“When he was little I got stares and comments every time I left the house,” recalls Racheli Rupp, 42, of Rishon Letzion. “It was very hard. People would ask me, ‘There aren’t enough Jewish kids who need help?’ As if he’s not Jewish if he’s of Ethiopian origin.”
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Racheli and her partner, Sigal, are parents of eight children, among them Matan, a boy of seven whom they first took in as a foster child and later adopted. An increasing number of families in Israel have become acquainted firsthand with the challenges of adopting a child of Ethiopian origin. That option has become more common over the last few years, partly because the wait to adopt a child of Ethiopian origin is considerably shorter than the time it takes to adopt a child who might look more similar to the parents.
Racheli says she has to protect Matan from racist remarks, including from kids at school.
“It’s hard when they talk to your child like that, but our society is still ugly and racist,” she says. “We never hid anything from Matan. We always told him that there was a woman who wanted to raise him but couldn’t and so we got him as a gift.” Asked how he felt when kids at school made fun of him, Matan replied shyly, “It offended me, sort of.”
Sometimes family can also cause pain. Ahinoam (not her real name) has a brother who cut himself off from her and her husband, Amihai, when they adopted Rachel, a baby of Ethiopian origin, after earlier adopting Elad, a boy of Asian origin. “But [my brother] was the exception. The rest of our family and friends accepted her with open arms and lots of love.” By the time Rachel was a year old, her brother’s attitude had thawed and he started getting to know his new niece.
As the child grows older and ventures into the wider world, the comments often get more biting.
“You live in Ramat Aviv? Your mother must be a cleaning woman,” strangers tell Dan, when they ask him where he lives. “That can’t be your father’s car,” a policeman told Ronen, when he stopped him on suspicion of stealing the luxury car he was driving. Ron’s mother, meanwhile, insists on accompanying him to the mall, fearing that once again the guard will follow him into a store to make sure he isn’t shoplifting.
Yael Mishali’s son is 19, and her fears that he wouldn’t be allowed into clubs or would be stopped by a patrol car have already been realized.
“When he got his license I told him that he should always take two white friends with him in the car. That’s something another mother wouldn’t dream of having to say to her children,” Mishali said. “A young Ethiopian in the State of Israel can’t drive a nice car just like that. From the moment he leaves his loving home he is regarded by society as black, as different.”
Mishali, a mother of seven who also has a 15-year-old daughter of Ethiopian origin, said that when her son was 16, she sat him down and explained to him how to respond if he was stopped by police — that he should never answer back or ask questions, but just do what he’s told. “He told me afterward that that conversation was traumatic for him, but I had no choice,” she says.
Ahinoam and her husband tried to ease their children’s acceptance by moving to a settlement that has a substantial number of Ethiopians and immigrants from India. “It was important to us not to live in a place where everyone is white; it’s part of our quality of life, that allows us all this variety and to feel that we aren’t exceptions,” Ahinoam says. But she admits that when they leave their community, “The racism and the stares begin.”
Sources in the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry say that after years in which most families approaching the ministry’s adoption service would refuse to adopt babies and toddlers of Ethiopian origin, more and more families – currently half of all applicants – are willing to do so. As a result, the waiting period has grown substantially. Twenty years ago, a family that wanted to adopt a baby of Ethiopian origin would have had to wait only a few months. A decade later, the waiting period was two years and today it averages five years. That is still shorter than the wait for a non-Ethiopian baby, currently seven years.
It is estimated that there are hundreds of Israeli families who have adopted children of Ethiopian origin. Although they themselves sometimes experience racism, none of the families interviewed believe that potential parents’ refusal to adopt a child of Ethiopian origin stems from racism, but from the difficulties that result from having the adoption be so obvious all the time.
When a couple is interested in adoption, they go through a lengthy series of interviews and tests to determine if they are fit to be adoptive parents. Once the couple has been approved in principle, they are asked to fill out a “readiness form,” in which one of the questions they are asked is if they are willing to adopt a child who looks different from them.
“Yes, it’s a question that’s asked, to know whether the parents will be prepared to cope,” said a source in the Social Services Ministry. “These families will have to deal with questions and stares from their surroundings. Neither they nor the child will have the option of forgetting the fact of the adoption. There are people who get drained by the fact that their adoption is obvious all the time. It’s not for everyone.”
Twice a year, a group of around 100 families who’ve adopted Ethiopian children spend a Shabbat together. That is practically the only thing they have in common, but it creates a strong bond.
“It’s an opportunity for the children to understand that we’re not the only family that’s built this way,” says Ahinoam. “It’s an entire Shabbat of lovely families, an entire population that’s brown-white-brown. It makes it feel more normal.”
Dana (not her real name), who has two adopted children of Ethiopian origin, has been part of this group of families for more than a decade. She says the children call themselves “surprise eggs” and like to joke about how “the whites” regard them. “Once I heard the kids talking. One told about how people are always commenting on how he speaks so nicely without an accent, and the other kids laughed and agreed with him. We’re a group that strengthens and supports each other on issues only we understand.”
One of the issues parents help each other out with is how to cope with the opening of the school year. For them introducing their child to a new preschool or homeroom teacher is particularly sensitive.
On Elad’s first day of preschool a few years ago, Ahinoam brought him to the classroom, gave him a kiss, and left. She didn’t think there was any reason to explain anything to the preschool staff. At the end of the day she got a call from the teacher. “She called and asked to make a home visit so she could get to know Elad better. Obviously it was because of his skin color. Preschool teachers don’t make home visits on the first day of school.
“After that incident I changed my approach,” explains Ahinoam. “With Rachel, I go into the preschool and I say with a big smile, ‘Good morning, this is Rachel, we adopted her when she was a month old and she’s our amazing daughter.’”