When Lucy Met Tzachi

The complicated lives of Jews and Arabs who fall in love in Israel.

Artist Solomon Souza paints a portrait of Israeli-Arab news anchor Lucy Aharish over a closed shutter at the Mahane Yehuda Market on Feb. 24, 2016, in Jerusalem. (David Vaaknin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Artist Solomon Souza paints a portrait of Israeli-Arab news anchor Lucy Aharish over a closed shutter at the Mahane Yehuda Market on Feb. 24, 2016, in Jerusalem. (David Vaaknin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Israeli celebrities Lucy Aharish and Tzachi Halevy kept their wedding a secret. They held it on a remote ranch, asked the guests to keep their invitations discreet, and informed the public only after it was over.

But it wasn’t just a matter of keeping the paparazzi away. Aharish, a popular television anchor, is Muslim. Halevy, an actor on the mega-hit Netflix series Fauda, is Jewish. And though Arabs and Jews have shared Israel for as long as the country has existed, relationships across the religious and national divide remain a taboo.

Theirs last month came at a particularly fraught moment for co-existence between the two sides, just months after Israel enacted a controversial law which seemed to enshrine the idea that Arab citizens could not be equal to Jews.

When news of the wedding between Aharish and Halevy made its way to the media, some Israelis lashed out at the couple, including a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party.

“I’m not accusing Lucy Aharish of intentionally seducing a Jewish soul … and preventing Jewish offspring from continuing the Jewish dynasty; on the contrary, she is invited to convert,” tweeted Likud Knesset member Oren Hazan, a right-wing populist who calls himself the Israeli Donald Trump. “Lucy—nothing personal—but enough, already. Tzachi is my brother and the Jewish people are my people. Stop the assimilation!”

The preoccupation with Arab-Jewish unions is wrapped in the broader issue of interfaith marriage in Israel, the only country in the Western world that does not permit civil marriage. Because all legally recognized unions must be performed by Christian, Muslim, Druze, or Orthodox Jewish clergy, there’s no legal way for Israelis to marry outside their faith except by going abroad.

Many Israelis oppose the restriction. A July survey published by Hiddush, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for religious freedom and equality in Israel, shows that 70 percent of Israelis with an opinion on the issue support legal alternatives to religious marriage. Legislators from both secular and religious parties have introduced bills in recent years that would pave the way to civil marriage in Israel but ultra-Orthodox parties have defeated the initiatives in the Knesset plenum.

Instead, many Israelis are voting with their feet, holding nonbinding ceremonies (as Aharish and Halevy did) with a friend, family member, or even a hired celebrity officiating. More than 2,400 couples did so in 2017, according to one study. Since the ritual is not legally binding, couples frequently follow up with a trip to Cyprus for a quick civil ceremony.

Statistics aren’t easy to come by, but an estimated 5 to 10 percent of Israeli couples are intermarried. Hiddush found that 364,000 immigrants from the Soviet Union are classified on their government-issued identity cards as being “without religion.” Though they are Jewish enough to qualify for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return—the standard is just one Jewish grandparent—they are not considered Jewish under Orthodox religious law.

But the most politically and racially charged form of intermarriage is between Jews and Muslim and Christian Israeli citizens, or Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Such romances, particularly between high-profile couples like Halevy and Aharish, take on a Romeo and Juliet quality because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Halevy is a former combat soldier who served in an Israel Defense Forces unit depicted in Fauda, in which troops hunting terrorists disguise themselves as Palestinians. Aharish is an Arab Muslim who appears regularly on Israeli television as a news anchor, but has also made forays into acting. In 2015, Aharish lit a torch at the national Independence Day ceremony, viewed by many Israelis as the ultimate honor for citizens. Her willingness to do so was condemned by some in Palestinians and left-wing Israelis as a betrayal.

Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s Arabs are citizens, comprising more than 20 percent of the population. But they often suffer from discrimination both socially and institutionally. The law affirming “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” passed in July, codifies that discrimination, according to civil rights groups. It mandates, among other things, that the right to exercise self-determination in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”

Right-wing groups have physically attacked young Arab men who courted Jewish women in public. In 2014, several hundred right-wing extremists chanted threatening slogans outside a wedding hall where an Arab man and Jewish woman who had converted to Islam were celebrating their union. Last month, in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramla, a billboard campaign for a religious party in local municipal elections featured a young woman in hijab, her back turned to a table with Jewish Sabbath candles and wine, with a stern warning: “Tomorrow, this could be your daughter. Only the Jewish Home party can preserve Jewish Ramla.”

And yet, Aharish and Halevy aren’t the first celebrities to try and bridge the Israeli-Arab divide. Last year, Arab Christian model and actress Huda Naccache married Jewish musician Roey Mula after meeting in Honduras. She was a contestant on the Israeli version of the reality show Survivor; he was a sound man on the set. “We just don’t allow religion to interfere with our relationship,” she said in a television interview. “There are people who ask me: What are the children going to be?” said Mula. “I tell them that they are going to be human.”

Idan Raichel, a popular musician who lives in Tel Aviv with his Austrian longtime girlfriend, Damaris Deubel, addressed the news of Aharish and Halevy’s marriage on his Facebook page, recounting how someone on a television panel had criticized him for cohabitating with a non-Jew and said his two girls would not be considered Jewish unless they converted.

“Damaris said something lovely to me [in response to the criticism],” Raichel recounted. “She said ‘You know Idan, if I were a celebrity, and we lived in Austria, and someone said on the air it was a disgrace that I married a Jew, they would probably fire the host, editor, and everyone else involved in the program for that. But here in Israel, somehow, people allow themselves to say such things.’” And with that, Raichel wished Aharish and Halevy “mazel tov.”

Allison Kaplan Sommer is a Tel Aviv-based staff writer at Haaretz and a co-host on The Promised Podcast Twitter: @allisonksommer

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