Israeli Arab journalist Lucy Aharish has been shattering glass ceilings all her life and looks certain to continue to do so. Ms. Aharish is an anchor on Israel’s Channel 2 with her own interview show and until recently presented the evening edition on i24news. She is notable as the first Israeli Arab to be a news anchor on Hebrew language Israeli television, and last April she was awarded one of Israel’s top honours, to light a torch at Israel’s Independence Day ceremony. She tells an AIJAC media briefing on February 28 that since she was a little girl, her parents raised her to be proud to be an Israeli, a woman, an Arab and a Muslim.
Aharish had an unusual upbringing for an Israeli Arab, which has certainly shaped her identity and worldview. Her parents were born in Nazareth but moved south to Eilat and then to Dimona, in the desert near the Dead Sea, for work opportunities. Lucy was raised in Dimona – a mainly right-wing leaning Jewish town – and was the only Arab student in her school. She says she experienced bullying from other students for being an Arab, but that the harassment did not stop her from integrating into school life – including participating in Jewish festivals and dressing up as Queen Esther on Purim. She credits her principal Meir Cohen – who would become Dimona’s mayor and then a current member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid – for ensuring that violence and racism were never tolerated at her school.
Aharish was also a victim of Palestinian terrorism. During the beginning of the First Intifada, her family drove to the Gaza Strip to shop and because their car had an Israeli licence plate, a molotov cocktail was thrown at the car severely injuring her three-year-old cousin and throwing a five-year-old Lucy onto the pavement. She says that despite pleas from her father who called out “We are Arabs like you”, no one came to the family’s aid. The experience strongly soured her feelings towards Palestinians generally until she met Palestinians in her adult life at university and as colleagues at work.
Aharish says that her diverse experiences have led her to speak out against both Palestinian terrorism and discrimination in Israeli society. Her media interviews grilling Arab leaders for not condemning terrorism have gone viral. In one instance Aharish says that she told a Palestinian official who claimed that the rockets fired into Israel from Gaza were merely “flying pipes”, “These are missiles… you cannot sit here and tell me these are flying pipes, because these flying pipes are being thrown also at my parents who are living in the South of Israel.” In another viral YouTube video, Aharish asked a Palestinian journalist why Gazans were not protesting against Hamas given that Hamas were putting civilians in harm’s way by firing rockets knowing that Israel would retaliate.
Aharish is also outspoken on issues of Israeli Arab discrimination. On Israeli television, she publicly criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook message on election day which warned his supporters that “right-wing rule is in danger” as left-wing organisations were bringing Arabs to vote “in buses”. Soon after the election Netanyahu apologised to the Israeli Arab community for his comments. Aharish also accepted an invitation to the Prime Minister’s office to provide her viewpoint on Arab-Jewish relations in Israel.
Aharish’s “chutzpah” has been met with some resistance. Asked if she has been embraced by Israeli Arabs, Aharish said that she receives “private” messages of support, but that many Israeli Arabs see her as a “traitor”, and adds that she has received death threats.
When asked by an Australian journalist her view of the international media’s coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, she answers: “It’s doing a really really really bad job… It’s the lack of understanding of what is happening in the Middle East, it’s a lack of understanding of what is happening in Israel.” Aharish said she understands that journalists cannot be naturally objective as each person comes with their own experiences and world view, but insists “you can be fair and you should you be fair, and what’s happening now with the international media is that it’s not fair.”
Citing examples of “unfairness” she points to factual mistakes made by the international media such as CNN’s report on the Har Nof massacre in November 2014, which wrongly claimed that two Palestinians were killed by Israelis in a mosque when in reality Jews were stabbed in a synagogue during morning prayers.
Aharish also said that news headlines reporting that a Palestinian has been killed by Israelis, without including in the headline that the Palestinian was killed during the commission of a terror attack is also “not being fair.”
Regarding the current wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks, Aharish believes that this happening due to a failure of leadership and a lack of hope. When the terror attacks began in October last year, Aharish spoke passionately against incitement to terrorism by Arab leaders on Israeli television, according to an English translation she said:
“Some of the Arab leaders are keeping a horrific and deafening silence. They are not trying to calm the situation, not trying to act towards mutual understanding and accepting the other. They are adding fire to the environment and instead of understanding that once it will calm down we will be the ones to pay the high price. The second intifada took such a heavy price for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. We are not learning from the mistakes. I don’t understand… You [Arab leaders] are inciting thousands of young people to go into the streets. You are destroying their future with your own hands.”
At the AIJAC briefing Aharish said she believes that many Palestinian teenagers are being incited due to a culture that celebrates martyrdom; “They are going out of school and they don’t see a playground outside, they don’t have an after school activity, they have posters of shahids, they have posters of martyrs, they hear that their best friend was a martyr… Can you imagine educating your kid to be a martyr instead of going and reading a book?… I don’t think that this is normal, even if you are living under occupation.”
Asked about the path forward, Aharish believes brave leadership and Arab integration into Israeli society is key. She notes that increasingly Israeli Arabs are participating in Israel’s national service and that this a “great opportunity for Israeli-Arabs to integrate into Israeli society.” She adds, that language is also a very important factor, “For me its very important that Israeli Jews will learn Arabic from the first grade [a new initiative recently announced by the Israeli government] because they are living among 22 other Arab countries, they are living in an Arab region, and they have to know Arabic, they have to understand the language. On the other side Israeli Arabs need to know Hebrew from the first grade.”
Ms. Aharish clearly understands the benefits of integration having lived, studied and worked amongst Jewish Israelis all her life. It has no doubt provided her with invaluable opportunities – and her trail blazing path should certainly be inspiring ways to move Arab-Jewish relations forward, and showing Israeli Arabs what they can achieve in Israel, without giving up either their identity or beliefs.
Lucy Aharish visited Australia as a guest of United Israel Appeal.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.