Religion in Israel: It's the Government's Business

Religion in Israel: It's the Government's Business

Religion in Israel: It’s the Government’s Business

by SHALOM GOLDMAN for ISLAMiCommentary on APRIL 3, 2015: 

Surveys of religious affiliation in the U.S. reveal that more than 25% of American have joined a faith other than the one in which they were raised. And if we factor in movement from one Protestant denomination to another, we find that 45% of Americans are affiliated with religions that they have chosen, not the ones they were born with.

In Israel, a country linked in so many ways to the US: through foreign policy objectives, domestic politics, and cultural and economic and military exchange — both the religious demographics and laws governing religious affiliation are quite different.

Yes, laws. Unlike in America, your choice of religion in Israel is the government’s business. And if you want to feel like you belong, it had better be the right one — as high-profile Muslim converts Uri Davis (Palestinian National Council representative) and Tali Fahima (a former right-wing Likud activist) discovered.

Within the borders of Israel proper the population is close to 80% Jewish and 17% Muslim and less than 3% Christian.(The percentages within the Occupied Territories, whose Muslim and Christian inhabitants are not Israeli citizens, are somewhat different and beyond the scope of this article.)

While the citizens of Israel, regardless of religion, are assured equal rights under the law, in actuality Arab citizens (the vast majority of whom are Muslim) do not have the same social, educational and vocational opportunities as Jewish citizens.

Pundits within Israel and without may argue as to whether they are “second class citizens” or some other designation, but few informed observers would make the case that there is true equality in the Jewish state. (Again, the situation of the Arabs living in the Occupied Territories is vastly different.)

In Israel, one’s religion is registered at birth — or for those born elsewhere — at naturalization. Religion isn’t recorded at all on American birth certificates.

What happens if you are an Israeli Jew who wants to convert to another faith later on? Or if you are an Israeli citizen of another faith and want to convert to Judaism?

Conversion from one to religion to another in Israel is not just a matter of individual choice, as it is in the US (religion is not even included in the Census).  One’s individual choice of religion in Israel must be officially registered with the government — an act that has profound personal and political consequences.

Marriage in Israel — which preserves in some odd ways the ‘millet’ system of the Ottoman Empire — is registered by the courts of the respective religious authorities: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze. (The clerics give the marriage certificate)

And, since marriages between partners of different religions cannot be performed by clergy, in many instances a non-Jewish partner will convert in order to have a Jewish ceremony, sanctioned by the official rabbis of the state. The children of that union will be automatically be registered as Jewish.

Though marriages between people of different religious communities in Israel are unusual, they are surely not rare. And for those who can afford it, the option of the ‘Cyprus marriage’ in which the couple is married in a civil ceremony in Cyprus and later registered by the Israeli authorities — is a popular one. It’s the only secular or inter-religious option.

There is no ‘civil marriage’ in Israel — unlike in the U.S. where, regardless of whether a couple is married in a civil or religious ceremony, their marriage is ultimately filed with the civil authorities, and religious preferences aren’t noted on the certificate.

(In the past few years Israeli lawyers on the political Left have endeavored to set up the equivalent of marriage for those unwilling or unable to be married by the religious courts. So far they’ve been unsuccessful.)

There are many advantages to converting to Judaism in the Jewish state, but the process is very difficult and drawn out. Every year Israeli Christians and a smaller number of Muslims investigate the possibility of becoming Jewish. The reasons might range from marriage, to better job opportunities, to questions of ideology and faith.

When Israeli Jews Convert to Islam

It is quite rare in Israel for a Jew to convert to Islam. But it is not unheard of. Most often it is for reasons of marriage. And other than wanting to join a partner living in a Muslim community within Israel, there is no perceived benefit in converting to the religion identified with ‘the enemy’ — to the contrary, there many be many disincentives to do so.

Against this background it is worth looking at two recent newsworthy stories of Israeli Jews who converted to Islam — for ideological and political reasons, and in the first case also for marriage reasons.

These two figures are from different political and cultural generations, but both were active on the Israeli political far left, and their ideological leanings moved from Marxism to Islam.

First, Uri Davis. Born in British Mandate Palestine in Kfar Shmaryahu (now part of Israel) in 1942, Davis is the child of two European Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia. An opponent of Israeli policies since his youth, Davis was one of the few teenagers of the pre-1967 era to refuse military service on the grounds that he was a pacifist.

A British-trained anthropologist with a strong Marxist orientation, he wrote a book in 1987 called “Israel : an Apartheid State.” In 2009 Davis converted to Islam. Soon afterward he married a Palestinian woman from the Occupied Territories. As she could not get a permit to live within the borders of Israel he now lives with her somewhere in the West Bank.

In that same year he was appointed to the 600-plus member Palestine National Council. The PNC is the highest authority in the Palestinian Authority (PA), and is responsible for formulating the organization’s policies, plans and programs. It was established to serve as the parliament for all Palestinians inside and outside of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem.

Wrote Guardian journalist Peter Beaumont: “Davis has tapped a deep reserve of Israeli resentment. Some have even called for him to be deported.”

After his election to the council, Davis was asked about the reaction in Israel to his victory:

“There were the usual angry calls to radio talk shows, but nothing extreme,” he said in an interview. “For a long time, anti-Zionists like myself and I were regarded as pariahs or as the devil incarnate. Decades later, strangely enough, we are regarded by some as celebrities, and even respected, the way one might respect daring bank robbers. Decades later, young Israelis are crossing over into the West Bank to demonstrate alongside Palestinians in places like Bilin and Nilin.”

Though Davis is the first Israeli-born Jew on the council, he is not the first Jew to advise and consult with the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Ilan Halevi, a French-born Jew of Algerian descent who died last year at the age of 69, served in the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Paris and was said to be very close to Arafat and the ruling circle of the PLO, though he never converted to Islam. For many Israelis, who still link the PLO with terrorism, he was a traitor.

Uri Dromi, a former spokesman for Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister, said: “Halevi crossed the lines, and this is unacceptable for the Israelis’.” (–an-israeli-jew-who-defected-to-the-plo-8704017.html)

Tali Fahima, a right-wing activist who later converted to Islam, also crossed lines in the eyes of the Israeli government. Fahima was born in Kiryat Gat in 1976 to Algerian immigrants to Israel. She was a right-wing (Likud) activist in her youth, was radicalized by her encounter with a fighter for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Bridgades, and was later accused of aiding him by passing military documents for which she served three years in jail for the crime. Her case, in 2005, became a rallying point for the Israeli left.

In an interview in 2004 she said: “I was brought up to consider Arabs as something that should not be here. One day I understood there were many gaps in my information, things that are not in the media. The penny dropped, I realized that it’s about human beings, and that we have a responsibility for the way their life looks. This was the day I stopped watching TV.”

According to Haaretz: “On 8 August 2004, Fahima was arrested, interrogated by security officials for one month and then placed under administrative detention for three months. She was indicted in December 2004 and charged with “assistance to the enemy at time of war.” On December 23, 2005 she pleaded guilty to some less serious charges, admitting to maintaining contacts with a foreign agent with the intention of harming state security. She also admitted to passing information to the enemy, and to violating a legal order forbidding the entry of Israelis into Palestinian Authority-controlled territory. The most serious charges, aiding an enemy in time of war, supporting a terrorist organization and possession of weapons against her were dropped. She received a three-year prison sentence. ”

Upon her release from prison, Fahima moved to an Arab village within Israel, where, ironically, she works as a Hebrew teacher. In 2010 she converted to Islam. Fahima has never issued a direct statement about here conversion. She has, in fact, stopped giving interviews or writing public statements.

There were also a few significant 20th century high profile conversions from Judaism to Islam. Like the 21st century stories just mentioned, a strong opposition to Zionism played a key role in the conversion story of Leopold Weiss, born in 1900, who became Muhammad Asad in 1926. In a remarkable career Asad served an advisor to the Saudi royal family in the 1930s, and was one of the authors of the Pakistani Constitution in the 1947 and Pakistan’s first ambassador to the UN. After retiring from politics he devoted the last three decades of his life to producing an English translation of and commentary on the Qur’an. He passed away in 1992.

Maryam Jameelah (1934-2012) was born Margaret Marcus to a non-observant Jewish family in New York. Her obituary, which was distributed widely in the Muslim world, noted that she embraced Islam in New York on May 24, 1961 and soon began began writing for the Muslim Digest of Durban, South Africa where she became familiar with the writings of Mawlana Sayyid Abu Ala Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaati Islami, who was also a contributor to the journal.

On the advice of Mawdudi, Jameelah traveled to Pakistan in 1962 and joined his family in Lahore. She then got married to Muhammad Yusuf Khan, as his second wife. From the mid 1960s until a few years before her death Maryam Jameelah was prolific author; writing over thirty books.

While these kinds of high-profile conversions and other under-the-radar ones are not a ‘demographic threat’ to the state of Israel — they are not a trend per se — they are a sign of extreme disillusionment among Israeli Jews who were formerly on the Israeli political left, and in Fahima’s case, on the far-right.

As Davis said, it’s a sign that identification with the Palestinian cause has become more acceptable (marginally perhaps) among Israeli Jews.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is keenly aware that his political base is resentful of the freedom of expression that anti-Zionist Jews have, and some moves have been made to curtail that freedom to some extent.

Recently he was accused of declaring war on Israel’s intellectual life after he “intervened to remove three prominent judges” on a panel that was set to decide awardees of the prestigious Israel prize — given for excellence in the arts, science and broader cultural and social contributions.

“The composition of the panel that selects Israel prize laureates must be balanced and faithfully reflect the various streams, positions and strata of Israeli society,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page, defending the move. “However, over the years, more and more radical figures, including anti-Zionists — for example, those who support refusal to serve in the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] — have been appointed to the panel and too few authentic representatives of other parts of the nation …”

For Bibi’s base “authentic representatives” is code for ‘true patriots, not Leftist ‘defeatists.’

The move to influence the makeup of the prize jury failed. Israel’s attorney general objected to the Prime Minister’s move. And soon afterwards Netanyahu reinstalled the judges.



Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and core faculty of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His most recent book is “Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land” (UNC Press, January, 2010), and it’s now out in paperback. He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).