8 minute read


Factors Affecting The Israeli Family

Key factors that have shaped the Israeli family are Israeli family law, the country's history of immigration, and the prevalence of trauma and war.

Family law. Family law in Israel comes under both religious and secular jurisdiction, with two parallel legal systems working in tandem. People who want to marry and divorce in Israel must obtain the authorization of the court of their religion. These state-supported courts rule in accord with religious laws, which restrict interfaith marriage, encourage family stability, and place obstacles in the way of divorce. Jewish religious law forbids marriage between relatives or between divorcees and descendants of the ancient priesthood. Divorce requires that the husband give his wife a writ of divorce and that she accept it.

The rulings of the religious courts are subject to the laws passed by Israel's parliament. These forbid child marriage, polygamy, and the husband's one-sided, nonjudicial divorce of his wife, which are permitted by Muslim religious law. They allocate legal guardianship for the children of a union (whether in or out of wedlock) to both parents. In divorce, custody is to be awarded on the basis of the best interests of the child, and non-custodial parents receive visiting rights and pay child support.

The religious courts' control over marriage may be circumvented by wedding abroad or by cohabitation. After a stipulated period of time, cohabiting couples become known in public and are legally entitled to full spousal rights. Their control of divorce is reduced by provisions permitting either partner to file for divorce in a religious or civil court (which may rule on all matters other than the writ of divorce) and to appeal to the civil court against religious court rulings.


Marital, birth, and divorce rates in Israel: 1975–1999
Number of marriages, births, and divorces a year for every 1,000 people
  Marriages   Births   Divorces
SOURCE: Central Bureau of Statistics 2000.
Jews 81% 9.6–6.1   24.3–18.7   0.9–1.9
Muslims 15.6% 7.3–7.9   39.5–34.5   0.5–1.1
Christians 1.8% 4.5–5.7   19.9–16.4   0.1
Druse 1.6% 9.3   36.8–22.7   0.6

Immigration. Israel is a country built by successive waves of immigration. In 1995, only 61 percent of Israelis were native born (Good and Ben-David 1995). The pattern for the mainstream Israeli family developed from the meeting of the European and Afro-Asian immigrants whose descendants compose in about equal portions most of Israel's Jewish population.

The European Jews who arrived in Israel in the first half of the twentieth century separated themselves from the ramified, closely knit European Jewish family that had served as a haven and support in Europe's hostile, anti-Semitic environment. The first group to arrive was made up of young, unmarried idealists, who came from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century with the dream of creating an entirely new Jewish society, free of the faults of their Eastern European Jewish communities. They viewed marriage and family as secondary to this task. They rejected the traditional norms and customs of European Jewish family life, including prearranged marriage, rigid sex roles, and high fertility, and sought to replace them with equality and freedom (Katz and Peres 1986). These immigrants were followed in the 1930s by Jews fleeing Hitler's Europe and in the 1940s and 1950s by survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. The new arrivals did not share the radical ideology of their predecessors. But they too were mostly young, without parents and relatives, and distanced both geographically and psychologically from their former family model.

The European immigrants established in Israel a Western, liberal family model, of small to medium-sized, isolated nuclear units, characterized by various degrees of closeness and the ideal, if not always the practice, of gender equality. Family relations were influenced by two contrary pulls:
(1) the prevailing ideal of the sabra, or native-born Israeli, which touted toughness and autonomy, and (2) the strong needs of the refugees and survivors, most of whose families of origin had been eradicated in Europe. The survivors generally infused their new families with intense emotional significance and vested in their children their aspirations for renewal.

The European model was modified by the arrival in the 1950s of the Afro-Asian immigrants from the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Arriving in whole communities, these immigrants introduced into Israel the conservative, patriarchal family structure and values of the countries from which they came. They had large households (five or more children), and large extended family networks. Most marriages were arranged; girls married young; fertility was high. The family was held together by a clear structure of authority and reciprocal obligations between genders and generations (Katz and Peres 1986). These immigrants and their descendants bolstered the familism that had been weakened by the immigrants from Europe.

Over time, the two models converged. The Afro-Asian Jewish family loosened its hold; arranged marriage is unacceptable in both communities; and the age of first marriage, fertility rates, and the allocation of conjugal tasks are similar for similar socioeconomic levels. Because the European culture of the early immigrants was the dominant one in Israel, most of the changes were made by the Afro-Asian family. The European family, however, which had been enlarged by the natural addition of grandparents and other relatives, also adapted in the encounter, with a renewed valuation of marriage and childrearing.

The immigrants who followed added to the diversity of the Israeli family. Two groups, from the Soviet Union, who arrived in the 1970s and 1990s, and from Ethiopia, who arrived in the 1990s, are of particular interest.

The Soviet immigrants can be divided into those from the Muslim republics and those from Russia's urban areas. The former came with large, traditional families, much like those of the Afro-Asian immigrants two decades earlier. The latter have small but tightly knit families, often with only one child. Thirty percent of them are headed by single mothers, with the father remaining in Russia. The grandmother is an important family member and major source of support, taking care of the home and children while the parents work. The outcome is a high degree of interdependence among family members. Many Russian immigrants live in three-generational households. They generally place considerable emphasis on education. The upbringing of the children tends to be strict and the parents to be highly involved in the children's lives (Poskanzer 1995).

The Ethiopians came largely from closed rural communities, where core families lived alongside one another in multigenerational extended family groups, which cooperated socially and economically. Authority was vested in the oldest male, and the father was the undisputed head of the family; women were considered the property of their husbands. In Israel, this structure has been undermined: by the high death rate of immigrant males en route to the country, the fact that different parts of the family-community immigrated at different times, and the economic dependence of the formerly self-supporting family group on the Israeli government. More than 30 percent of the Ethiopian core families in Israel are headed by single mothers, whose husbands died or abandoned them (Ben-David 1993).

Immigration has had a strong impact on the families of all the immigrant groups. As among immigrants elsewhere, the children became the agents of socialization, standard intergenerational conflict was intensified, and parental authority was weakened as the children learned the language and adopted the identity and values of the new land. Moreover, in its encounter with Israel's Western culture, which stressed individualism, the close relatedness of the traditional Jewish family of all extractions yielded to increased emotional distance between generations.

The transition has been particularly wrenching for the immigrants from traditional cultures. These immigrants faced discrimination and lacked the means to compete in Israel's technologically advanced society. Men who had provided adequately for their families in their countries of origin, where they worked as farmers, artisans, or tradesman, found it difficult to earn a living in Israel, and their wives, who were formerly confined to the home, had to go out to work. The result was that the father lost his status and authority as the patriarchal head of the family. As elsewhere, these developments sometimes exacted a high social price in alienation, street gangs, and crime among the descendants of the immigrants (Halpern 2001)

Successive Israeli governments have viewed immigration both as a way of rescuing Jews and of building a new Israeli society. Large numbers of children and adolescents in certain immigrant groups were thus brought to Israel before their parents. In Israel, many immigrant children were sent to boarding facilities for their education and acculturation. The practice was particularly widespread among Ethiopian children at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some 90 percent of whom study in publicly supported religious boarding facilities. The practice stresses immigrant absorption and the acculturation of young immigrants over family closeness and continuity.

Recurrent traumas. The legacy of the Nazi Holocaust, multiple wars stemming from the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict; and decades of terrorism have fostered familism in Israel, while placing great burdens on Israeli families. These events produced a perpetual, underlying anxiety, which has intensified Israelis' needs for the affiliation and belonging that the family can provide (Malkinson; Rubin; and Witztum 2000). They also engendered a realistic concern with losing a child to war or terror, which has led most Israeli couples to have more children than their counterparts in other Western countries and Israeli society to encourage childbirth.

At the same time, these events have caused enormous stress for Israeli families. Hardly a family in Israel is untouched by loss and bereavement. Many Israeli families cope with the myriad emotional, practical, and financial difficulties of caring for a family member who has been physically injured or psychologically traumatized by these events.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsIsrael - Factors Affecting The Israeli Family, Family Patterns, Public Support For Families