Walking along a quiet, narrow street in downtown Madaba, Jordan in late September, I’m on…
Love in the Middle East can be as sweet as in any other part of the world. But when it involves a couple from different cultures or religions, the stories rarely have happy endings. Love does happen, though. In Israel sometimes you will even find love between Arabs and Jews.
Claire Blumenthal, a Jewish American woman who’s lived in Israel on and off for 12 years, has experienced love with Arab men in the country more than once. Although they didn’t live happily ever after, their flames were able to endure for a time.
While living in Jerusalem in her 20’s, after a year-long process of switching from Haredi (ultra-religious) Judaism into secular Judaism, Claire decided to take a huge step away from the religion and culture inside which she had always lived. The forbidden Arab world intrigued her, and she dove in. Claire is half Arab and was adopted by a Jewish family shortly after birth, but her Arab blood wasn’t of much help. Her history as a Jew was the focus of her new community.
Claire met a Palestinian man named *Mahmoud in 2013 and fell into deep love. He lived in Ramallah, the interim administrative capital of Palestine. The subconscious reason for their attraction might have been the fact that Mahmoud, like Claire, was half Arab/half Jewish. His mother’s mother was Jewish, which according to Jewish law means that his mother is Jewish, which makes him Jewish as well.
Mahmoud’s grandmother grew up in the Jewish neighborhood of Givat Shaul in Jerusalem. She married Mahmoud’s grandfather, and he took her back to Ramallah. Life is not easy for Jewish women who move into Palestine as the wife of an Arab. Mahmoud’s immediate and extended family was permanently pitted against his grandmother, as well as his mother, because of their Jewishness. His aunts were very cruel to them.
One day Mahmoud’s uncle caught him and Claire kissing on a set of stairs tucked back from a street. His uncle told his father. And when Mahmoud returned home that day, his family forced him inside a bathroom and locked the door. As punishment for being involved with a Jew, they kept him locked inside and beat him for three days. This marked the end of Claire and Mahmoud’s week-old relationship.
Claire thinks maybe Mahmoud’s mother was a strong influence in his family’s violent reaction to their relationship. As a fellow Jewish woman, perhaps she wanted to save Claire from the life she knew she would have to live if she were to marry Mahmoud and live in Palestine.
One day while living in West Jerusalem Claire took a trip on a train and met Rami, a Palestinian who was living in East Jerusalem. She was fluent in her native language of English while he was a native Arabic speaker. They both knew a bit of Hebrew but not enough to communicate with each other. So they invented their own language.
Their Hebrew/Arabic/English conversation combination wasn’t very important, though, because the relationship was only sex. Then, after so many nights together, they became a little curious about each other’s daytime lives. They began to spend their daylight hours together and Rami started introducing Claire as his girlfriend.
Rami was a sous chef and would bring Claire leftovers from his restaurant. He worked for 25 Shekels an hour. This was a low position for his talents, and a very low wage. As a Jewish woman, “If I had been in his position,” Claire says, I would have been made head chef. I would have been running the kitchen and paid at least double.”
Claire’s mother was accepting of her daughter’s new Arab love and wanted to meet Rami. His family, though, was not at all happy about Claire. She was well aware they were not ever going to accept her.
Life in Jerusalem was hard. In Israel, Jewish women and Arab men usually don’t go out together in public, and Claire and Rami had difficulty even walking together down the street. The couple encountered a lot of stares. Jewish people often asked Claire if she was safe.
Some of these people contacted Yad l’achim. This is an Israeli organization that tries to save Jewish women from relationships with Arab men in Arab cities and villages. “There are hundreds of cases of Jewish women who are wooed by Arab men because they don’t get love at home. Then they take them back to their village and they’re beaten and starved and raped by every male in the household. All of the village abuses them,” Claire says. Their children are raised Muslim and are never told they’re also Jewish.
Yad l’achim called Claire. Somebody wanted to “just come talk to me,” Claire says. “But then I would tell them the whole like I’m half Arab and they’d be like ‘oh, well, then who cares. We get it. You’re fine.’”
The couple needed an easier location in which to continue their romance. Rami suggested moving to Tel Aviv, and Claire agreed it would be a better place for them. They moved on New Year’s Day 2015.
Tel Aviv was a relief. People not only didn’t stare, they didn’t even notice the couple out in public. But renting an apartment together was taking it too far.
Claire looked for apartments while Rami worked. Once she told the landlord that she would be living there with an Arab man, the apartment would in an instant become unavailable. “It’s rented,” the owner would say.
Other people with apartments for rent would be more direct and honest. “We just don’t want Arabs in the neighborhood. They’re too loud. There’s too many family members.”
Claire changed her tactic and began pretending she was renting an apartment alone. This worked perfectly until Rami was required to appear in person to co-sign the rental contract. The apartment was no longer for rent. “No Arabs,” they would say.
Eventually they were able to find a landlord willing to allow them to live on his property. But life as a hard-working couple who didn’t have much time for each other took a toll, and the Arab/Jewish divide was just too much. After a year and a half, they had to end it.
Rami remains a big part of Claire’s heart. “He was very, very sweet and I love him very much to this day. I still go and see him every time I’m in Israel, at least once,” she says. “Every time I see him I remind him that there’s somebody in this world who loves him dearly and would do anything for him. It’s important for every single human to know that there’s someone out there who loves them unconditionally. It’s the only way to be able to go forward.”
* Mahmoud is not his real name
Claire Blumenthal not only is part Jewish/part Arab – she is descended from the royal family of Bahrain! You can read her story about her royal roots here.
Written by Connect the Cultures creator Sabina Lohr