Lucy Aharish Puts the Israeli-Arab Community in Prime Time

With the launch of her new interview show, Aharish discusses with Haaretz the Arab community's increased presence on Israeli TV screens

TV journalist Lucy Aharish, August 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

After 10 years in the media and four years as host of Channel 2's early-evening current affairs program "Sichat Hayom," ("The Talk of the Day") Lucy Aharish has made it into prime time. On Wednesday, Channel 2 launched Aharish's interview show "Hamashpi’im" ("The Influential Ones").

For her debut show, Aharish, the highest-profile Israeli Arab on Israeli TV, interviewed a former defense minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Moshe Ya’alon. They covered issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the trial of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot an already incapacitated Palestinian assailant in Hebron last year. There was of course also plenty of criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, Aharish managed a conversational tone, not an adversarial one. She reflects rather than probes.

“I mainly wanted to adopt a documentary style,” she responds to a question on why she switched from a rough current-events program to a more magazine-like format. “It’s fun to talk to people and discover who they are beyond the TV persona that emerges in 10-minute interviews. Behind every image there's a person whose existence we sometimes forget.”

The choice of Ya’alon for your maiden program was no accident. Is it related to him being one of the prime minister’s bluntest critics?

“I don’t think that choosing Ya’alon was a political decision. We chose him because for me he's a riveting character. One can agree or disagree with him but he’s someone who has seen a lot of ups and downs in the last two years, with some dangerous things said about him in that period. For me, personally, it rankles that a person who has given his entire life to the country is labeled a leftist, a traitor and an enemy of the state, only because he chose to stick to his principles.

"For me, this is precisely the place where people forget that these are people with a history behind them. In Ya’alon’s case it was very striking in the Elor Azaria case and in the submarine affair [regarding suspected corruption in Israel's procuring of German submarines]. He’s called a traitor and a whiner, and I think he was wronged. It’s time to see the human being behind the image.”

And yet, when Ya’alon says there's no solution to the occupation, you don’t give him a hard time. Didn’t you want to challenge him on that?

“We had a day with 14 hours of taping, with nine hours of raw material at the end. From that we had to reduce it to half an hour of broadcasting. I think all possible questions were asked, beginning with what he eats for breakfast and ending with his Pilates exercises. We had a lot of material in the editing room, but my aim isn't to batter the interviewees over every issue.

"In two months I start another current-events show with Ehud Segal, and there I can ask the tough questions. When I interviewed Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked I also didn’t ask her all the burning questions.

"Ultimately, I don’t get the chance every day to spend a day with the justice minister and see her meeting author Meir Shalev, whom she describes as a person who greatly influenced her. I’m trying to make a statement that it’s okay if we don’t see things eye to eye but can still see the person behind the image that we’ve so forcefully branded.”

In "Sichat Hayom" you invited radical right-wing activist Bentzion Gopstein to the studio and you got abuse.

“Gopstein and his ilk won't be on the new program. He affects very specific people and only a particularly vocal minority — I don’t think they should be given a platform. You sometimes make a mistake in life, but you don’t have to repeat it.”

Do you still receive threats to your life following things you’ve said on TV?

“Just two weeks ago I filed a complaint with the police over a 16-year-old who sent me a video with his photo, saying he was coming to beat me up. He ended up spitting on the screen. It reached my Facebook inbox.

"To the police’s credit they dealt with this quickly. He arrived at the police station with his parents and got a warning. I experience this on a daily basis and I think the conversation I want to advance on my program is connected to this issue. I want to show that we can get along as human beings even if we disagree politically. I know it’s a cliché but that’s my motto.”

Aharish doesn’t hide her excitement about her entry to prime time. “It’s very significant for me,” she says. “I’ve come a long way in the media world to get to this point. I still pinch myself to make sure it’s really happening. Some people believe it came easily and I just got things effortlessly, but they forget that I entered this world as a breaking-news announcer on Channel 10 in 2007. Since then I’ve gone through a long process.”

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon
Olivier Fitoussi

Would you have made it to this point quicker if you were Jewish?

“I think it would have been easier. In contrast, if I were a Mizrahi [Middle Eastern] Jew from the country's outskirts with a family name like Abutbul, would my life have been easier? If I were Ethiopian would it have been easier? My situation is similar to that of many people who face difficulties. It’s true that not every Arab correspondent gets to where I've gotten, but if I’m here it has the sweet taste of victory. I've worked hard and I’ve made it.”

Do you think we’ll see an Arab news anchor on Channel 2 or 10?

“I think that will also happen. At the end of the days of the 'Mabat' news magazine they had a Druze newscaster. The public has been ready for it much earlier than decision-makers in news corporations are.

"The Israeli public has no problem with Arab presenters. We’re no longer in a place where Natasha Mozgovaya's accent annoyed so many people. When I’m in 'Sichat Hayom' and transfer to the newsroom, with Shibel Karmi Mansour presenting the news, with him handing it over to a report by Furat Nasser, you suddenly realize there are three Arabs in one frame. That’s a huge change, a welcome one.”

To what extent will a proper representation of the Arab community in your new program be important to you?

“We’ve already taped an episode with Hisham Suliman. He's undoubtedly one of the most influential actors in Israel. He played the terrorist in the series 'Fauda.' To be the most beloved 'terrorist' in Israel and receive such adulation attests to an essential change. If I don’t give Arabs their representation, what will others say?”

There has been criticism, such as by the team producing the satire "Matzav Ha’uma" ("State of the Union"), implying that Channel 2 franchisee Reshet isn't sufficiently open to political opinions outside the consensus. Aharish, who opened every "Sichat Hayom" episode with a political monologue, argues that Reshet never censored a word she wrote or said.

“I don’t know what happened with 'Matzav Ha’uma,' but we address many social agendas on our program," she says. "Even when we dealt with topics connected to Reshet shareholders, no one tried to cancel any item, never. Personally, I’ve never encountered this in the four years I’ve been working here.”

Is it possible that you’ve never been censored because your opinions are relatively easy to digest?

“It amuses me that there are people who think that. It’s enough to go to the 'Sichat Hayom’ Facebook page to see how easy it is for the public to digest my opinions. If easy-to-digest opinions encounter such threats and violence, I don’t know what hard-to-digest opinions are.”

Do you see yourself as an influential figure in Israel?

“If I have some impact in my own little patch and can move something a little for someone, that means that getting up in the morning and going to work are worth it.”

Who's the person who most influenced you?

“Beyond the obvious — my family — the person who affected me the most was Meir Cohen, a former social affairs minster and my high school teacher. He fought for me, the only Arab student at that school, on many fronts.

"I was a high school student in the '90s, during all those awful terror attacks. Besides my parents, who were like a protective wall, I don’t know where I’d be today without Meir Cohen. I wouldn’t have survived high school without him.”