When love collides with politics

3 Feb 2020

In October 2018 the media in Israel were dominated by the upcoming marriage of TV personality Lucy Aharish and actor Tsachi Halevy. Elsewhere, only the tabloids would have taken much notice, but in Israel the event was politically charged.

“I find Israel fascinating,” says Annika. “That’s why I was determined to do my Master’s thesis in Cultural Studies there.” Within days of her arrival in Tel Aviv, she noticed that the media were suddenly dominated by a single topic. The papers were filled with reports and comment on the upcoming marriage of a celebrity couple – an Arab TV personality and a Jewish actor, both of them Israeli citizens. Even the country’s foreign minister had something to say on the matter. As the latter’s intervention indicates, this romance was not just another of those stories that was of interest only to devoted fans of the srars concerned. The response in the media reflected the fact that close personal relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel are regarded as unacceptable by many on both sides of the ethnic divide.

“As soon as I realized that, I wanted to know more. – And I knew that I had found the subject for my Master’s thesis,” Annika says. She herself knows Hebrew, so she had little difficulty in following how the Jewish newspapers reacted to the couple’s relationship. In order to assess the reactions in the Arab media, she enlisted the help of friends. An initial review of both sets of sources uncovered a pronounced difference between them. While the topic received broad coverage in the Hebrew media, there was hardly any mention of it in Arab newspapers. “I suspect that the relative absence of comment was not primarily due to a lack of interest in the story, but to a positive desire to ignore it.” On the other hand, one of the keywords that cropped up in reports in the Jewish media was the term ‘assimilation’. Indeed, among the Jewish population, there is a pervasive fear that the State of Israel is in danger of losing its Jewish identity. During the election campaign in March 2019, some polls suggested that the election might result in a coalition government that included Arab parties. This prospect evoked a strong reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent Prime Minister, who stated that “Israel is not a country of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish nation – and its alone.”

Why should it be a problem when a Jew and an Arab, inhabitants and citizens of one and the same country, decide to enter into a romantic relationship with one another? This is a question that Annika has often been asked, for although everyone is aware of the Arab-Israeli conflict, very few outsiders understand the everyday complexities it entails for individuals on both sides. “In the course of my research, it became clear to me that the underlying quarrel is not religious in character, it is a national conflict. The divergence is not between Muslims and Jews. It is first and foremost a dispute between Arab and Jewish Israelis. This insight explains why personal relationships between them are eminently and unavoidably political. Moreover, the political dimension causes problems not only for the couples themselves. “Friends often react skeptically and, above all, it can cause very considerable strains within families.”

Anonymized interviews, clandestine meetings, localities disguised All of these confounding factors meant that the task of collecting data for her Master’s thesis in Empirical Cultural Studies and European Ethnology confronted Annika with several challenges. “My initial intention was to conduct qualitative interviews with mixed couples. So she again enlisted friends as research assistants, kept her eyes and ears open on the university campus and appealed for contacts on social media. In the end, she found seven people who agreed to be interviewed individually. “Thanks to my knowledge of Hebrew, most of the contacts I had made previously were with members of the Jewish section of the population. It was therefore particularly interesting for me to be able to sit down with Israeli Arabs and put personal questions to them.” Of course, on first acquaintance, one cannot immediately plunge into personal matters having to do with the interviewee’s private life or relationships with family members. “But once the ice had been broken, I was free to put the questions I wanted to ask, and got to know my subjects very quickly and quite well.”

In order to protect their own identities and those of their partners, many of the individuals she interviewed repeatedly asked Annika for assurances that the contents of their conversations would be carefully anonymized and the locations mentioned disguised. During the interviews, they also expressed themselves with great circumspection, and often preferred not to reveal the identity of their place of birth. One of the most frequent replies to inquiries in this regard was the unspecific phase ‘I’m from the North’, which in itself is a measure of how controversially the whole issue is viewed in Israel.

This was further underlined by the fact that each of Annika’s interviewees had concealed their relationship, either from individual family members or from all of their relatives. “One of the most things that struck me most was that their long-held views of their own families had undergone a startling transformation.” Many of her subjects reported that they had always had the impression that they had grown up in relatively open-minded and liberal homes. “But this impression was dispelled by the unexpectedly serious reactions provoked when they first referred to their respective partners. Outing one’s self in such a context is not only difficult and often unpleasant, it can also have much broader repercussions. “In particular, it’s hard for me to judge what it means for an Arab family to be confronted with a Jewish partner as a prospective member, given that such families generally exert greater control over their female relatives. There’s very little I can say about it, because I have no well-attested information on which to base a judgement.”

A prize-winning project These were not the only the obstacles Annika encountered during her project on “Dating Amid the Conflict. An Ethnography of Jewish-Palestinian Couples in Israel”. Indeed, perhaps her most difficult problem lay in deciding how to evaluate and describe what she learned in the course of the project. However, a remark made by one of her interviewees made an especially deep impression on her. “We had been discussing how identities are perceived and, speaking of himself and his girlfriend, Samir said: ‘She becomes an individual and not constantly part of …, at least in my eyes, because I can’t see myself as part of… But there is some hope in individuals and not in groups. Maybe …’ In other words, in this relationship, the individual’s identity as Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian or Arab was essentially irrelevant. Only in the wider, public, context does it become significant.”

Her care and dedication to the project have now been rewarded with a Students’ Research Prize. The Selection Committee praised the work’s pioneering character and emphasized the quality of the author’s cultural analysis – more specifically, her ability to distill from the information elicited in her conversations with interviewees a picture that is non-judgmental and provides a rich context for precise insights. – But Annika is in a hurry, she still has lots to do today. “I have to go to the library. I have received permission to publish the thesis, which is wonderful, but involves a bit of extra work. I’m now working on the final revisions, and my interview partners have authorized their statements for publication, and it will soon go to the printers.” She hasn’t yet decided what will happen afterwards. She mentions the possibility of doing a doctoral thesis. “And I would love to do it in Israel. There’s something about the place that keeps drawing me back to it.”