BRUSSELS: As Romeo and Juliet learned the hard way, love and friendship in times of conflict is rarely a simple story of boy meets girl (or whatever other combination suits your orientation). At such times, the personal so often becomes public, and the romantic, political.
Although this is a common feature of conflicts, in some ways, the barriers separating Arabs and Israeli-Jews may be especially high owing to the long duration of their conflict and the bitterness of the feud. In the minds of many Arabs and Israeli-Jews, the idea of normal human contact between the two sides, especially of the intimate physical or emotional variety, is tantamount to a betrayal of their people’s cause. Such relationships do not only suffer from social disapproval, they can sometimes carry legal consequences.
Take the case of Saber Kushour, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem, who was recently convicted of “rape by deception” for having allegedly lied to an Israeli-Jewish woman about his religious identity in order to sleep with her, although he only admits to having lied about his marital status.
Although most would agree that dishonesty is not the best policy, deception is a fairly common tactic in the dating game, and had Kushour been lying about his profession, wealth, education, age, social class, or his longer-term intentions, the incident would have passed into the obscurity of personal disappointment. Instead, because he, at the very least, was not entirely truthful about his religious and ethnic identity it became an issue of public concern with legal repercussions.
“The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price — the sanctity of their bodies and souls,” said one of the three judges on the case and, in so doing, set a dangerous precedent.
The verdict raises the question of whether such amorous deception is actually an issue of “public interest”, rather than one of individual integrity, and, if so, how far should the state go in protecting citizens from “sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals”?
For instance, another woman may have found Kushour’s lying about being single far more distressing than his religious affiliation. Would such a woman, had she also submitted a private claim, have had the same reaction from the judge in question?
Needless to say, the court case has caused an uproar, not only internationally, but in liberal Israeli circles, and the verdict is already being appealed. “What if this guy had been a Jew who pretended to be a Muslim and had sex with a Muslim woman? Would he have been convicted of rape? The answer is: of course not,” observed Gideon Levy, a liberal Israeli commentator.
But it is not just Israel which is guilty of double standards when it comes to sleeping with — or falling in love with — the enemy. To many Palestinians and Arabs, the idea that they or someone they know could get intimate with an Israeli-Jew, and sometimes even simply a Jew, is often viewed with anathema.
In some instances, this “social crime” can carry legal consequences, as was recently demonstrated in Egypt. After rejecting a government appeal of an earlier verdict, an Egyptian court ruled in June that all Egyptian men married to Israeli women (however few they may be), and their children, should be stripped of their citizenship.
The verdict has sparked controversy in Egypt, with many applauding the court’s “patriotism”, while Egyptian liberals and human rights activists are up in arms. “Egyptian law says citizenship can only be revoked if the citizen is proven to be spying on his country, [so] this verdict considers marrying an Israeli [to be] an act of spying,” said Negad Al-Borai, a Cairo-based lawyer and human rights activist.
What these two court cases clearly illustrate is the level of mutual distrust, paranoia and hatred between Arabs and Israeli-Jews which has intensified with the worsening situation in recent years. At another level, it is a convenient tool in perpetuating the conflict. Restricting, and even forbidding, interactions with the other side makes it a whole lot easier to hate and demonize your “enemy”. Seen from this angle, the fact that most Arab countries do not allow or discourage their citizens from traveling to Israel, not to mention the ban on Israelis traveling to Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza, is partly founded on the fear that individual love will undermine collective hate.
The tragedy that befell Romeo and Juliet eventually brought their feuding families together, but the tragic cases above are unlikely to have a similar consequence. Despite what romantics may naively believe, love certainly does not conquer all, and it can do little to resolve the very real issues fuelling the conflict.
Nevertheless, all friendships, love affairs and marriages between Israeli-Jews and Arabs challenge the destructive “us” and “them” dichotomy. Though they may at heart be personal affairs, private relationships between Arabs and Israelis demonstrate that people living across supposed enemy lines may share more in common with one another than with their own side, and provide hope for a future of greater understanding.
Egyptian by birth, Khaled Diab is a Brussels-based journalist and writer. He writes on a wide range of subjects, including the EU, the Middle East, Islam and secularism, multiculturalism and human rights. His website is www.chronikler.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).