Marriage, the Family, and Security in Israel:  The Paradox of the Liberal State

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Virginia Tech


This study offers an interpretation of political change in Israel through an examination of amendments to Israel's personal status laws (PSLs) - ""laws governing marriage, divorce, death, inheritance, and adoption. I found that separate ethno-religious groups, including Arab Muslims, non-Western Jews, and non-religious persons (including some secular Jews), do not enjoy equal access to the civil right of marriage and divorce that citizens commonly enjoy within other Western liberal nations. Marriage and divorce within Israel are only accessble through, and sanctioned by, religious institutions. I argue that Israel's PSLs reflect a significant paradox within liberalism, namely the inherent tension between the state's guarantee of religious rights versus the constitutional protection of citizens' civil rights.

My research begins within political theory, grounded in theories of liberalism, biopolitics, nationalism, and post-colonial studies. Part one traces the history of Israel from the late Ottoman period through the founding of the State in 1948, with consideration paid both to Israel's founders (and the political Zionisms they espoused) and to political Zionism's critics (including Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, and Judith Butler). I then turn to a examination of Israel's PSLs, asking what is at stake when a liberal, democratic nation bases its laws governing marriage and divorce upon religious law rather than developing civil laws governing these institutions.

Part two considers four legal arrangements caught in a crucial political paradox: laws and programs regulating the lives of women, laws outlawing polygynous marriages, changes in laws surrounding exogamous and cross-border marriages, and the treatment of Ethiopian Jews under the law. Each of these cases demonstrate the ways PSLs are used to address growing concerns over the security and national identity of the Jewish State. Through these four examples, Israel's concerns over national identity, citizenship, and security become manifest, and one important instance of the paradox of liberalism comes into focus. Ultimately, while Israel is unique as the world's only Jewish state, Israel becomes understandable as a liberal state experiencing many of the same anxieties and internal liberal problematics experienced by other states as well.



colonialism, Israel, Judaism, liberalism, marriage, nationalism, Palestine, personal status laws, religion, secularism, security, Zionism