World News

Hate Mail and Conversion Advice: Interfaith Couple Caught in Israel’s Fault Lines

Posted November 30, 2018 2:38 p.m. EST

JERUSALEM — For as long as she has anchored her own television news program — about five years, in different iterations — Lucy Aharish has always opened by greeting her viewers in both Hebrew and Arabic.

It’s only natural: She is Israeli — born and raised in Dimona — and Arab and Muslim, the daughter of parents who moved to the south from Nazareth. Her frequent monologues are a trademark and have sometimes resonated far afield: Impassioned diatribes about the failure of both the West and Arab leaders to protect innocent victims of the Syrian civil war were seen by millions of viewers worldwide.

Yet, because so few Arabs and Muslims have prominent roles in Hebrew-language news in Israel, and because racism is so commonplace in Israeli society, Aharish says, she continues to receive a steady supply of hate mail merely for adding “masa’a al-kheir” to the “erev tov” she wishes her audience at the top of each weeknight show.

She ignores most complaints, but one letter a month ago stirred her interest. The anonymous writer called her Arabic salutations “inappropriate and very jarring,” and said it was “improper” for the station to allow them. Yet the writer sounded respectful, and closed with an old-fashioned Hebrew expression: “Alu v’hatzlichu,” or “Go forth and succeed.”

Aharish posted the missive online and drew comments praising her support for coexistence and religious tolerance, most of them from Israeli Jews — including some who took note of the letter writer’s polished Hebrew phraseology.

On Monday, however, the same anonymous viewer renewed his complaint in a more belligerent tone. If Aharish needed the “relief” of speaking Arabic, he wrote in an email, “let her go to the bathroom, give a speech in Arabic to the toilet bowl and come back and talk to us only in Hebrew.” If it was so important to her, he said, “let her go to Al-Jazeera.”

Aharish shared this screed online, too. But that was not enough for her.

She had been struck by the musicality of the first, more respectful letter, she said. So she asked her husband — Tsahi Halevi, a well-known Israeli actor and singer-songwriter — to help her set it to music.

On Wednesday night, Halevi brought a guitar to the set of “Sichat Hayom” (“Today’s Conversation”), his wife’s half-hour show on Israel’s Channel 13. Just before the credits rolled, he sang the letter in a plaintive, minor-key tune, with Aharish chiming in on the refrain: “masa’a al-kheir,” the offending hello.

It was a witty rejoinder to an unseen umbrage-taker. The clip spread rapidly on social media in Israel.

The duet was both a striking tableau and a tentative stepping out for a husband and wife who had earned fame in the Israeli art and media worlds very much on their own, only to be attacked when their marriage became public.

Aharish, 37, and Halevi, 43, a star of the Netflix hit series “Fauda,” who is Jewish, had kept their relationship secret even from some members of their families before they married on Oct. 10 in a private interfaith ceremony.

No sooner had their wedding been reported than Interior Minister Aryeh Deri condemned their union as an example of assimilation that he said was “consuming the Jewish people,” and urged Aharish to convert, lest their children face “serious problems.”

A right-wing lawmaker known for rabble-rousing, Oren Hazan, accused Halevi of becoming “Islamicized” and suggested he had gotten carried away with his role in “Fauda” as an Israeli counterterrorism agent who goes undercover as an Arab.

It wasn’t just from politicians that they encountered criticism, Aharish said. A woman on a motorcycle accosted her husband on the street in Tel Aviv, warning him that “'What you’re doing is a big mistake, and we need to talk about it,'” she said. “It’s amazing that people feel they can be involved in the decisions you make in your private life.”

But Aharish and Halevi got support in some quarters, even from other politicians, and many Jewish TV colleagues went on the air and wished them “mabrouk” and “mazal tov.” Jewish-Muslim marriages are relatively uncommon in Israel, although Arab citizens make up some 21 percent of the population, and those Muslim-Jewish couples who do tie the knot rarely garner much attention. But the Aharish-Halevi union may have been the first such high-profile, celebrity wedding.

Lehava, a far-right Jewish extremist group, has long campaigned against assimilation; some of its leaders were detained for questioning last year, suspected of intimidation for allegedly threatening Arab men who were dating young Jewish women.

Israel is replete with opinionated people, of course; and Aharish is no exception. On her return to the anchor’s chair in October after her wedding, Aharish delivered a broadside against politicians who had bothered to pontificate about her marriage when serious social and security problems — women being murdered, sick children waiting for their medications, the “burning south” near the Gaza border — were languishing unsolved.

Halevi, for his part, suggested that Hazan instead “occupy himself with love.”

On Wednesday, the newlyweds concluded their song with a mock marital spat poking fun at the sensibilities of anyone irked by the sound of Arabic, or by the idea of Halevi and Aharish living happily ever after.

Halevi grumbled that he was going “crazy” with “that masa’a al-kheir” and stalked off the set.

“Darling,” Aharish called after him, as if she would be following him home shortly and would need a shower at the end of her shift, “turn on the hot water, will you?”