The backlash began on March 8, with the announcement of the 14 individuals chosen to light a torch at this year’s official Independence Day ceremony. Lucy Aharish, 33 and the first Arab Muslim news anchor on Israeli Hebrew television, had not done enough to merit the honor, according to some. Others on the extreme right say she is not sufficiently loyal to the state, while on the other side of the spectrum she has been accused, by both Arabs and Jews, of playing the obedient Arab, salving Jewish consciences. Aharish isn’t sure if she deserves the honor, either, but she’ll be damned if anyone will tell her she can’t receive it. “Do I need to care what other people are thinking?” she tells Haaretz in a recent interview.
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This year’s torchlighters at the ceremony that marks the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day include discount supermarket-chain founder Rami Levy and Ehud Shabtai, a founder of navigation app Waze. In explaining its decision, the Ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies said Aharish “represents and advances social pluralism and positions calling for coexistence in our country.”
While she would have preferred, she says, to be recognized for an achievement unrelated to “the most sensitive issue in Israeli society,” it is a great honor, she insists, and news of the decision moved her to tears. She rejects criticism, mainly from the left and from the Arab sector, that by agreeing to participate in the ceremony she is in effect sanctioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Election-Day warning to Likud voters that the Arabs were “going out in droves to vote.”
“It is so not like that,” she says over iced coffee at her Tel Aviv neighborhood cafe. “Netanyahu in the election cast me as the enemy, and the enemy has decided to light the torch. I am here. You need to look me in the eye and face the truth. I.Am.Here!” she says, banging on the table for emphasis.
The outspoken Aharish is still one of the few Arab women on Israeli Hebrew-language television. After stints at Channel 1 and Channel 10 television news, she currently hosts a morning current-affairs show on Channel 2. She is also editor of the prime-time news at international satellite channel i24 news, where she also presents the evening news in English. As if all this were not enough, Aharish, who studied theater and social sciences at Hebrew University before going to journalism school, is also an actress, with a minor role in Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” and a more significant one in “Arabani,” the first feature film made by an Israeli Druze, on her resume.
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Aharish was raised in Dimona, a southern, desert town settled mainly by Moroccan Jewish immigrants, where her parents had moved from the Arab city of Nazareth. As the only Arab at her school and one of few in the town, she says she faced racist abuse but had friends and a happy childhood. She went to Passover seder at her neighbors, dressed as Queen Esther at Purim and also fasted during Ramadan. When she was 6, a Palestinian threw two firebombs at her family’s car during a shopping trip to the Gaza Strip, in a terror attack.
The unique perspective afforded her by having grown up in a Jewish community is both a curse and a blessing. She knows what it’s like to be stared at for speaking Arabic in a Tel Aviv cafe or to be on the receiving end of racial slurs, and she understands deeply the national and historical narrative of Israeli Jews. She says she feels patronized by some Jews and rejected by some Arabs and, absolutely, sometimes she feels hated.
“People are very angry with me,” she says of the response of many Arabs to her lighting the torch. On Facebook, she has seen posts excoriating her from all sides. “I don’t know who you are, but you are dismissing me as a human being, calling me a terrible person, a pig, a filthy Zionist, a slut, a Jew. How dare you? Where does this hate come from?” she says. The extremist anti-Arab organization Lehava, meanwhile, applied for a demonstration permit in Jerusalem against Aharish’s participation in the Independence Day ceremony, saying she was “an anti-Zionist who is not loyal to the state.” As a guest on her Channel 2 show last year the head of the group, Benzi Gopstein, told Aharish that she did not belong in Israel, triggering an impassioned response.
Those not from Israel may not understand the nuance of the reactions she provokes. A single Arab woman working her way up the ladder in Israel’s overwhelmingly Jewish and mostly male media industry, Aharish has been attacked by some critics for assimilating into the Israeli mainstream, a task they say is made easier by her good looks and perfect Hebrew accent.
Her emotional response on Channel 2 to Netanyahu’s Election-Day remarks was greeted with admiration from many people and condemnation by others, who said they didn’t understand how she could be so mad at the prime minister and still agree to light a torch on Independence Day.
Aharish says the outburst was borne of frustration, and she is as unapologetic about it as she is defiant about her identity as a Muslim, an Arab and an Israeli.
“People tell me you shouldn’t be here, it’s not your place, go live in Gaza, you have 22 other states. I say no, no, no. This is my country, I am a citizen. You have to give. me. my. rights. as. a. minority!” she says, banging the table again.
She is also highly critical of Israel’s Arab lawmakers, and skeptical about whether the election alliance of Israel’s four Arab-dominated parties will help the Arab minority. “It’s impossible to put all the Arabs under one umbrella, its like you’re saying all Arabs think the same, and they don’t,” she says.
Unlike many other Arab citizens of Israel, she says she has never defined herself as Palestinian. “I have a country,” she says, “I have a passport. When I am abroad, I say I am Israeli.” But at the same time, she says she fears that, despite her success and torch-lighting honor, she will eventually discover that as an Arab she will never be accepted fully by Israeli society. She hopes to live abroad at some point, probably in the United States. Is it because she fears the truth? Probably, she says. “I would rather leave with that a little bit of doubt left.”
Despite her unusual background, in many ways she is as mainstream as an Israeli can be: She parties with her friends on Independence Day, and on her first visit to Germany — for a six-month journalism internship — she found the language difficult to hear because of its associations with the Holocaust.
She also doesn’t identify with the Palestinian struggle, which she describes as important but not central to the region’s current problems. She says she understands and accepts the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe,” it is what the Palestinians call what happened to them when the state was founded in 1948 — but doesn’t exactly see it as her story. Her family did not lose relatives or property in 1948, and she first learned about the Nakba as a student at Hebrew University.
Still, the Nakba can’t be ignored, she says, and if Israel is to have a future then Israeli Jews must understand it. Aharish is critical of Jews who presume to understand what Palestinians and Arabs want without talking to them, and, she adds, she has plenty of criticism for the Arab minority. of Arabs who want to enjoy all the rights of Israeli citizenship without the duties. If they want full rights, she insists, they should contribute through national service, or by giving to their communities.
Aharish has plenty of ideas about how to change society, including ensuring that all Israelis speak Arabic, something she thinks is sorely missing. But unlike journalist-turned-lawmaker peers such as Yair Lapid or Shelly Yacimovich, there is “no way” she will go into politics anytime soon, she says. She can make more of a difference on TV, she says.