Israel should not fight polygamy

By Geoffrey Alderman, May 2, 2008

Many Bedouin have been killed while serving in the IDF. Time to show their culture some respect

The Israeli government has recently announced a programme to tackle the “problem” of polygamy amongst its Bedouin citizens.

There is no such “problem”.

Bedouin comprise two per cent of Israel’s population. Arabic-speaking Islamic nomads, living mostly in the Negev, the lot of the Bedouin under Israeli rule has not been a uniformly happy one. Grazing rights for their sheep and goats have been restricted. Successive Israeli governments have encouraged (some would say over-zealously encouraged) the Bedouin to relocate to designated urban areas. In these, it is true, their health and educational needs are able to be more effectively addressed, but at a price: the complex social hierarchy of the Bedouin tribes has been compromised and their cultural norms have been undermined. Over the years, there have been some violent confrontations between Bedouin families and the Israeli authorities as this urbanisation has proceeded apace. Unemployment rates among Bedouin are high. Many Bedouin men, therefore, seek careers in the Israeli army, where they have excelled as trackers, distinguishing themselves in the ever-dangerous border areas adjoining Gaza. Many such volunteers have fallen in the line of duty.

Last month, one such soldier was killed — his Jeep was blown apart by a roadside bomb. What is particularly tragic about this incident was that he was (as Simon Griver reported in last week’s JC) about to return home for his marriage — or, to be more accurate, for his third marriage. And the determination of the present government of Israel to stamp out such polygamous marriages is only adding, quite needlessly, to the list of Bedouin grievances.

In general, polygamy is prohibited under Israeli law. Why this should be so is, at one level, a complete mystery, because polygamy is most certainly not prohibited according to Orthodox Judaism. There are numerous examples of polygamous marriages in the Hebrew Bible. Figures as central to the Jewish story as Abraham and Jacob both had multiple wives, not to mention King Solomon. Deuteronomy (chapter 17, verse 17) warns a king merely against having too many wives. It is (probably) true that Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (“Rabbeinu Gershom”), an Ashkenazi sage living in Lorraine at the end of the 10th century of the present era (that is, about a hundred years before the Norman Conquest of England), published a “ban” against polygamous marriages, but even if he did so, the ban, which was to last for a thousand years, has now expired.

In any case, Rabbeinu Gershom’s prohibition never extended to Sephardi Jews, and historically, in Islamic societies, Sephardi males customarily took several wives. Israel, like the UK, recognises the legality of polygamous marriages contracted in countries where they are permitted, and there are still in Israel today examples of such family units. Moreover, since Orthodox Judaism recognises yichud — intercourse — as a form of marriage (provided, of course, the couple are halachically free to marry), Orthodox Batei Din will routinely protest that no child of such a union is a mamzer — a bastard. Why? Because even if the man already had one Jewish wife, he is halachically permitted another. And before the feminists among you start bombarding me with emails and letters telling me how unfair this is to women, let me remind you that it is no more open to me to change halachah than it is to a Beth Din.

I suspect that Rabbeinu Gershom’s ban had much less to do with Judaism than with Christianity, and was inspired much less by a wish to adhere to halachah than by the desire to please the Christian rulers of western and central Europe at that time. For this I do not blame him in the slightest. We might note, however, that the Christian attitude to polygamy was itself set in stone only comparatively recently. In a celebrated incident, Martin Luther gave permission to a German prince to take a second wife (Luther observed correctly that there was no scriptural prohibition against this), and in the mid-17th century the parliament of Nuremburg permitted men to take multiple wives in order to build up the population of Germany following the Thirty Years’ War.

I make these observations without any moral intention. But it seems to me that the desire of certain no-doubt well-meaning groups in Israel to force the loyal Bedouin to abandon something that they hold to be central to their social system is misplaced at best, and — at worst — an unacceptable form of cultural imperialism.

Last updated: 10:01am, May 15 2008