Integration under the Hupa: Interracial Marriage in Israel

By Meyers, Nechemia | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Integration under the Hupa: Interracial Marriage in Israel


Meyers, Nechemia, The World and I


Social worker Enatmar Hillel is still slightly embarrassed when she tells what happened to her several months ago. She and her lawyer husband had advertised in a Tel Aviv paper for someone to look after their children when both were at work. But when Enatmar ushered the first job applicant into their apartment, the person took one look at her and immediately demanded: "Where is the lady of the house?"

Though taken aback by the question, Enatmar--who is black--smilingly replied: "I am the lady of the house,"

This misunderstanding was not entirely unexpected. In general, the black Ethiopian immigrants found in middle-class Israeli neighborhoods are apt to be scrubbing floors or weeding gardens. They are not--as is the case with Enatmar--partners in an interracial marriage.

When Enatmar Selam and Ari Hillel wed several years ago, the event was widely reported by Israel's media. The event was notable not only because marriages between Ethiopian immigrants and "white Israelis" were unusual, as they still are, but also because the Hillel family were members of the Israeli elite. Ari's father, Shlomo--who has just been awarded the Israel Prize for his role in saving the Jews of Iran and Iraq as well as for his other contributions to the Jewish people--has been, at various stages in his life, an ambassador to several African countries, a member of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, a minister in two governments, and, in the final stage of his public career, speaker of the Knesset.

At the present time, however, the role Hillel senior values most is that of grandfather to Noga and Ayelet, Enatmar and Ari's lively daughters. Certainly the children's mocha coloring doesn't bother him or affect his loving attitude toward them. But it would be an exaggeration to suggest that color-related prejudices are absent in Israeli society. Officially, such attitudes are unacceptable. Unofficially, they exist.

This is certainly the impression of Morit Avraham, an Ashkenazic sabra. Avraham's husband is Naftali, an Ethiopian immigrant. Naftali is a graduate of the Haifa Technion and an officer in the Israeli air force. Morit recalls several instances of subtle, if clumsy or unintended, insensitivity. For example, when a second Gulf War seemed imminent, Morit went to pick up gas masks. The guard asked her why she wanted two. Pointing to her son Noam, who was standing at her side, she said one was for him. "Oh, I didn't realize he was your son," the guard replied shamefacedly. "I guess he must be adopted."

In some respects Morit is less upset by the racism she encounters from time to time than by the enthusiastic do-gooders who, when they see her and Naftali together, are apt to say: "It's so nice to see the two of you side by side. You certainly deserve credit for what you have done."

Morit withholds comment but thinks to herself: "What kind of credit? We love one another."

Morit and Naftali agree on most things, but, as with all marriages, disagreements do arise here and there. Some can be traced to cultural expectations. "When Morit asks me to do the dishes," Naftali comments with a trace of a smile, "I point out that men never go into the kitchen in Ethiopia."

Be that as it may, Naftali is certainly a full-fledged Israeli. This is not always the case, Morit says, for a good many Ethiopian immigrants. She notes a particular problem with regard to young people in their teens and early twenties. Some of these younger Ethiopians are so alienated from their Israeli surroundings that they model themselves on Afro-Americans rather than on sabras. This problem concerns Morit to such an extent that--despite the fact that she has an office job, two boisterous young boys to look after, and household responsibilities--she devotes considerable time to playing an active role in a group devoted to helping Ethiopian immigrants find their place in Israeli society. …

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