Lucy Aharish had one main message and she shared it forcefully when she spoke at The J on Tuesday, June 28. She is Arab. She is Muslim. She is Israeli. And she is proud of all three aspects of her identity.
Born in Dimona, Israel, Aharish was just 5-1/2 years old and preparing to enter the first grade when her mother first drilled that message into her head. At that time, she just accepted her mother’s words, but as an adult today and as Israel’s first Arab news anchor, it truly defines who she is.
That doesn’t mean she is naïve or that her life has been easy. It doesn’t mean that she feels no connection to the Palestinians or that she doesn’t understand the hardships they suffer. And it doesn’t mean she believes Israel is without fault.
What it does mean is that she was born in Israel, attended Israeli schools with mostly Jewish students, and identifies as a proud Israeli. At the same time, she is Muslim and connected with the Arab community.
She has suffered from the prejudice of Israelis who hate her just because she is Arab and of Arabs who feel she has rejected her own culture. She has been threatened during terrorist attacks and when shopping in Gaza and has received death threats for her loyalty to Israel. And because of her upbringing and experiences, she is against violence in all its forms.
“People ask why I am doing this,” she said, referring to her speaking at universities and other venues around the world. “People talk about BDS [the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement against Israel] and hate Israel without knowing it. When you are not living what we live every day,” she continued, “you can’t have an opinion. Things are not black and white.”
She considers the BDS movement a form of violence because Israel does allow some goods into Gaza and the effect of BDS actions is to further restrict the flow of needed goods into the isolated enclave.
To help her audience understand the complexities of her situation and of the region, she shared several stories from her life.
In the spring of her first grade year, an uncle and his family came to visit, and they wanted to go to the Gaza Strip. Despite security concerns the family decided to go. When they arrived, most of the stores were closed, and those that weren’t were closing. One store allowed them in and they hurriedly shopped for clothes. Lucy recalled asking her mother for red nail polish. Her mother, reacting to the tension, told her to just take what she wanted even though red nail polish had been a theretofore forbidden item.
The tension continued to build and the people in Gaza were calling it the Intifada.
As they got in the car to leave, they were advised put something on the dashboard to indicate that they were Arabs and to close the windows and not to open them, even though it was a hot day, until they had left Gaza. Her father said they would “leave it to God.”
Aharish looked out the window and noticed someone getting closer to their car. He was scary and Aharish says she remembers his fact to this day – he was tall with dark hair and a dark face with scars, and he wore a necklace bearing with the Islamic name for God, Allah.
Aharish gave in to her fears and despite her mother’s admonishments, she sank down in her seat.
Then there was a blast in the car. Her cousin was in flames and her mother and aunt were screaming. “Since that day,” she said, “I hated Palestinians. I didn’t want to know what they think and didn’t care.” Her family was concerned that she would grow up to be a self-hating Arab, but her father insisted that “when she grows up, she will understand that life is more complicated than that and she will change.”
Aharish experienced prejudice from Israelis as well. On the first day of school, when asked to introduce herself, she said, “I’m Lucy, Muslim, Arab, Israeli and proud, then I started getting beaten up,” she said. “I didn’t understand how come they hated me.”
When she realized she was the “different girl,” she decided to participate fully in everything. That meant that at Purim she dressed up as Queen Esther. Her family asked her if she understood that Esther was a Jew, but as a young child, she just wanted to be a queen.
Aharish reported that her mother would buy matzah on Passover, and recently, she started to buy shmurah matzah, the matzah produced under strict Orthodox rabbinic supervision, because “it is tastier than regular matzah.” Of course that also means that there are no regular cookies in their house on Passover either. Her parents wanted them to be part of the community they lived in.
In the 1990’s, when terrorists were blowing up buses in Israel, Aharish didn’t want to go to school the day after a terrorist attack because she would have to face the blame of her friends. Her father, however, said, “If you can’t face world now, how will you face it later.”
Some of her friends would say, death to the Arabs, adding, “but we don’t mean you. You and your family OK. We wish all Muslims like you.” She felt that they were patronizing her.
Then it got worse. Someone began writing hate-filled messages on the school walls directed at her. Later she caught her best friend writing, “Lucy is a filthy Arab” on the restroom wall. Aharish went back to her classroom and the two girls never spoke again.
A week later, Aharish was summoned to the office. The perpetrator had been caught. The principal knew the girls were friends and the administrator asked Aharish, “What do you want me to do – expel her?” Aharish answered that the best punishment would be to have them both continue to attend the same school so her former best friend would have to face her every day.
In 2015, as Israel marked its 67th Independence Day, Aharish was given the honor of lighting the torch on Israel Independence Day. It is one of the biggest honors Israel bestows.
That year, as a journalist she had seen the worst of people from both sides. During Operation Protective Edge she interviewed a journalist from Gaza and asked why the people there didn’t oppose Hamas, the group that is hurting the Palestinians. “I got death threats and the Arab community went ballistic,” she said. They called her a traitor and a filthy whore and accused her of selling her soul to the Zionists.
At the same time, the head of an extreme right wing organization in Israel told her in an on-camera interview that she didn’t belong in Israel. The Arabs have 22 other countries. Israel is not her country. “I couldn’t believe or understand a Jewish man with kippah telling me phrases that came out only from Nazis,” Ahrish said.
The man’s rant against her “only because I’m Muslim or Arab,” she said, “went viral and I became a hero” in the fight against racism.
Being asked to light the torch affirmed her commitment to that fight. “My grandfather was Menachem, who was Holocaust survivor,” she explained. When she lit the torch, she stud for him and for humanity. “The situation in Israel is not good,” she continued. “It’s problematic. But I’m here to tell you that I have an obligation because it is my country.”
When during the elections, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu exhorted Jews to vote because the Arabs were going to vote, Aharish found that difficult. “He’s my prime minister, whether I voted for him or not. He’s my prime minister and my prime minister just said I’m the enemy, I don’t belong and I’m not supposed to go to vote.”
When asked how she could light the torch and say “for the Glory of the State of Israel” after that, she remembered her best friend and her punishment. “I want to say for the glory of the State of Israel,” she said. “Israel should be democratic and Jewish. I’m the gatekeeper. If they forget their history and the Holocaust, they will forget how to be democratic.”
She doesn’t understand or accept Jews fight among themselves either. During the campaign period, she was also part of a panel where her co-panelists, Jews from various backgrounds, were screaming at each other and calling each other fascists, Nazis and traitors.
When the moderator asked Aharish what she thinks, she replied, “You don’t have problem with Arabs. Find peace among yourselves first. I am the minority in Israel. I know this is a Jewish country. But I want to believe that in a Jewish country I will live better than any other country. Israel should be example how democracy should work, and with everything happening in Middle East, God bless State of Israel. I am blessed that I live in Israel rather than anywhere else.”
While she realizes Israel is not perfect and often offers criticism, “it doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my country,” she continued, “… for me lighting the torch was biggest honor. My parents were crying in the crowd and second parents, Miriam and Shimon. For me, it was the biggest victory.
“I refuse to be a victim,” she concluded, “and I’m not apologizing for being Arab, Muslim or Israeli. I’m proud of who I am and coming from my own country.”
A question and answer and a reception period followed.
“A Conversation with Lucy Aharish” was a J Arts & ideas program, sponsored by The J and funded in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.
I Love Lucy!