Lucy Aharish: 'People don't imagine I'm an Arab'
Lucy Aharish is one of a growing number of Arab-Israeli media personalities, criticised by both the Jewish and Arab communities for her high profile. But, as Rachel Shabi discovers, these are battles she has faced all her life, from being bullied at school to surviving a suicide bomb. When Lucy Aharish turned up to audition for the role of newsreader on Israeli commercial television, she saw 10 other women awaiting their turn for the screen test. "They were all blonde and blue-eyed, very Tel Aviv, like the typecast of the channel," says the 28-year-old Aharish. "I thought there was no way that I'd be accepted but that I'd just give it a try." She was accepted - and became the first Arab-Israeli newsreader on mainstream Israeli television.
That set off a frenzy of interest in this Arab-Israeli journalist who speaks fluent, unaccented Hebrew and constantly flummoxes Israeli cab drivers when they discover, mid anti-Arab tirade, that their canny female passenger is a Muslim. In her role as newsreader and West Bank correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 TV, Aharish was the bright new female on the block and one of the key players in a circle of young Arab-Israelis blazing a trail into Jewish salons through TV sets, movie screens and glossy magazines.
"I'm an Israeli Arab, a Muslim girl who speaks fluent Hebrew," says Aharish. "People don't imagine when they see me, that I'm an Arab - that's an advantage and it has opened doors." Arab-Israelis - Palestinians who remained in Israeli after its creation in 1948 - form just over 20 per cent of the population of the Jewish state. In theory, this sector is supposed to enjoy equal rights, but in reality there are grave limitations to that in a society where "Arab" is practically synonymous with "enemy" and the Arab population is constantly viewed as a potential fifth column.
In this context, it is no wonder that Lucy's appearance on popular Israeli TV caused such ripples of interest. Now, nearly two years after she made her glittery debut on prime time news, she has a lower profile - but can still be seen and heard all over Israeli broadcast media: she co-presents a morning radio show, is newsreader for youth TV, reports for a television magazine programme (short documentaries on news issues), and presents entertainment features for a music TV channel.
It has been, by her own admission, a fairy-tale experience for someone who definitely does not tick the right boxes in one of the most elitist professions in Israel, where white, European-Jewish men still dominate. "I still don't let myself forget that just a few years ago, I was this Arab girl from Jerusalem, who was working as a receptionist in a restaurant," she says. Nor, it seems, can she forget the constant tightrope walk required of a high-profile Arab woman; criticised, scrutinised and constantly critiqued by both Arab and Jewish societies within Israel.
Aharish was born in 1981 in Dimona, a desert town in Israel's periphery - famous for being the site of the Jewish state's openly secret nuclear facility, and a typically right-wing, rally-round-the-flag kind of community. The Aharish family moved from their hometown of Nazareth, in northern Israel, seeking better work and a different life in the desert town. Her father is an engineer and was employed at the dusty desert town's Dead Sea mineral plant. But it was an odd choice of address: they were the only Arab family in Dimona.
"I grew up in a Jewish school," says Aharish, who now lives in Tel Aviv. "I studied the Jewish bible and Jewish history and all my friends were Jewish. I had Muslim and Arab culture at home, of course - but outside, I celebrated all the Jewish festivals." She is emphatically proud of this "double life" childhood and emphasises the positives in this "chance to learn about two cultures". But it was also fraught with difficulties and contradictions. "At high school I was the Arab girl," she recalls. "I was teased and sometimes I got beaten up." She remembers a long period where the taunts nearly got to be too much and there was graffiti scrawled on to the school's toilet wall each day: "We don't want filthy Arabs in our school."
Her father counselled her to tough it out: "He said I could change schools if I wanted - but that if I did, I would never learn to face my problems and work them out." She stayed. The hate-graffiti-scrawler later became her best friend. Ten years before Aharish had been in a diametrically opposite situation, facing a different kind of hate. Her family were victims of a suicide bomb attack while on a day-trip to Gaza. It was at the onset of the first intifada, back when the borders between Israel and the Palestinian enclave were open and Israelis frequently took shopping trips to the strip. "A bomb exploded next to our car. They thought we were Jews," says Aharish. "I was six years old and we used to go to Gaza every Friday." She says that as a consequence of this terrifying attack, she grew up with a negative image of Palestinians.
By the time Aharish arrived at university in Jerusalem, she had a much better understanding of the Palestinian side of the conflict. But her nuanced and decidedly unaffiliated approach to regional politics did not win her much approval from the Arab-Israeli sector when she sat in the newsreader's seat on Channel 10. Rather than statements of pride and congratulations, she received angry e-mails and complaints. Callers would accuse her of faking her "Jewish Israeli" accent and would harangue her over her choice of words: "terrorist" and "suicide bomber" to describe deadly Palestinian attacks.
Aharish is unequivocal in her defence of such terminology, but laments that her detractors saw only the finished product on-screen, not the battles that went on in the newsroom before the broadcast. She cites an example: "Every day we'd get these beeper alerts from the Israeli army about overnight activity in the West Bank," she says. Those messages would inform us of the dozens of "suspected terrorists" that had been rounded up by the Israeli army each night. "To me, that is propaganda. If you put that out on your news programme, you are saying something: that 35 Palestinians each night want to kill Jews - and if that happens every night, that's basically like saying the whole Palestinian population of the West Bank wants to kill the Jews." Aharish flatly refused to read those reports during her newscasts.
But the criticisms of Aharish are part of a wider discussion about a growing number of young Arab-Israeli personalities who are enjoying prominence and success in Israel. The list includes the actor Yousef Sweid, who played a heartthrob football player in a popular Israeli TV series; Clara Khoury, who starred in the award-winning film, The Syrian Bride, as well as a recent, popular Israeli comedy series about an Arab-Israeli family; and Kais Nashef, another star of Israeli TV dramas and one of the protagonists in Hany Abu-Assad's acclaimed 2005 film, Paradise Now.
The problem, say the critics, is that the success of those actors and presenters is premised on the erasure of Arab identity - and it is this rather than any new tolerance or acceptability, that has cracked the glass ceilings and broken through entry barriers. According to this view, successful Arab-Israelis in the Israeli mainstream media are functioning as fig leaves in what continues to be a discriminatory environment.
Aharish is visibly exasperated by such analysis. She holds that, rather than accept social stereotypes, she is constantly challenging them. "We live in a racist society - of course we do," she says. "I live it and experience it every day. But I am not willing to give in to the racism in this country, or to racist thoughts. I want to fight those preconceptions, even if it means I have to fight it every day."
Although she worries about Israel's political shift to the extreme right wing and what that might mean for the Arab-Israeli population, Aharish is stubborn in her refusal to let racism get in her way. She puts her sudden exit from Israeli Channel 10 last year down to a personality clash and a lack of experience. She hints, but never actually states, that there was an "ethnic factor" at play - although she later points out that to say as much is "very difficult for an Arab".
And, earlier this year, during Israel's three-week assault on the Gaza strip that killed 1,400 Palestinians, Aharish again came up against those tightrope contradictions of her identity and status. "I found myself crying at home every day because of what I saw on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya TV," she recalls. "The people who were killed, for nothing... then you see that 99 per cent of Jewish Israelis agreed with the war, they watched innocent people in Gaza getting killed for nothing and just didn't care. It went beyond Israelis and Palestinians and the conflict. People lost their humanity."
Presenting on public service radio, Aharish grilled Israeli politicians over the death toll in Gaza. When one member of the Israeli parliament explained during an interview that residents of Gaza were sent SMS messages to warn them of impending attacks, Aharish responded: "You know what, I'm sure you put a big smiley face at the end of that SMS," she now recalls. "Are you kidding me? You sent them an SMS to say you're going to bomb them? Can you hear yourself?"
Aharish seems to be energised rather than exhausted by this constant struggle - and hopes one day to challenge similarly founded stereotypes of Arab women in America; her goal is to become a presenter on CNN. Are there any drawbacks to her chosen career path? "None of us is married," she says, of herself and two elder sisters. "We grew up to be really strong, really independent - and now it is difficult for Arab men to accept us. Of course, my mum is going crazy."