Ken Livingstone--"What a Load of Crap!"

Mayor Ken Livingstone is in trouble again, this time for saying of two Londoners (the Reuben brothers), who have lived in London since the 1950s when they immigrated as teenagers, "if they're not happy, perhaps they could always go back to Iran and see if they do better under the Ayatollahs." The Reubens are not, in fact, Iranian, but Bagdadi (Iraqi) Jews born in Bombay, India. Livingstone has been sparring with the Reubens over some development issues. It's not clear why he thought they were Iranian, or whether he realized they were Jewish, but regardless, it's hardly becoming of London's mayor to tell immigrants to "go back where they came from."

Meanwhile, I ran across the following quote from Livingstone: "But I was amazed to discover for example only a couple of months ago that in Israel a Jew can't marry an Arab. What a load of crap!" A load of crap indeed, for this isn't quite accurate. To avoid religious conflict, when the British controlled Palestine they left family law in the hands of each community's religious authorities. When Israel was established, they kept the British system, probably for the same reason. Thus, the issue isn't whether a Jew can marry an Arab, which implies racism, but whether a Jew can marry a Muslim. Since neither the Muslim nor the Jewish religious authorities allow such a marriage, such a marriage is not recognized by the state if performed in Israel. Indeed, an immigrant from the CIS who has a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother can't marry a Jew in Israel, because this individual is not Jewish under Jewish religious law. And as far as I know, a Druze Arab can't marry a Sunni Arab in Israel. On the other hand, an Arab Muslim who converts to Judaism can get married by a rabbi to a Jew in Israel, and an Israeli Jew who converts to Islam can get married by an Imam to an Arab in Israel. So, there is no "racial" aspect to the law.

Of course, I am against these laws, and there is a strong movement in Israel to permit civil marriage. In the meantime, couples who can't get religious approval to marry in Israel take a short plane ride to Cyprus and get married there; such marriages abroad are fully recognized by Israeli authorities.

In short, Israel should get rid of the religious monopoly on marriage in Israel, but Livingstone, known as a strong critic of Israel, should get his facts straight.

UPDATE: Some commentators below suggest that a Muslim man is permitted to marry a non-Muslim women under Islamic law, though Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. I'm not sure how, if at all, this affects the ability of Jewish women to get married to Muslim men in Israel.

Jews can't marry Christians in Israel either (or, at least, they couldn't 10 years ago). So those who want to marry fly to Cyprus, get married, and (before or after their honeymoon) return to Israel with an existing marriage the state will recognize. We have friends who did this.
3.22.2006 7:58pm
Hovsep Joseph (mail) (www):
Livingston may have conflated Arabs and Muslims for purposes of his criticism of Israeli marriage laws, but is that really such a grave sin? His point would seem to be that civil laws that prohibit marriage between people of different religions/races are offensive. I don't think the substance of the criticism changes much when you change Arab to Muslim.

I also don't understand how, in the same paragraph, you can claim (1) that there is "no racial aspect to the law" and (2) that emigrees to Isreal from CIS who are born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers cannot marry the apparently purer Jews born to Jewish mothers. In different contexts, "Jewish" could connote faith or race/ethnicity, but you make clear by your example, that Judaism in this context refers to one's birthright. Hence, there is definitely a racial aspect to the law.
3.22.2006 8:05pm
I also don't understand how, in the same paragraph, you can claim (1) that there is "no racial aspect to the law" and (2) that emigrees to Isreal from CIS who are born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers cannot marry the apparently purer Jews born to Jewish mothers. In different contexts, "Jewish" could connote faith or race/ethnicity, but you make clear by your example, that Judaism in this context refers to one's birthright. Hence, there is definitely a racial aspect to the law.

As you correctly pointed out, Judaism is both religion and ethnicity. In simple terms the ethnicity is transfered maternally - if the mother is jewish - the kid is jewish (ethnically).

The problem with the CIS emigres, is even though they used the Right of Return to come to Israel, many of them were not "ethnically" jewish - their mother was not. Thus they were allowed to come, but the religious establishment still doubts their "jewishness". Hence the problems
3.22.2006 8:23pm
davidbernstein (mail):
H.J., Jewish religious law considers only individuals born to Jewish mothers as Jews. This has nothing to do with the Israeli state considering certainly people being "purer" Jews than others, it's purely deference to religious authorities. For that matter, even for the rabbis it's not a matter of "purity." Someone who has a Jewish great-great-great grandmother completely through her maternal line would be considered a Jew, even if the women in each generation married a gentile. By contrast, someone with a Jewish father and not Jewish mother is not Jewish according to Jewish law. You may find this idea weird or repulsive, as a lot of religious rules of many religions are, but it's obviously not a question of "racial purity" or the 1/64 maternal line Jew would not be preferred over the 1/2 paternal line Jew.

So, no, I don't at all make clear by my example what you say, and you shouldn't make such bold statements if you don't know the background facts.
3.22.2006 8:28pm
jgshapiro (mail):
I also don't understand how, in the same paragraph, you can claim (1) that there is "no racial aspect to the law" and (2) that emigrees to Isreal from CIS who are born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers cannot marry the apparently purer Jews born to Jewish mothers.

I believe Israel does not recognize people born to Jewish fathers but not to Jewish mothers as being oficially Jewish at all. Even if those people consider themselves Jewish and practice Judiasim as their religion. This is a controversial stance, but has its roots in the Talmud or the Torah, as I recall, where a 'Jew' was someone born to a Jewish mother, period.

So there is no issue of one Jew being purer than the next Jew, but instead of being a Jew in the first place. Nor is there any issue of being Jewish in the ethnic sense, as opposed to the religious sense.

From a marriage perspective, then, this is the same situation as a Muslim marrying a Jew, or a Jew marrying a Christian, or a Muslim marrying a Christian, etc.: the guy who does not have a Jewish mother is considered by the Rabbis to be non-Jewish and is trying to marry a Jew - another example of two people of different religions trying to get married under a system where the marriage laws are administered by religious authorities that don't want inter-religious marriage.
3.22.2006 8:32pm
Argle (mail):
It's "Livingstone."
3.22.2006 8:47pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Surely you could find a Reform Rabbi who would marry someone with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother. Is the problem that the state does not recognize a marriage performed by a Reform Rabbi?
3.22.2006 8:48pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
Prof Bernstein is of course correct that the only inquiry that Jewish law cares about is whether the maternal line is Jewish. The learned Rabbis aside, I find it helpful to ask, if you lived in Europe in the early 40's, would they have put a star on your sleeve? If yes, you are just as Jewish as the guy whose mom is Golda Meir.
3.22.2006 8:48pm
Hovsep Joseph (mail) (www):
Perhaps the word "pure" was not the best choice to convey my point. I understand the rule about inheriting Jewishness from one's mother's side.

I was under the impression that you think Livingstone wrongly suggested in his statement that Israel has a racial requirement in its marriage laws but that you think the marriage law actually just ban interreligious marriage. I assume from this that you think a ban on interracial marriage would be more offensive than a ban on interreligious marriage. You did not give a reason, but I would interpret the distinction you seem to be making as based on thinking race is something we are born with and cannot change whereas religion is something we can change even if we shouldn't be expected to (please correct me if I'm wrong).

My point is that a law that prevents marriage between two people who both identify and practice the same religion solely on the basis of genetic lineage is more like discrimination on the basis of race/ethnicity than religion. Thus, in my opinion it is fair to say that Israeli marriage law does have a "racial" aspect.
3.22.2006 9:16pm
NYU Jew (mail):
Prof Bernstein,

Can you please articulate at some point why you are of the opinion that "Israel should get rid of the religious monopoly on marriage in Israel"?
Should all countries have to be pluralistic to the point that they allow inter-religious marriages?
3.22.2006 9:19pm
byomtov (mail):
Hovsep Joseph,

I believe Bernstein's point is simply that civil marriage does not exist in Israel. All weddings in Israel are carried out by religious authorities - Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other. Thus it is not correct to say that Israel "bans interreligous marriage." In fact, as he points out, interreligious marriages are fully recognized, but the weddings must be performed elsewhere.
3.22.2006 9:42pm
Defending the Indefensible:
I don't even understand what civil marriage pretends to be. If two people are married, they are married, it has nothing to do with the state. If the issue is whether and how the state recognizes marriage, then unless it is going to be in the business of regulating the practice of religion, it should only ascertain whether the couple claim and admit publicly to be married according to whatever faith they hold.
3.22.2006 9:42pm
Dick King:
I don't think that states should "recognize" marriages in any sense.

A marriage is a statement of commitment to the community, but it is also a contract whose terms are set by and changed by the state from time to time and whose terms most married people are only vaguely aware of. This should change. A marriage is a substantially bigger transaction than a house purchase and it should look and feel like a house closing, with a contract negotiated by the couple [although in practice most couples would choose one of several forms with small changes, as is the case with house purchase contracts] and with the implications of the contract being carefully explained to the participants by their lawyers.

"Have a lawyer at every marriage signing?", you say? Yes. While that exposes every couple to an expense of a few hundred dollars, the existence of a contract agreed to at the start would make breakups a lot less contested. Courts know how to enforce contracts reasonably well, and the fact of a contract would make a contest less likely, and in the case of a breakup by and large the people would do what they agreed to do. Better everyone spend $300 than that the half that gets divorced spend tens of thousands.

3.22.2006 9:51pm
Hovsep Joseph (mail) (www):
I should also point out that I in no way intended to single out Judaism for uniquely having a rule that outsiders would find inexplicable or offensive. I think the rules of many religions are unfair, arbitrary, and very harmful to civil society. I think that many such rules that otherwise would fall out of favor do not precisely because they are held to be immune from criticism. So, even if Livingstone wrongly used Arab instead of Muslim, I personally would encourage critique of ancient religious rules of dubious worth that are codified in civil law.
3.22.2006 9:53pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Since we're working to get facts straight, Muslim men may marry Jewish (or Christian) women. Muslim women, however, are forbidden by religious law from marrying non-Muslim men, no matter what religion.

A Sunni Muslim could marry a Druze, if his social circle accepted that Druze were Muslim (many don't). The real hitch would come with the Druze, who try to keep a pure line. The Druze community would probably not respect that marriage.

But there are, of course, lots of people who don't follow the religious rules, necessarily. I attended a wedding in Bahrain in which the daughter of a Shi'a imam married the son of a Jewish merchant. Nobody got stoned for it. At most, there was a shrug of the shoulders and a "Couldn't s/he do any better?"
3.22.2006 9:56pm
davidbernstein (mail):
JB, are you sure about Muslim men being allowed to marry Jewish or Christian women? I know several American Christian women who had to convert to marry Muslim men. Maybe it varies by sect of Islam?
3.22.2006 10:07pm
jackson dyer (mail):
Livingston loves to insult the people who oppose him by calling them Nazis. He forgets that he is the one in power.

If anyone is like Goebbels it his him and not the people he rants against.

To me Livingston is more like Karl Luger (I hope I got his name right) the late 19C mayor of Vienna who is considered the first anti-Semite.
3.22.2006 11:57pm
jackson dyer (mail):
btw: bringing up the marriage laws of Israel (which should be reformed) is a red herring. Livingston is a master at changing the subject when he is being called to account for his anti-Semitic rants.
3.23.2006 12:09am
stranger from a strange land far away (mail):

the name is Karl Lueger (1844 - 1910); and he was by no means the first anti-Semite, neither in Vienna nor in Europe at large, where a religiously motivated anti-semitic tradition exists since the 12th Century at least. What was new about Lueger was that he was no longer anti-Semitic on a purely religious base but also in a more modern racist way, influenced by Arthur de Gobineau and Edouard Drumont.

However, it should be noted that he proved to be an outstandingly good mayor of Vienna as far as municipal organisation and politics go and that his public racism was in large part a pose to obtain votes. He was anti-Semitic mostly because Semitism in Vienna was politically synonymous with the ascendancy of the Liberal Party, an undemocratic electoral law, political corruption and crony-capitalism.

Nonetheless it's true that Lueger was credited by Adolf Hitler as an inspiration for his own virulent hatred of anything Jewish. As for demagogy he definitely took a leaf out of Lueger's book, at least in his early years.
3.23.2006 9:57am
Craig Oren (mail):
just a few, probably minor, points:

* The "British system" that David cites actually goes back to the Ottoman Turks who ruled the area for centuries before the end of World War I. It was the Ottoman way of accommodating minority religions.

* Hitler is not the authority on who is Jewish. That is the role of Jewish law. At least since Roman times, 2000 years ago, Jewish law has taken the position that the religious identity of the mother determines the religious identity of the child. (There is a book by Shayne Cohen, Who was a Jew, that addresses the origins of this?) A poster above tries to characterize this as ethnic identity. This is questionable. Molly Bloom in Ulysees, who has a Jewish mother, would be recognized as Jewish by any rabbi, and the same would be true of her children.

* Reform Jews no longer follow the matrilineal rule, but also recognize as Jewish anyone with a Jewish father. There is virtually no Reform movement in Israel. Jews there are either Orthodox or (much more likely) entirely secular. If a Reform rabbi in Israel performed a marriage involving someone who is Jewish by patrilineal descent, that marriage would not be recognized in Israel. On the other hand, suppose that marriage were performed in the United States. In that case, the marriage would be recognized in Israel. There was a brief attempt a few years ago in Israel to recognize only those American marriages that would be recognized if performed in Israel. Reform and conservative congregations in the United States went nuts, and the idea was quietly dropped.
3.23.2006 10:10am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Off topic, but should be of interest to DB-thread-readers (&DB for that matter):

A Congolese woman sought asylum in the U.S. after being imprisoned for a month and raped several times a day, including after her miscarriage.

The immigration judge who denied her application found that experience to be incredible ... in the words of the Fifth Circuit,
The IJ also found that Mwembie's testimony that she was raped daily is implausible because "the brutality that [she] has described is simply not comprehensible." R. 77. This is

That brutality is extraordinary does not render it implausible. Under the IJ's logic, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and describing the concentration camp atrocities would have been denied asylum because the brutality they described would be "incomprehensible."
In the year 2006, someone has to explain this? (Leaving aside that, IIRC, that was exactly the response that many Jews found?)
3.23.2006 10:10am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Oops, linked to my blog post, not to the court op.
3.23.2006 10:12am
Houston Lawyer:
Red Ken is an ass, but he does occasionally amuse.

It appears that the only problem with interfaith marriages in Israel is finding someone to perform the ceremony. I believe that divorce law in Israel also involves the religious authorities and that you can't generally get a civil divorce. I'd like to see a cost/benefit analysis on that.
3.23.2006 10:15am
Jimbeaux (mail):

are you sure about Muslim men being allowed to marry Jewish or Christian women?

There's a lot about this kind of thing over at, or whatever it's called. I think generally, marriage to a non-Muslim woman is okay because (a) it is unthinkable that she would be able to convert the man away from Mohammedism; and (b) a Muslim woman who marries a man probably would be tempted away from her faith (y'know, because she's so weak and womanly and whatnot).
3.23.2006 1:17pm
Questioner (mail):
I am very curious about the background of Ken Livingstone.
I have known a number of British Jews with that last name, changed from Levinson or another variation.
So, is Livingstone of a Jewish background?
That would make it even stranger!
3.23.2006 7:54pm
JBurgess (mail) (www):
David, it would truly be a heterodox Muslim that didn't permit marriage between a Muslm male and a women from a "People of the Book." Various hadith--or traditions of the Prophet--have Mohammed married to both a Jewish and a Christian woman. Some include a Sabaen, but since nobody's really sure who they were, or if they still exist, it's moot. No claims for a Zoroastrian wife.

Children from such marriages, of course, are expected to be raised Muslim.
3.25.2006 6:41pm