A Generation of Israeli Arabs Nurtured on Jewish Chutzpah

Lucy Aharish represents a new crowd of young Arabs who hold visible positions in the country's media.

Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz
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Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz

I'm not a wretched Arab woman. How can I whine that I've been deprived?" Lucy Aharish protests. "I like my life just fine, despite all the stinking racism that exists here." Following the remark by Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch of Yisrael Beiteinu (he told an undercover detective, "You look like a real Araboosh," using a derogatory word for Arab) she gave interviews to magazines from Germany to Abu Dhabi and had an opinion slot on the current events program anchored by Ofer Shelah and Raviv Drucker on Channel 10 - which she left in a huff a little over a year ago.

Aharish, 28, represents a new generation of young Arabs in Israel who hold visible positions in the country's media. This group includes Shibel-Karmi Mansour (19), the first Druze announcer on Army Radio; Ayman Siksak (25), a writer and literary critic for Haaretz ; Sami Zibak (20), a pillar of Tel Aviv nightlife and a regular on the talk show "Tinofet" ("Trash") on Hot cable television; and others from reality programs (such as Ranin Boulos, from "Big Brother"). Like Aharish, most of them are graduates of the Jewish education system, speak perfect Hebrew and cultivate a trendy north Tel Aviv look.

"There is a new generation of Arabs who don't give a hoot what anyone thinks and will do everything they can to get into high positions," says Aharish. "We have other things to get over besides the occupation and discrimination. We are fighters and don't give in. If you don't open the door for me, I will come in through the window, and if it is closed, down the chimney. We were too polite, but we learned Israeli chutzpah. It's easy to humiliate an Arab who kowtows, but when that person says 'Listen, pal, tone it down, don't talk to me like that,' you arrive at a dialogue."

That strategy seems to be working. Aharish is a reporter on "Good Evening," a program about the entertainment industry hosted by the veteran Guy Pines; the anchor of the children's news program on Channel 1 (state television); and twice a week she also anchors the morning show of the Tel Aviv-based Radio 99, alongside Emanuel Rosen and Maya Bengal.

"I wanted to show that I don't have to be the token state Arab. My real dream is to be an actress, and in fact when I appeared on Channel 10 news, people told me, 'It's not you on the screen - restrained, neutral, with a serious look.'" In the past two months she was also invited to appear on the music channel, in a "Special on Arabs" and also on Independence Day.

Is that ironic?


Is the joke on you?

"Absolutely not."

If you can't stand being the representative Arab anymore, why is it that you find yourself in just that slot over and over again?

"It's a matter of dosage, and it depends on the goal. In terms of my career, these days I am not doing things related to Arabs. But obviously, when programs want to talk about Arabs in Israel, I am one of the people they want to talk to. And I will not say no, because that's part of me. Anyone who thinks he can free himself of that is living in fantasy land."

Aharish lives in a small apartment in Tel Aviv. The bedroom is untidy, the living room is modest, the television is tuned to the Channel 10 morning show. A few half-empty bottles of alcohol stand on the marble work space in the kitchen, and candies are scattered around the living room. The bookcase is dominated by works in Hebrew, from lowbrow novels to David Grossman, from nonfiction to hot international best-sellers (in Hebrew translations). On the bottom shelf are two books in Arabic: the Koran and a book about the status of women in Islam, a remnant of the brief period in which she drew close to religion, while she was at university ("I went to sheikhs and things like that"). At the moment she is reading "Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer (in English).

Her week goes like this: on Sundays and Tuesdays she is at Israel Television in Jerusalem, on Wednesdays and Thursdays she is on the radio (waking up at 6) and on Mondays she tries to do items for "Good Evening."

Everything was gray and the doors creaked in the corridors of Channel 1 last Sunday morning. Aharish wore a miniskirt and a white cleavage-revealing top, which she replaced with a floral T-shirt before entering the studio ("I can't appear like that in front of the children"). The backdrop was cracked, partly - and clearly - held together with cellophane tape.

The content of the children's program is not exactly the last word in the field of soft news. The items are based on recycled excerpts from "Mabat," the Channel 1 nightly news program, a crude mix that includes a review of summer movies, a tear-jerking story about a Holocaust survivor who celebrated a late bar mitzvah, and a frothy sports item. Aharish, as usual, looks on the bright side: "I have more self-confidence thanks to Channel 1. It's a school. I am going through the stages I should have gone through long ago. It's a restart. Today, if I have a fall, I won't be falling on my face, but just taking two steps back."

With Guy Pines, the backdrop isn't so bland, but the content Aharish is asked to cover isn't really her home field. Two weeks ago, for example, she interviewed the stars of the Argentinian series "Almost Angels," who visited Israel and fomented raucous hysteria among the local kiddy crowd. Aharish can't even remember their names. "That is not my immediate world," she says, "but it is part of what interests me. I go into the gossip columns twice a day and look for some spicy stuff about other people. What can you do - most of us are interested in that. I don't feel I am lowering myself. If I were thinking, 'Oi va voi, how did I get into this situation?' and suffering for it, I would be sitting at home today."

She grew up as an Arab in the family's Dimona home and as a Jew outside it, the youngest of the three daughters of Maaruf, a contractor, and Salwa, a housewife. The family is originally from Nazareth, but her father decided to move to Eilat in the 1970s. In the wake of a job offer, they went to the Negev town of Dimona. "Hebrew is my mother tongue," Aharish says. "Our parents knew we would get a better education in Jewish schools and that it would open more doors for us. In school I learned Oral Torah and Bible, not Arabic language and literature. We celebrated all the holidays: welcoming the Shabbat in kindergarten and then going to Nazareth for Id al-Fitr. The Pesach Seder with our neighbors, Menahem and Haya, and the next day the Ramadan fast."

The family photo album also contains pictures of Lucy dressed as Queen Esther at Purim. "My mother always told us: 'Remember that you are Arab girls - different.' She made sure to impart to us who and what we are - tradition and holidays - and to speak to us in Arabic at home. As a girl, I didn't understand what an Arab was or what a Jew was - those are abstract concepts for a child. When my uncle came to visit, I asked my mother, 'Mom, is Uncle Mohammed also an Arab?'"

She came to terms with the differences in adolescence: "When my friends, boys and girls, experienced their first kiss, I couldn't join in, because my parents didn't allow it. Obviously I was envious - it's a stage in life that I missed. But I was the good girl who did what her parents said."

At the age of 18, she left home and moved to Jerusalem. "My mother really laid it on thick, oh boy," she says. "My oldest sister, Saida, who is 35, didn't leave home until this year, and the middle sister, Suzy, still lives there part of the time." After studying social sciences and theater at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she attended the Koteret School of Journalism and Communications. Afterward she went to Germany for half a year on a scholarship and interned there.

Aharish is less diplomatic: "I started off as the pet Arab for Arab affairs," she says. "The fact that I was an Arab woman was to my advantage: it's sexy, and that's alright. If that's what gave me the push forward, I welcome it. The day after I was hired, there was an item in the paper: 'Channel 10 presents first Arab news presenter in Israel.' They also spread the word that my family were from Nazareth, even though I never lived there. But that was only the first stage. After three months I had to prove myself, just like everyone else."

The dream job quickly turned into a nightmare. "I got into deep water without knowing how to swim. I would wake up at night, breathing hard from a nightmare that I couldn't read the teleprompter. I would dream that I forgot to go to the studio to present a news update. I found myself crying nearly every day. I couldn't cope with the pressure. I had no sense of proportion: my mood swung wildly, up and down."

She resigned after a year and a half. According to media reports, one reason was a public reprimand she got from the chief editor, Tali Ben Ovadia, for being late to present a news flash. Unable to bear the humiliation, and in the light of the already strained and highly charged relations between the two, she decided to leave. "It was a decision of 'Enough, I can't take it anymore, I want to go home,'" she says.

Aharish is careful what she says about the Channel 10 news department, especially after her guest appearance on the Shelah-Drucker program.

Will there be a comeback?

"I don't know what to say about that. After the way things ended, I didn't think it would happen. I know today that I behaved wrongly in many matters, out of immaturity. I am very impulsive and militant. I fought with people all my life to pave my way, and suddenly I reached a place where that doesn't help. I'm sorry for a lot of things I did to Tali and to Reudor [Benziman, the CEO of Channel 10 News] and for the way it ended."

By the age of 13, Aharish had been in mortal danger twice. At the age of six she was wounded in a terrorist attack. "Before the first intifada, Israelis still used to shop in Gaza. We went there one Friday to buy fish and were hit by two Molotov cocktails. I saw someone approaching our car with something in his hand. I was scared and slid down in the seat, and my mother said, 'Lucy, sit up properly.' Then we heard a boom. One of the firebombs exploded on the roof of the car and the flames came inside. The other bomb landed between my father's legs but didn't explode, and he threw it back out. My father suffered burns on his legs and a cousin of mine was badly burned all over his body. My eyebrows were burned a bit, but what remained most was the trauma. That is why I started to shout, cry and throw up when I heard noise. Before that I was a quiet girl, but since then I talk a great deal."

The next time was at the age of 13, when she underwent surgery to remove an ovary. "They discovered a two-kilo lump on the ovary. They were sure it was malignant, but it turned out to be only a mutation." The immediate problem was how to wear a bathing suit with a long scar traversing her stomach. ("I was ashamed, but today I can't imagine myself without it.") Afterward she started to think about producing the next generation.

"To a certain degree, I did not have an adolescence," she says. "The operation was a big turning point in my life. Because of it, I will probably stop ovulating around the age of 30, but I don't feel the biological clock. Maybe because it happened when I was 13, I never imagined myself as a mother." To be on the safe side, she is looking into the possibility of freezing her eggs. "I keep starting the process and then pulling back. It's a hard physical procedure."

Her parents are not making life easier for her in this regard. They rule out marriage to a Jew, even if that means eternal spinsterhood. "I am already considered a rotten cucumber, not fertile," she sighs. "Not to mention my sisters, who are also unmarried."

Why is that?

"I don't want to live in a village in a house above the parents of my husband, if there ever is one," she continues. "I don't like it when people stick their nose up your ass, or the fact that the neighbors in Nazareth will know when I get home and when I left and who I was with and what I wore. They allow themselves to intervene too much. I don't rule out the possibility that someone suitable is out there, but we have to find three of them, not just one. I don't know - maybe the Muslim readers of Haaretz will call, but in any event it's not something I lose sleep over."

It gives her mother sleepless nights, though, and she is hard at work to rectify the situation. "Some sheikh gave her something to scatter in front of the house against the evil eye. It stank to high heaven. I told her, 'Great, now you have pushed them away completely. Who will come here with that smell?'"

Men often try to pick Aharish up in Tel Aviv bars - but they are all Jews. She is not into one-night stands, but is also unable to forge a meaningful relationship. "My longest relationship lasted a few months. It was with someone I met at Koteret. It didn't work out."

That was four years ago. Is there no way you will compromise on a Jew?

"There's no point. What will he do, go to his mother and present an Arab Muslim bride? It's not easy to deal with my parents, either."

Only mixed marriages will bring peace.

"I am depriving myself of that, because it is the only thing my parents asked from me, and if the price is that I will never find a partner, then I won't find a partner."

She is aware of the rumors that she supposedly had an affair with Yoram Binur, 55, a former Arab affairs correspondent with Channel 2, who currently appears in the telenovela "Exposed." "People have been gossiping about that for several years. We met when I did a paper on him at Koteret on the subject of journalistic objectivity. We are soul mates, but not on a romantic level, and if people want to claim it was a relationship, then let them."

Sex before marriage?

"Next question."

She remembers tilting politically rightward as a girl. "I am an Arab who grew up among Moroccan Jews. That's the worst. You learn the hard-core shticks; they have a very short fuse. I was a right-wing Muslim, a fan of Beitar [the Jerusalem soccer club with rabidly nationalistic fans]. The media fed me the idea that Arabs are shit and, because I lived in a remote town where most of the residents voted Likud, it sank in."

The turning point came at the start of this decade, when she moved to Jerusalem. "A friend took me to see the fence in Abu Tor [a mixed Jerusalem neighborhood]. I felt like Truman when he reaches the end of the horizon in 'The Truman Show': This is where it ends, and I don't know what's on the other side. It upset me very much." It was also around then that Aharish was exposed to the checkpoints for the first time. "I wasn't delayed because, you know, I don't look the part. But on Highway 1 I saw Arabs being taken off a van and made to face the wall, with rifles aimed at them. I felt that no human being deserves that, and then the penny dropped. But it's also impossible to ignore what the Palestinians are doing."

In the wake of these experiences, she decided to go into the media. "I realized that there are many things we are not told about. I also knew I had an advantage, because my story is special. The fact that I am an Arab with excellent Hebrew makes it possible for me to see, but not be seen on, both sides. For example, one time in a taxi, the conversation with the driver slid into politics and he said, 'Those Arabs should be killed.' Then he asked me, 'What's your community? Moroccan? Tunisian?' When I told him I was an Arab he said 'No way.' But he saw that, hey, you can talk to these Arabs, they're not so frightening."

Do you enjoy the identity game?

"I think it's funny. What does an Arab look like? Does he have horns? A tail? So I don't sound like an Arab. I have no accent. But I don't know what it means to look like an Arab. My father has green eyes, as Polish as can be according to these categorizations. And there are also plenty of Arabs in Jaffa who speak without an accent."

Aharish's generation did not emerge from a vacuum. "Clara Khoury, Kais Nashef and Joe Sweid are the ground-breakers," she says, referring to three Arab-Israeli actors. "In the Arab sector they are considered part of the Tel Aviv media clique. People think they have become Jewish and hang out on Sheinkin [Street]. I interviewed them two years ago. We were all angry at being considered collaborators. But Makram Khoury and Mohammad Bakri before them, both of them fought his war, too."

What's more important - your career or the fate of the Arab sector?

"What's more important for me is the brand name Lucy Aharish. The Arab sector does not pay me a salary. It's above all my personal war, but it also helps my society."

But it works only with an Arab of a very particular type: one whose Arab essence is not visible, who has "Ashkenazied." They integrate a small elite from the minority so they can go on stepping on all the rest.

"That will change in a few years. We live in an intolerant society, and an Arab accent doesn't have screen presence. It's like in Hollywood, where an Israeli without perfect English will be given only terrorist roles. So it's a mistake for Arab schools to teach Hebrew from fourth grade instead of in first grade. And maybe we, the Arabs who are easy to swallow, are taking the first step and opening the door for others. Want to call me an Araboosh? No problem. But this Araboosh is shattering stereotypes for you more than any non-Araboosh. The right doesn't like me because of my leftist views, and the Arabs don't like me because of my Zionist comments."

Who does like you?

"I am fine with myself. You like me? That's fine. You don't like me? Fine too."

When you were a reporter in the territories, didn't you think you had sold yourself because of your views, your accent, your look?

Unlike many of her peers, she does not identify herself as a Palestinian. "My national identify is that of an Arab-Israeli. I identify with Palestinian suffering, but I am not part of it. I have a different suffering here: I am not getting the rights that accrue to me as a citizen of Israel - such as better mortgage terms - because I did not do army service. [Then there's the] infrastructure in the villages. When I go to Nazareth, I see sewage flowing by my family's house." W



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