She's so angry, all the time
When Abeer Baker goes to the bank or any other public institution, she prefers to stand next to Ethiopian or Russian immigrants. 'I want to be nearby because I know that someone is likely to pick on them,' she says.
When Abeer Baker goes to the bank or any other public institution, she prefers to stand next to Ethiopian or Russian immigrants. "I want to be nearby because I know that someone is likely to pick on them," she says.
Baker, a lawyer who specializes in representing prisoners, is the host of a relatively new talk show on Educational TV, "We're Here." She left the State Prosecutor's office after she was asked to represent an immigrant in the name of the Law of Return [which gives every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel], and today teaches prisoners' rights at the University of Haifa. "I'll gladly represent any new immigrant," she says, "but I won't fight on his behalf for the sake of a law that is contrary to everything that I believe in."
On the show, which airs on Friday mornings on Channel One (09:05, 11:40) and Channel Two (12:00), Baker and Yoav Stern (a Haaretz journalist) interview Arab public figures. Baker speaks perfect Hebrew, which she is careful to pronounce with an Arabic accent ("because an accent is also a tool of oppression"), but the program is in her mother tongue. Tomorrow, the show will host Dr. Shafik Masalha, a clinical psychologist; Dr. Khaled Abu-Asba, an educational sociologist, and Dr. Amal Jamal, the head of Tel Aviv University's political science department.
She tries to present the "uncensored Arab" on the program, in which she discusses all aspects of disagreements in Arab society. The program hosts representatives of the various nonprofit organizations, people identified with political parties like Balad (like her), Hadash and "also from the communists and the Islamic movement." "Usually on Israeli television, the Arab is presented as an 'Arab.' We present him as a person," she says.
It is a studio program. Two anchors, a man and a woman, and usually one interviewee, who gets full attention for thirty minutes. The small studio audience is invited to ask questions. The tone of the show is focused. The strident Israeli television dialogue deters Baker. "I have no interest in turning the show into something biting."
Her dream is to host on the show an Arab woman dressed in a hijab, preferably a feminist with a hijab, as in Egypt. She would ask her pointed questions; she likes complexity. "The thing that annoys me most is the one-dimensional perception of a person, of a society and of a people," she says. Therefore she has no red line. "I prefer to discuss with everyone. If I invited to the show a person whose opinion I disagree with, for example, someone who advocates family honor (and contrary to the opinion of most of the Jewish public, not all of Arab society advocates it), I will talk to him out of a sense of mission. Not every show has a moderator like Yoav Stern, who can cope with an interviewee who supports Nasrallah without the conversation turning into a fistfight. Stern dares to display openness and to ask tough questions."
Why is it actually necessary to have a Jewish host on an Arabic show?
"That was a question that troubled us. It is reminiscent of programs from the 1970s. In general, an Israeli Jew who speaks Arabic mostly sparks suspicion, perhaps even disgust, in Arab society, because he is immediately connected to the Intelligence services or the Shin Bet [general security service]. But I was convinced that just as we want to present a wide selection of Arabs, we also want to hear a wide variety of Arabic. Stern is not there to fill the role of the Jew in the opposition. He can agree with me on opinions that are not acceptable to most of the Jewish public."
But on Friday morning, most of the Israeli public doesn't even watch the show.
"I had some deliberations over this too. I'm in favor of Arab involvement in the media, I always objected to the niche intended to fulfill an obligation, because of a commitment to the High Court of Justice. How can I trust the news if I don't see myself there? In my opinion, it is in the public interest to learn about a person without the mediation of someone else. We were convinced that the show has viewers and that it is possible to give the Arabs among them adequate representation.
"Most Arabs in the media are not presented as interviewers, directors and producers," she adds. "They are perceived as primitive, and provocative. They will always be seen in a story on the occupied territories, and Lebanon and Syria. Everything is portrayed as threatening the state, terrorism. Even if there are reporters such as Sliman al-Shafi, behind him there is a whole array of Israeli commentators. I don't need Zvika Yehezkeli or Ehud Yaari to talk about me."
Yehezkeli's reports, in which he ostensibly shows that the Arabs resemble the Israelis, she says, conceal within them a racist assumption. However, she prefers to watch the Channel Ten news program because it is "less patriotic" than Channel Two. She also watches Al Jazeera, but she has some criticism of them too. "They criticize everyone except Qatar, where they broadcast from."
The question of the Arab presence on television recently appeared on the agenda from an unexpected direction, ever since the Arab contestant on "A Star is Born," Miryam Tokan, started to make her mark. According to Baker, the appearance of Arabs on reality shows is meaningless. "It's something personal that doesn't promote the Arab public as such," she says. "Fauzi was on 'Yordim B'gadol [The Biggest Loser],' so what?"
She also keeps away from the national pride that leads the Arab public to send SMS messages for any one of its contestants and push for his victory. "In Arab society there is something ingrained: 'you have to support,' 'you must unite,' he is 'one of us' - it's an opening for racism," she says. But she liked Nirel Karantagi of "Hadugmaniyot [The Next Top Model]." "Specifically on a show that features an Arab woman and she tried to talk straightforwardly, to be just like everyone else, like Abir Kobeti on 'Darush Manhig [Find the Leader]' on Channel Two, they didn't accept her," she says. Kobeti was rejected by the judges in the final round of the show.
On their show, Baker and Stern like to present interviewees with a personal questionnaire which has to be answered on the spot. In this interview, Baker herself is asked to answer some of the questions, but without a time limit. Asked if she believes in a supreme power called Allah, she answers in the negative.
She is secular and proud of it. "Religion divided us. Helped Israel weaken us," she says. She regrets not marrying her husband, Ala Khalikhal, a writer and journalist, in a civil ceremony. "My rebelliousness has a limit. I paid a price because of the family. The last time I was with my family during the holidays, it was a nightmare. They kept telling me not to make a big deal out of it, but I have a hard time with the tradition."
She also does not want children at the moment. Baker, 29, says she "wants to have a career, get to know myself, and be with my partner. I don't want to toe the line."
Another question raised by her questionnaire is when she last got angry. In response she says that she "is angry all the time." Even to such seemingly prosaic questions as "what is your favorite food?" she gives an ideological answer. She doesn't like to eat, "but I eat everything that my mother and husband cook. I hate cooking. Sometimes I do cook to prove to everyone who doubts my abilities in this area. But it always takes too long and isn't worth the effort. If I want a romantic dinner, I prefer to go out to a restaurant."
A few more questions from the questionnaire: What moment made you become alert and self-aware? "I became a feminist because of a man. When I ended a relationship with a man, I discovered that I was too conciliatory and I played a role I didn't want."
What is the nicest country in the world?
What was the best moment in your life?
"When I chose Ala."
And a moment you'd like to forget?
"Oh, there are lots of those. Like the times I didn't report sexual harassment, whether it happened to me or I was a witness to it. I regret the times I didn't voice my opinion and the times I voiced it in a flurry of emotions. I'm trying to adapt for myself Yoav Stern's calm style."
"Recently I moderated a panel on 40 years of occupation at the University of Haifa. The participants included Dr. As'ad Ghanem (the head of the university's political science department's division of government and political theory), MK Yisrael Hasson (Yisrael Beiteinu) and writer A.B. Yehoshua. I regret my style of speaking. I spoke in the blunt style of A.B. Yehoshua."
Baker grew up in Acre. Until the age of nine she lived in a mixed society, Jewish-Arabic. She studied at the Arabic school in the Arabic language ("we studied Jewish history in Arabic"). "My parents felt it was important that my brother, sister and I be perfect," she says, "from our outward appearance to our education and accomplishments. In grade four, I grabbed the niche for seriousness. I have in me cynicism and humor, but I limited my social life to a minimum. I would spend three consecutive days at Adalah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel). Sleep there. My parents weren't crazy about this, but it was acceptable. Instead of going to Eilat with friends, for example."
As far as outward appearance, it is hard to ignore her impressive appearance. "When I said 'outward appearance' I meant that they made sure we cut our fingernails, that we would be neat and orderly," she rushes to explain. "Beauty was not a factor, I'm a feminist."
Can you reconcile feminism with nationalism?
"I'm afraid of the day when I'll have to choose between being liberal or nationalist. Five years ago the Knesset amended the Religious Courts Law. The amendment to marital law allows an Arab woman to choose whether she wants to divorce in a Sharia [Muslim] court or in a family court. Clearly, what is happening in the Sharia court is not to my liking, but I have a hard time with the intervention in just about the only autonomy we have left. I'm in favor of freedom of choice. If ever, unfortunately, I get divorced, I'll go to family court, even though I know the civil courts discriminate against Arabs.
"My model is not the Arab man, because he is weakened," she says. "I don't want to compare myself to the Arab man. Essentially I don't want to compare myself to any man."