Identity Everything in Jew-Arab Tragedy


Simha Vaknin’s boyfriend, a tall, handsome man, was known to everyone in her town of Pardes Hanna as Avi Levy, a Jew from Zicharon Yaacov, 5 miles away.

In Zicharon Yaacov, where he had lived for 20 years, “Avi” was Abed al-Tiar, a member of the town’s only Arab family.

Tiar wanted to be a Jew, and when his masquerade was exposed in March, his hopes of escaping the limitations of being Arab in Israel collapsed.

Police said he fatally shot Simha and Jill Eden, a Jewish woman from his own village who had rejected him, then took his own life.


The case illuminates the element of identity that has exacerbated the decades-long political conflict between Arab and Jew.

Intermarriages are not accepted by either community. There are only a few hundred in Israel, a nation of 3.5 million Jews and 810,000 Arabs.

Yochanan Peres, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University, said the taboo against marrying outside the group is so strong that the few violators are put in “a suicidal situation.”

Abed al-Tiar seemed able to overcome the obstacles if anyone could.

Residents of Zicharon Yaacov describe the 23-year-old farm worker as appearing Jewish in every way--education, dress, flawless Hebrew, sense of humor and friendships. They say he was happy and well-liked, and for most of his life stayed out of trouble.

Then, two years ago, Tiar fell in love with Jill Eden, a 30-year-old beautician in his hometown.

She was friendly, but did not reciprocate romantic interest, and he began to press her.

Yitzhak Zur, police commander of the town in northern Israel, said Tiar wrote love letters to Eden and painted messages on a wall near her house.

He began threatening her a year ago, and Eden complained to the police. Tiar was convicted of harassment and released on probation.

A few months later, Tiar met Simha Vaknin, 20, who worked at a boarding school for retarded children in Pardes Hanna. He introduced himself as Avi Levy, a name as common in Hebrew as John Smith in English.

“He would be here from first thing in the morning,” said Simha’s brother, Yaacov. “We knew him as a Jew in everything; he never gave a single sign that would give him away.”

Her brother said Simha never considered the possibility that “Avi” was not Jewish until the beginning of March, when she spoke to his older sister and detected a slight Arab accent. Tiar allayed her doubts by showing her a forged army identity card.

While they sat in his car a week later, a policeman stopped for a routine check of their identity cards. Police said they arrested Tiar for possessing a counterfeit card and told Simha his true identity.

“She decided from that moment to break it off,” her brother said. “She told him very politely that he had lied to her this whole time and she didn’t want to continue their relationship.”

If she had known “Avi” was an Arab, Simha never would have become involved with him, Yaacov said.

“We’re not interested in relationships like that,” the brother said. “It’s not natural. It’s not healthy.”

A few days later, Tiar arrived at the school where Simha worked. Zur, the Zicharon Yaacov police commander, said the young man persuaded her to get into his car, drove to the outskirts of Pardes Hanna and shot her to death.

Tiar then drove to Zicharon Yaacov and came upon Jill Eden leaving work, followed her home and shot her to death as she was entering her apartment, Zur said.

That evening, in the orchard where he worked, Tiar wrote a suicide note in Hebrew on a cardboard box and shot himself in the head. Police would not disclose the note’s contents, but the daily Maariv quoted it as saying: “They wouldn’t let me live as Jew.”

“He told me he wanted to be a Jew,” said Shai Zukerman, the dead man’s employer. “He was born an Arab, but among the Arabs he was a Jew, and among the Jews he was an Arab.”