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The Family in Israel

The Family in Israel

In comparison to other industrialized countries, Israel is a familistic society. The country's small size permits close geographic proximity and frequent personal contact among relatives. Holidays and life-cycle events are generally celebrated through ceremonies and customs that bring family members together. Intra-familial involvement and assistance [from baby sitting through major financial help] are normative. Key indicators of Israel's familiness include relatively high marital and fertility rates and low divorce rates in comparison to other post-industrial countries. In 1999, for every 1,000 persons in the population of 6.4 million, there were 6.7 marriages, 21.9 births, and 1.7 divorces. The downside of this familiness is that persons without family may suffer social isolation, lack of social support, and a sense of not belonging.
At the same time, the Israeli family shares many features of the modern family. Marriage is based more on emotional bonds than on economic or social considerations. Family functions such as childcare and caring for the elderly have been transferred to the community. Independence from the family of origin is encouraged from an early age. The monogamous nuclear family is increasingly becoming one model among others. The major values that persons expect to realize within the family are less the good of the family than the good of the individual. The Israeli family also shares the stresses of other modern families: spousal tension over roles and tasks brought about by increasing gender equality, and difficulties, especially among mothers, in balancing childcare, work, and personal interests and goals.
Declining marital rates, rising divorce rates, and falling birth rates point to decreasing familiness in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The decrease is most salient in the Jewish population [81% of the total], which saw substantial falls in the marital and birth rates and a doubling of the divorce rate. The Muslim [15.6 %], Christian [1.8%], and Druse [1.6 %] communities have remained more strongly family oriented, but cracks have begun to appear. Among the Muslims, marital rates have risen slightly, but the birth rate has fallen and the divorce rate has more than doubled. Among the Christians and Druse marital rates have risen or remained high and divorce is virtually non-existent, but birth rates have declined substantially.
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. For persons to marry and divorce in Israel, they must obtain the authorization of the court of their religion. These state supported courts rule in accord with religious laws, which restrict inter-faith 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. For divorce, it requires that the husband gives his wife a writ of divorce and that she accepts 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, non-judicial 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 co-habitation. After a stipulated period of time, co-habiting couples become 'known in public' and are legally entitled to full spousal rights. Their control of divorce is reduced by provisions permitting persons to file for divorce in either 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.
Immigration: Israel is a country built by successive waves of immigration. In 1995, only 61% of Israelis were native born [Good & Ben David ,1995]. The pattern for the mainstream Israeli family developed from the meeting of the European and Afro-Asian immigrants whose descendants comprise 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 which had served as a haven and support in Europe's hostile, anti-Semitic environment. The first group to arrive were 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 East-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 pre-arranged marriage, rigid sex roles, and high fertility, and sought to replace them with equality and freedom [Katz & 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 & Peres,1986]. These immigrants and their descendants bolstered the familiness 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 socio-economic strata. 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 child rearing.
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 inter-dependence 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 multi-generational extended family groups, which cooperated socially and economically. Authority was vested in the oldest male, the father was the undisputed head of the family, and women were considered the property of their husbands. In Israel, this structure has been undermined: by the high death rate en route, the fact that different parts of the family-community immigrated at different times, and the economic dependency of the formerly self supporting family-group on the Israeli government. More than 30% 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, normative inter-generational 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. At the time of this writing, the practice is particularly widespread among Ethiopian children, some 90% 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 familiness 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, 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.
Family Patterns
Several somewhat overlapping family patterns may be found in Israel.
The mainstream family: Among Israeli Jews, the great majority of families, of both European and Afro-Asian origin, combine traditional Jewish family values and norms with modern features. These are medium sized families with an average of three children. Marriage is seen primarily, though not only, as a framework for raising children. The man is expected to be the major breadwinner, and the woman to fulfill the duties of wife and mother. Although 70% of the women work, work is secondary to child rearing. Divorce is viewed as a failure, not as an opportunity for growth. At the same time, under the impact of feminism and Israel's egalitarian ideology, the men in these families are increasingly involved in childcare, decisions are made jointly, and resources are divided democratically .
The ultra-orthodox family lives by literal adherence to Jewish religious law and at a remove from the 'corruption' of Israel's secular society. It emphasizes personal modesty [married women must cover their heads]; the separation of men and women in education, worship, and public places; early marriage; and clear role divisions. The woman's task is to be a wife and mother, responsible for making a Jewish home. The man's task is to pursue religious studies. The commandment to be fruitful and multiply is taken literally, resulting in a high birth rate. At the same time, ultra-orthodox women have always worked [in feminine occupations, such as secretary and teacher] so as to enable their husbands to study. In addition, there is increasing cooperation with the secular authorities to deal with family problems that were traditionally kept within the community.
Post-modern and single parent families: Israel has a small percentage of 'post-modern' families. These include double-career families, in which the husband and wife are financially autonomous, as well as co-habiting couples, same-sex couples, some of them with children, and unmarried parents by choice.
In 1998, 11% of all Israeli families were headed by single parents, 90% of them by mothers. Of these mothers, 68% were divorced, 17% widowed, and 15% unmarried. [Central Bureau of Statistics, 1999] The unmarried mothers are mostly middle and upper-middle class college educated women of European origin, who first gave birth in their mid- to late-thirties. Their choice reflects both the high valuation of having children in Israeli society and the legitimacy it accords to the individual's strivings for self-actualization.
The kibbutz family: The kibbutz family today falls into the mainstream family pattern, but it was once a daring social experiment. The kibbutz is a collective community that was created in Israel on the basis of egalitarian, Marxist principles. For ideological and economic reasons, the family took second place to the community. The legal and ceremonial aspects of marriage were de-emphasized, meals were taken in the communal dining room, and normative pressure was exerted on people to spend their leisure time in communal activities rather than with their families. Children were raised with their age mates in separate children's houses. They were cared for by child minders and spent only leisure time, of 2-3 hours a day, with their parents. Their physical, social and emotional needs were to be met by the kibbutz.
Although kibbutz members have contributed beyond their numbers to the defense and leadership of Israeli society, the psychological impact of this communal upbringing and loosened family ties was always a matter of debate. Beginning in the 1970s, one kibbutz after another returned the children to their parents' homes and care. Moreover, extended families now constitute a recognized part of the kibbutz social landscape .
The Arab family: The traditional Arab family is hierarchical, patriarchal, partrilineal, and collectivist. Individuals are expected to subordinate their wishes to the needs of their families, and wives their wishes to those of their husbands. The nuclear family nests within the hamula, an extensive kinship network formed by ties of marriage and blood, whose traditional function was to provide its members with cohesion and financial support [Haj-Yahia, 1995].
Over the latter part of the twentieth century, the Arab family in Israel has been undergoing a process of modernization. The hamula has been whittled down in size and the status and the authority of its elders undermined [ Samooha, 1989]. Arab men have seen their traditional role as head of the family undermined and their authority over their wives and children eroded . Arab women have become increasingly educated and, to help carry the economic burden, have started to work outside the home . Nonetheless, women are generally still expected to be deferential to their husbands, parents-in-law, and parents [Haj- Yahia, 1995]. Divorce, though on the rise, is strongly stigmatized. [Cohen & Savaya 1997; Al-Krenawi & Graham 1998].
Public Support for Families
Familiness in Israel is encouraged by the availability of extensive public supports, which are anchored in law and provided by a combination of state and voluntary bodies.
Families benefit from mandatory health insurance with universal access, and from a guaranteed minimal income contingent on the number of dependents.
Israel's many laws and services on behalf of children reflect the society's positive attitudes towards children. Employers are forbidden to fire pregnant women. Pre-natal care, hospitalization, and delivery are included in the national health package, as is artificial insemination. New mothers receive a monetary grant to pay for the newborn's needs, and are entitled to a twelve week maternity leave, paid for by the National Insurance Institute.
Direct financial support is provided to assist parents to care for their children. Every family receives a monthly child allowance for each child deposited directly into the mother's bank account. Single parents are entitled to a discount on municipal taxes and to financial assistance for such things as purchasing school supplies. The National Insurance Institute pays child support where the father, whether divorced or not, defaults on his obligations.
A ramified system of pre-natal and well baby clinics run by state supported HMOs and other public bodies is dispersed throughout the country. Daycare centers run by state subsidized voluntary organizations liberally dot Israel's towns and cities. So do community centers, which provide low cost activities for children, teens, and adults.
Most municipalities in Israel offer state funded family services, comprising instrumental services, family counseling, and educational testing and counseling. Shelters for battered women and children have been established by a variety of women's organizations.
The elderly receive National Insurance payments. Indigent elderly who have difficulties taking care of themselves are entitled to home care.

In sum, although Israel is a relatively familistic society, Israeli families, hailing from many parts of the world, are highly diverse and still changing.

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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

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

Central Bureau of Statistics, 2000


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Orna Cohen, Ph.D.

School of Social Work
Tel-Aviv University
Tel-Aviv 69978 Israel
Tel: 972-3-6406365 [w]
972-3-5491092 [h]
Fax: 972-3-6409182
E.mail: ornacoh@post.tau.ac.il

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