Arab-Jewish love breaks stereotypes and law in society of strict divide

Married life is challenging even without your faith or ethnicity becoming a sticking point. But an Arab man married to a Jewish wife in the Middle East proves that love is above the political and cultural tensions.

Sami Aby Al-Sibai is Palestinian and has two wives, which is not that unheard of in the Arab World. But when one wife is an Arab and the other is a Jew, it is a little unusual.

“When I married her, I didn’t think about her faith or nationality, or whether she is Arab or Jew. I love her and I always wanted to be her husband. We are not guilty of anything. It’s the states’ leaders who are to blame,” says Sami Aby Al-Sibai.

Sami lives with his two wives and ten children in a village in south Hebron. The Palestinian city is the largest in the West Bank and Israelis are forbidden by law to enter. But Sami met his Jewish wife, Leo, who originally comes from Russia, in Israel. They were both working in Tel Aviv and had to communicate in Hebrew until Leo learnt Arabic.

“I am not afraid of anything. I am part of the Arab community. Once I was traveling from Israel to the West Bank and was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. They told me that after the crossing began the territory of the West Bank. I told them I know as I live there,” says Leo Abu Sba-a, the Jewish wife of Sami Aby Al-Sibai.

But marriages like theirs are unusual. Not only because of their different faiths but because of the political tension in the country between Jews and Arabs As a result, most Israeli Jews wouldn’t even think of dating across the border.

“This is seen as a taboo, and they won’t tell you about it, this is really something which is not to be proud of. I think the basic reason is that people are afraid this will affect the Jewish nature of the state. This is the basic fear that most Jewish Israelis have in this respect,” says professor Jona Schellekens from the Sociology Department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Since Israel was established in 1948, different governments have tried to limit close relationships developing between Jews and Arabs. The two communities live separately and their children often attend different schools. Even in the handful of so-called mixed cities, Arabs usually live separate from their Jewish neighbors. Interfaith and civil marriages are illegal – which means Leo had to convert to marry her husband.

“The moment she declares she is a Muslim, she becomes a Muslim and there is no more discrimination against her,” says Ziad Abu Zayyad, Former Minister of Jerusalem Affairs. “Before 1948, intermarriages between Jews and Arabs were made in the elite classes of Arabs. After 1967, the change became in the opposite direction – intermarriage between Arabs and Jewish boys came to be limited to underground, people involved in drugs.”

Sami was placed under house arrest by Israeli security for his relationship with Leo. She was banished from her family, which is why it’s so important for them that their children grow up with tolerance. In the house is a Koran and a Torah, Arabic and Jewish music is played, and both languages are spoken. But still, it doesn’t prevent the outside world from creeping in.