious affiliation. In addition, the women entered ongoing negotiations about the cultural differences between the two groups, such as lifestyle and family relationships. Such negotiations are inherently characterized by social inequality, as the majority group ascribes to “Western” culture, whereas Arab culture is ascribed to the “East.” While elements of social inequality were particularly apparent in Jewish families’ dealings with Muslim wives, the fact that the divides between Palestinians and Jews are determined by ethnic and religious belonging makes it possible for families from the majority group to deny acceptance to either Christian or Muslim Palestinian women who enter mixed marriages.

My core findings have led to two conclusions. First, ethnic mixed marriage occurs among Muslim and Christian women because of social changes that are taking place in Palestinian society in Israel. These changes result in more mobility for educated women, which has decreased the social control of their community over their personal lives and increased opportunities for meeting partners from the majority group. Second, despite the social changes Palestinian society has undergone, political, social, and economic barriers still define the hierarchical relationship between Jewish and Palestinian society in Israel. As such, the strength of endogamy has weakened among selective groups where several factors facilitate intermarriage. I demonstrated that the association between secularism, mobility and marriage timing makes crossing social and religious borders by women more possible.

Women’s negotiations were also affected by the intersections between gender, ethnicity, religion, and class. This provides an explanation for the frequency of mixed marriages among Christian Palestinian women as compared to Muslim Palestinian women, and sheds light on the way in which women of different religions are accepted into (or not accepted into) their partner’s Jewish families. Although the similarity in class attributes bridges the cultural gap between Israeli Jews and Christian Palestinians, it has become clear that they do not bridge the ethnic gap.

Despite the changing opportunities in interaction between Jews and Palestinians, the slow increase in ethno-religious mixed marriages (as compared with other ethnically diverse countries) is largely a result of the way Israeli society defines, constructs, and perpetuates its ethnic and religious boundaries. As a result of the social changes taking place among the Palestinian minority, maintaining similarities in ethnicity and religious beliefs between couples remains a crucial component in assortative mating. This assures that while the strength of social change is enabling the crossing of ethno-religious borders differently, as what has been shown in several previous studies, intermarriage in Israel will continue to be a marginal phenomenon.


Central Bureau of Statistics (2008), Statistical Abstract of Israel, Jerusalem.

Hakak, Yohai (2016), “The ‘Undesirable Relationships’ between Jewish Women and Arab Men: Representation and Discourse in Contemporary Israel”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 39 pp. 976–993.

Kalmijn, Matthijs (1998), “Intermarriage and Homogamy: Causes, Patterns, Trends”, Annual Review of Sociology 24, pp. 421–495.

Khamaisi, Rasem (2005), “Urbanization and Urbanism in the Arab Settlements in Israel”, Ofakim Be-Geographia 64–65, pp. 293–310 [Hebrew].

Lee, Sharon M., and Barry Edmonstonm (2005), “New Marriages, New Families: U.S. Racial and Hispanic Intermarriage”, Population Bulletin 60, pp. 5–10.

Merton, Robert. K. (1941), “Intermarriage and the Social Structure: Fact and Theory”, Psychiatry 4, pp.  361–374.

Rodriguez-Garcia, Dan (2015), “Intermarriage and Integration Revisited: International Experiences and Cross-Disciplinary Approaches”, The Annals of the American Academy, pp. 8–36.

Sabbah-Karkabi, Maha and Haya Stier (2017), “The Relations of Education and Age at Marriage among Palestinian Women in Israel: Changes over Time”, Studies in Family Planning 48/1, pp. 23–38.

Schoen, Robert, and Yen-hsin Alice Cheng (2006), “Partner Choice and the Differential Retreat from Marriage”, Journal of Marriage and the Family 68, pp. 1–10.

Sohoni, Deenesh (2007), “Unsuitable Suitors: Anti-Miscegenation Laws, Naturalization Laws and the Construction of Asian Identities”, Law and Society Review 41/3, pp. 587–618.

Dr. Maha Karkabi Sabbah is a sociologist and research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. Her main research interests are family and gender issues in the Arab society in Israel.

[1] Merton, 1941.

[2] Kalmijn, 1998.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid; Lee and Edmonston, 2005, 6.

[5] Sohoni, 2007.

[6] Khamaisi, 2005.

[7] Sabbah-Karkabi and Stier, 2017.

[8] Hakak, 2016, 976-980.

[9] Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, Census data, 2008.