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Rethinking the Family in Israel


This is a special post written by guest editor Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui on why the topic of the family in Israel was chosen for Volume 28, Issue 2 of Israel Studies Review.



Israel is a society of paradoxes. It defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state that strives to institutionalize equality for all the Israeli citizens, but does not accept the basic idea of Israel as a state for all its citizens. It declares that it wants to promote peace, even though it has been involved in war from its very inception, at the very beginning of the Zionist settlement. Moreover, the state of Israel was created so that the Jewish people would become a “normal” people, but de facto, its approach is that of “a people that will dwell alone and not think itself one of the nations”.


This paradoxical approach is embedded in its institutional structure, including the institution of the family. So while same-sex families are gaining legitimacy, Israeli-Palestinian women are getting more autonomous and children have been recognized as rights bearers in Israeli law, polygamy still exists; Jewish women are denied the right to divorce without their husband’s consent and more than three hundred Israeli citizens are denied the right to marry in their own country.


To capture this evolution, we have to remember that Israel, as a post-industrial society, is experiencing, to a certain extent, the same processes of individualization that usually accompany the ‘postmodern revolution’ in a democratic society: the family is becoming more of a private concern, while it is more and more normative for adults, both men and women, to be entitled as autonomous individuals to shape their own destinies in both the private and public spheres.


On the other hand, we have also to remember that, despite these processes, marriage and divorce are subject to religious law for all the religions recognized in Israel – Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Druze – and that there is no civil law governing personal status for all the citizens of the state, unlike the situation in liberal democracies. Consequently, family codes are anchored in each religion and constitute the main basis of the family institution. The reason for this is not religious coercion—which, if anything, plays a secondary role—but, rather, that most of Israel’s citizens, both Jewish and Arab, see the personal status law as an efficient borderline which prevents interfaith marriage, by legally separating the various ethno-religious groups between “them” and “us”. As a consequence, issues such as gender, nationalism, religion, culture, and human rights have to be discussed and included if we want to map the individualization process among the mosaic of cultures and religions that are the fabric of the Israeli society.


This collection of 17 articles is the fruit of a research group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute that included both senior and junior academically affiliated researchers working in the fields of sociology, anthropology, law, social work, the arts, and psychology. The participants met throughout a period of three years within the framework of the Institute. It is a culmination of academic research encompassing many different fields and using different research methods. Many of the articles are based on qualitative research, and thus readers have the opportunity to ‘hear’ a wide range of voices of those people involved in the changes in family life in Israel.


We hope that by publishing this special edition of ISR, we have contributed to the public discourse on pressing social issues that are changing contemporary Israel.




Israel Studies Review is the journal of the Association for Israel Studies, an international and interdisciplinary scholarly organization dedicated to the study of all aspects of Israeli society, history, politics, and culture. Look for this journal at the upcoming AIS conference at Ben Gurion University in Israel June 23-25.