Lucy Aharish, Israel’s best known Arab TV anchor has gotten used to criticism & threats from every possible direction. Now she’s firing back at her critics: At the ‘whining’ Arabs, at Israel’s ‘enlightened’ liberals, and at the Jews who expect her to convert.
By Yehuda Nuriel
We have gotten so used to Lucy Aharish’s presence on our screen, to her pleasant personality and to the words coming out of her heart, that we have forgotten how dangerous it actually is to be Lucy Aharish.
To be more exact, we have gotten used to it. We have gotten used to the regular buzz of threats against her. We have gotten used to the racist filth being poured on her on Facebook. We have gotten used to the complete chaos, a sort of terror routine, which is present in the daily life of one young woman.
“In the past year I have been abused by my mother’s family,” Aharish says. “My aunt, my mother’s sister, is preventing her from entering the house and seeing my grandmother. And she says to her, ‘There’s no entry for sluts, or for your slutty daughters.’ In other words, she’s calling me a slut for allegedly ‘going astray.’ Can you believe it? People are insane. And my mother collapses at the entrance, and most of her siblings, eight out of 10, are not talking to her.
“My cousin’s son,” Aharish says emotionally, “a child, like my little brother. I changed his diapers, he grew up in our home, he is my soul. On my Instagram there is a picture of him kissing me on the cheek. So my mother’s family is claiming that I slept with him. Do you understand? That’s primitiveness. Calling my mother, your big sister, a slut? Preventing her from seeing her mother before she passes away? And my grandmother doesn’t have much left. Super serious Alzheimer’s. You think it’s easy, seeing my mother suffer like this? Forget about me. I was never close. But my mother? I find it shocking.”
The boycott, she goes on, reached extremely dangerous places. “You have to understand how serious this is: One of my cousins, a 16-year-old boy, says in front of his father and my uncles, ‘Lucy disgraced our family’s dignity. It’s our dignity and it must be restored.’ I immediately telephoned one of the sisters and said to her, ‘Let me get this straight, is this a threat to carry out an honor killing? Because if it’s a threat, let’s deal with it nicely through the police. You want us to handle it through the law? We’ll handle it through the law.’ And I’m the one who will file a complaint. Because if I am being threatened and my life is being threatened over the ‘honor’ that their big sister doesn’t have, I will handle it legally. In the meantime, it has been quiet since then.”
Why is this happening?
“Pure jealousy. And the fact that I live my life and I don’t give a damn about them, and as far as I’m concerned they are not my family. My only family is my mother, father and sisters, and that’s where it ends. And I suppose they don’t like hearing in the Arab sector all kinds of people saying, ‘Look at what your sister’s daughter is doing.’”
This isn’t the first time Aharish has been harassed by her family in Nazareth. “First it was on my father’s side. But that issue has been solved,” she says. “About five years ago, they said that I was pregnant and that I was an alcoholic and that I was using drugs. Just like that, after receiving ‘rumors’ one day. And then my father’s siblings and my mother’s siblings held a meeting, at a mosque’s entrance, and tried to reach a decision what to do with this girl, who is embarrassing the family.”
“And then my father lost it. Because these are his siblings! He was forced to completely distance himself from his entire family. And when I found out, I went through a very serious mental breakdown, a nervous breakdown which led to back surgery. People around me didn’t know, but it hit me while I was shooting a film. I started with back pains and ended up in a hospital. My foot was completely paralyzed. I had to lie down for a month and a half.”
She cries, then inhales. “So people around me say, ‘Lucy Aharish, she must have an easy time,’ while I’m in so much pain. And not only for me, but for my parents. The endless support I have received from them, all my life, cannot be taken for granted. And look at the sacrifices they have had to make. My mother isn’t talking to her siblings – because of me. And she isn’t seeing her mother – because of me. It’s pure evil, and it’s sitting on me. And I can only hope that my mother will see my grandmother before she dies.”
The face of racism
It is not just the immediate family which is taking its gloves off. Since becoming an assertive and candid speaker, Aharish has been verbally attacked from all directions after being chosen to light a torch at the official Israeli Independence Day ceremony in 2015. And Lucy hit back – all alone. She simply has no choice.
Including at the idiot who has been polluting her Facebook account.
And there was one woman who Aharish shamed in public recently during a lecture to Agriculture Ministry employees. “Even before I got on stage, there was a young religious woman with a head covering sitting behind me. And the moment the audience was informed that ‘Lihi Lapid will be replaced by Lucy Aharish,’ she said: ‘Disgusting, yuck, I hate her! Yuck, disgusting!’ Just like that, next to me. And a friend sitting next to her tried to silence her, but she went on.
“Until I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned around and said: ‘Are you talking about me?’ I took a deep breath and said to her: ‘Get up, get up! And tell everyone what you told me!’ I stood up, screaming, so that everyone would hear. I gave her a ‘Game of Thrones’ scene. I yelled ‘Shame, shame, shame!'”
“And then you see the entire auditorium, 800 people, starting to say to her: ‘Get out, get out!’ Until she left. Later, during the lecture, I noticed her from the stage sneaking into the back of the auditorium. ‘Why are you hiding? Look, the cowards are back!’ I said. And no, in such cases I am not afraid. Because if you are not afraid to tell me that you hate me, I am not afraid to humiliate you. Because that’s the face of racism. That’s what racism looks like. A good girl, wearing a headdress and praying to God. So which yeshiva did you study in, which god do you pray to, and which god do you say ‘Shema Yisrael’ to? Shame on you!”
Now she’s finally smiling. “What can I do? When I get fiery, I get fiery. I expose the Dimona, the Arab, the Moroccan, hardcore Lucy Harush. When I finally explode, it’s not ‘please listen to me.’”
‘Murderers? These soldiers are my friends’
A conversationalist, amusing, intelligent, honest. We seem to know Lucy Aharish’s biography by heart – from the Molotov cocktail that was thrown at her by a Palestinian terrorist during a family trip to Gaza at the age of five, through the illness and ovariectomy at the age of 13, to the tears on the screen on Channel 2’s ‘Meet the Press’ after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” It’s an extremely rare story of a family from Nazareth that arrived, in search for work, to the southern city of Dimona of all places.
“At first, I really didn’t have a clue what it meant to be Arab. I would ask, ‘Father, is Uncle Muhammad an Arab too?’ I was a very innocent girl who thought there was nothing outside of Dimona,” she says. The parents spoke to the children, and still do, in both Hebrew and Arabic. “When we fight, it’s in Arabic,” she laughs.
Their surname is actually Harish, a large family in Nazareth’s eastern neighborhood. But at some point, the Interior Ministry added an A, “and we have been Aharish ever since.”
Lucy and her two sisters, who are nine and eight years older than her, were born in Dimona. She was the small girl who had to be watched. “Very problematic, a small criminal, a thug.” It was the home of a hard-working family, 60 square meters. Her parents still live there, in the old terraced houses, in a completely rare Israeli Arab home.
“One day I came to my parents’ house, open the cabinet and sawcoconut cookies, peanut cookies, matzah cookies. ‘What’s this, mom? No ma’amoul (popular Levantine pastries)?’ ‘It’s Passover.’ I looked at the table and saw ‘matzah shmura’ (unleavened bread made of special wheat). What’s going on? Why ‘matzah shmura’? And my sister says, ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s much tastier than regular matzah.’”
The education Aharish received at home and her unique location in a Jewish-Israeli society for all intents and purposes became clear to her as soon as she went outside and was exposed to the complexity in her life, as a member of an Arab minority in a Jewish state.
“I remember my first argument with a Palestinian from east Jerusalem, when we worked together in a hotel,” she says. “He said to me, ‘How? How can you understand them, these soldiers, these murderers?’ And I replied, ‘You’re talking about my friends here! Lotan and Avi and Oded and Dudu. We studied together for the matriculation exams, and now they’re in elite units. What murderers?”
She found herself in the media a decade ago, after working as a receptionist in a strictly kosher Jerusalem hotel facing the Old City walls. “Listen, I knew everything. All the kashrut laws, the prayer hours, hand washing – everything.”
The unique young Arab woman attracted the attention, first of all, of Arab affairs correspondents. Channel 2’s Yoram Binur was a good friend of hers and guided her through her first days in Tel Aviv. And Zvi Yehezkeli, her teacher at the Koteret School of Journalism and Communications, sent her to an audition for Channel 10 News. An intelligent, beautiful Arab woman with a perfect Jewish-Sabra accent – she was an asset Israel’s news corporations could only dream of.
“It was clear to me that this was something that would help me get in: Dimona, an Arab, a Muslim, not a blonde, a victim of a terror attack,” Aharish admits openly. “I was immediately tasked with reading the news on screen. Wow! So you immediately think that you have to start kicking with your feet in the deep pool, and we all know that Arabs can’t swim. This drowning made me start anew.”
This drowning was a serious feud with Channel 10, which made a lot of headlines and led to her angry departure. She then went through a difficult professional and financial crisis, when she failed to last for long in any media outlet. “I found myself in debt of 200,000 shekels,” she says. “How? From living in a rented apartment, owning a car, Tel Aviv. A single girl like me, who hasn’t got a penny and the bank gives her credit. That was a fatal mistake.
“I ended up without any money and nowhere to get it from. Three and a half years ago, on the verge of leaving the country. And I’m knocking on every possible door, all the CEOs, Avi Nir (CEO of the Keshet Media Group) and that, ‘let’s wait a bit,’ everywhere, Channel 24, and ‘you’re overqualified.’ And I have nothing! How can it be? How do I get myself out of this sh*t? I spent days crying hysterically. And the next step was to go to New York, to clean tables. Just like that.”
And then she received an offer to participate in “Moadon Hamevakrim” (“Club of Critics”), a new television show produced by Reshet, and then an offer to present the news in English on i24news.
“And I started paying my debts, working from 7 am until midnight.” And finally came the offer to present Reshet’s “Sihat Hayom” (“Talk of the Day”), which Aharish grabbed with both hands, and she became an on-screen star.
‘The moment I opened my mouth, there was a mess’
On November 1, “Sihat Hayom” moved to Channel 2’s prime-time slot, 6:45-7:30 pm, going head-to-head against Guy Pines’ popular entertainment show, where Aharish worked for three years. What began as a morning chatter show, which no one even watches, turned into a sizzling political hub – mostly thanks its dominant host. “As long as I said in clear and fine Hebrew, ‘Two Qassam rockets landed in Sderot a short while ago,’ it was okay,” Aharish says. “The moment I started opening my mouth, there was a mess.”
She sees the turning point in the recent wave of terror, “the intifada of lone wolf terrorists.”
“I’m sitting in a café in Washington. The sun is shining, the weather is nice, I’m listening to blues in the background. F**k, what a normal life they have! And then I start getting reports on my phone of another terror attack and another person who has been murdered,” she says. “I go back to work, and I’m silent. And my mother says to me, ‘Lucy, I’m asking you to keep your mouth shut. I’m begging you.’ Because she’s the one receiving the reactions from everyone around, from ‘how did you educate her’ to ‘Lucy should be murdered’ and ‘you’ll receive her in pieces in a garbage bag.’ They went that far.
“So everyone’s talking and I’m keeping my mouth shut. Because my mother is sitting behind me. ‘Shut up, be quiet.’ Until at some point it all burst out of me. Without writing anything in advance. I blurted everything I was feeling. Because I simply couldn’t understand why innocent people have to be stabbed for the Temple Mount. And at the same time I’m saying to myself, ‘Now my mother is going to kill me.’ I could see her sitting at home and swearing, ‘What have you done, you stupid girl?’”
“Even if the status quo in al-Aqsa was violated, does that give anyone the legitimacy to get up and murder someone else? What kind of girl prays to God and then pulls a knife out of her bag to stab people?” Aharish said in October 2015, immediately creating a shock wave. The video went viral and was shared a million and a half times, she says.
“And suddenly I understood the power of words. I understand that everyone is watching. And there are Arabs who call me, ‘The national defender.’ Especially from my age group and especially Arab women,” she says. “On the other hand, I’m optimistic. Because people want to hear something else. They are tired of hearing that Arabs are only murderers and only terrorists. They want to hear, from Arabs too, that things can be a bit better.”
Like every other Arab in Israel, you are considered second class. We don’t live together, we don’t study together, and we definitely don’t have any social or family relations, God forbid. Racism here is built-in. Are you forgetting all of that?
“Who can forget? I can’t ignore it, for f**k’s sake. I experience it on a daily basis. There is built-in racism here against everyone. Do you know who is inferior to us? The Ethiopians. Even though they are Jewish. So when I see the racism in this country, I think about the Jewish people, who have gone through a mass murder and a Holocaust. And forget about the Arabs – look at racism between Jews! And racism according to the color of a person’s skin, not the person’s denomination. The color of his skin! The Mizrahi are shvartze, shvarzet chayes. The Ethiopians? You’re black, I’m white. This is biological racism, Nazi racism. And a nation which has forgotten its own history cannot be democratic.”
“On the other hand, I look around. For f**k’s sake, a state has been established, and we have an amazing state here! That is indisputable, and in the most problematic neighborhood in the world. So I say, f**k, we are a power. And when I look at the Arabs, at our Arab neighborhood, I’m ashamed, Yehuda. I’m ashamed. You see what’s happening to the Syrians. For f**k’s sake! Where are we, the Arabs? We are so self-involved. I spoke to Muslim students. They share my thoughts, but they won’t dare talk.”
The Arab society is afflicted with diseases, says Aharish, and she will expose them, fearlessly. “Because I can’t ignore them. I can’t sit and defend (Knesset Member) Hanin Zoabi, when I know that what she is doing is shooting the Arab society in the head point blank. I can’t sit down and keep my mouth shut, when the entire Joint Arab List fails to attend Shimon Peres’ funeral. Because it’s adding more fuel to the fire. I can’t say, we’re okay, because we’re not, and the silent majority shares this opinion. I can’t sit down and say, it’s your fault (the Jews). It’s clearly your fault, but I have a part in this too!”
Let me try and represent a Palestinian for a minute: How can you come and lash out at us? You’re strengthening what the Jews think about us anyway, while we’re living under racism or occupation.
“I understand that that’s the claim. And we’re living in a super-racist state. But hey, I like living here! I’m not ashamed to say it. And I’m not ashamed of my Israeli passport. And while many Israelis have two passports, I have only one. So you have no reason to send me to Syria, or ‘Go to Gaza,’ like some rightists say,” she laughs.
“But Israeli leftists are blasting me too. Because the Israeli Left likes its Arab to be violent, miserable, with sewage flowing on the streets. And I have been attacked, for example, by (Haaretz publisher) Amos Schocken’s son, as a collaborator of the Zionist oppression who ‘enjoys benefits like lighting a torch and a TV show.’ Look who’s saying this to me. Seriously, you? Benefits? I licked floors to get here! I even spent four years in Channel 1!”
Allow me to be a bit direct: You know that everything would have been completely different had it not been for your perfect Hebrew accent. Everything, including the torch lighting.
“Of course. If I had a heavy Arabic accent, I would not have reached this place. But I cannot listen to this talk anymore. Because in the Arab sector people are upset with me for not having an accent. They think I’m covering it up. So once and for all: I have not covered it up. I grew up with Jews.”
“You know,” she smiles, “I just finished shooting a TV series directed by Roni Ninio, in which I play a Bedouin girl. There was one part where I had to talk Hebrew, and I automatically switched to ‘regular’ Hebrew. (Actor) Hisham Suliman looks at me and says, ‘Are you retarded? Stop it! She’s a Bedouin. How can she not have an accent?’ So I had to speak Hebrew with an Arabic accent that would not sound exaggerated, and I couldn’t do it.”
The Aharish junction also allows her to observe the relations within the Arab society. “A Christian Arab is perceived as sophisticated, a scholar. And the Muslim is a terrorist, a criminal, a wife murderer.”
Sounds like the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi stereotypes.
“Of course. And Muslims versus Bedouins? Wow! My daughter from the Galilee will marry that Bedouin guy?! They are like Ethiopians, more or less. And will a Christian let his daughter marry a Muslim? No way. Do you really think so? Come on, honey, we’re all little racists.”
And how do the Palestinians call you, Israeli-Arabs? The Arabs of ‘48?
“The cream of the crop Arabs, the Bituach Leumi (National Insurance Institute) Arabs. In other words, the spoilt ones. What are you complaining about? You’re one of them! And let’s not philosophize: Not a single Israeli Arab will get up and leave. The fact that he calls himself a ‘Palestinian’ – each has his own personal definitions, but no one will leave.”
And why don’t you define yourself as a ‘Palestinian’ too?
“I define myself as an Israeli Arab because I’m Israeli. My father and my mother and their families are from Nazareth. My father also has family from Tubas, and very distant family in Lebanon.”
In other words, the Palestinian diaspora. The victims of the Nakba.
“Yes, but they never spoke to me about a ‘Nakba’ at home, and I didn’t hear about it till I began my university studies. But no, I’m not forgetting history. Because if I really did forget, it would be very easy for me to convert to Judaism. And this is my answer to the many people who ask me, ‘Why don’t you just convert?’ A lot of people ask me that, ‘because you’re one of us.’”
Religion, she says, plays no role in her world today. “I believe in God, and that’s it.” But up until five or six years ago, she observed a Muslim practice for all intents and purposes. She successfully completes a surprise quiz I give her on the Quran. “I got closer to religion following a crisis I went through. I used to pray five times a day. I dressed and acted accordingly. I got to know my religion, a religion of simplicity, brotherhood, tolerance and caring for one’s fellowman,” she says.
“I discovered prayer like a mantra, like yoga. Five minutes a day, five times a day. It went on for a year, till my mother was sure she was growing ISIS in her house. She freaked out. After a year, I felt drained. I can’t take the burden of five prayers a day, and I won’t cheat, I won’t just do half.”
‘Why should I feel hated because of who I am?’
But let there be no doubt about it: Aharish remains a proud Muslim. “And you know what shattered me, that day with Bentzi Gopstein? It wasn’t the first time I had heard that kind of talk. What shattered me was the hatred in his eyes, because of one thing only: Because I am an Arab. His hatred reminded me of the terrorist who threw the Molotov cocktail on me and looked at me. I was the only one who saw him, a 5 and a half-year-old girl. Gopstein’s gaze had the same hatred.”
The notorious Gopstein incident occurred in July 2014. On the backdrop of the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, the man, a racist student of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the founder and director of Lehava, a Jewish anti-assimilation group, was invited to her morning show. “This is not your country,” he spewed. “You should not be here.”
“The moment he left, I pushed my chair backwards, turned around and burst into tears,” Aharish says, and starts crying. “Why should I feel that someone hates me because of who I am? It’s like ISIS. Gopstein is like the garbage can of Islam.”
Where do you stand on the Palestinian issue?
“Two states for two people. There is no option for one state. There should be a complete separation in order to calm down. Then we’ll start getting closer. Listen, the Arabs are sitting on scaffoldings. The Palestinians are building the settlements. F**k, what an insane reality! You call them ‘a people of slaves’ – but where are their leaders? They take billions and their children are treated in Israeli hospitals, and they send them to study at Harvard and Berkley.”
And what about the status of Israel’s Arabs? Quite a few of them have expressed their fear of an intifada breaking out here in Jaffa and in the Triangle and in Nazareth and in Haifa, and the plans for ‘land and population swaps.’ Do you share these concerns?
“Yes. The day a Palestinian state is established, and it will be established, they will be there and we will be here. So the Arabs here will wake up and say, ‘Hey, why do they have a state while I’m stuck here with my sh*t? Let’s start dealing with the sh*it now.’ Enough with this whining. Get up and fight for what is yours.
“So hate me, criticize me, say that I have gone through a distorted Israelization, that I am a stinking Ashkenazi, that I suck up to Jews. That’s the way it is! I’m dealing with what is going to happen here 10 years from now. People sit and complain, ‘What a sh*t country,’ and immediately close the television. Enough already! Get involved! Because how are they shutting us up? By taking us from the protest on the streets and sending us back into a war and calling elections and ‘the Arabs are heading out in droves.’ And we didn’t just head out in droves, the right-wing government was in danger! The Syrians are on the fences!”
It may be easy for you to say all this from your high seat in liberal, Arab-free Tel Aviv. By the way, do you know how many Arabs live in the city, not including Jaffa?
“I don’t know, 10 percent?”
Less than 1 percent.
“I’m not that surprised. We are a disgusting bubble. I sit at the Brasserie with sunglasses, unrecognized by people, and I get a phone call from my mother. I start talking in Arabic and suddenly realize that people are staring at me. There, she’s about to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ and blow up! This is enlightened and liberal Tel Aviv. Because it can’t be, he usually brings me the vegetables at the supermarket – he doesn’t sit at the Brasserie!”
In the past few years she has been living in a rented apartment in Tel Aviv, “bordering on the southern neighborhoods,” she stresses. “I need the neighborhood feel.” Here too, she is attacked from all directions, including in her own house.
“There is an Arab girl who lives in my building, and she can’t get over it!” she says. “We once took the elevator together, and she gave me this long look. When she went out, I heard her saying into the phone, in Arabic: ‘No, you won’t believe who went up the elevator with me. Miss Aharish!’ It freaked her out that we live together. Tell me, have you gone mad? And the obsession is mainly from Arab women. Instead of solidarity, they are the ones who criticize me the most.”
She keeps her personal life to herself. As open and brave as she may be, and after every innocent Instagram picture has led to a world war – it’s simply her life. “It’s the only thing I have to protect. And if I want to go out, it won’t be to very public places,” she says. She smokes girls’ Marlboro with her coffee, drinks white wine at home, Glenmorangie here and there. Nothing else.
She is 35 years old and is ready to start a family, including – if needed – egg freezing. “I’m considering it,” she says. “It’s a complicated operation, but look at me: I will have children and I will have a family. I won’t have a child out of wedlock or with a ‘partner.’ But the clock is ticking and, as you know, I have only one ovary left, so I’m also considering egg freezing,” she reveals.
Dates with Muslim men have not been very successful. She was usually “too much for them.” “And it’s not that I was very successful with the enlightened and liberal Jews. Men would say to me during dates, ‘Hmm, I actually can’t bring an Arab woman home.’”
Will your spouse only be Muslim? Or can he also be Jewish?
“As far as my parents are concerned, I have not received the green light for a Jew. Definitely not. We discuss it openly. In recent years, we (the sisters) have been raising the issue more and more at home. And I’ve told my parents, ‘I love you very much, I respect you, I will do everything for you – but this is my life. And if my spouse will be Jewish, you’ll have to accept him. And if you don’t? Take a deep breath, relax – and come meet your grandchildren.’ They responded in silence. They must be saying to themselves, ‘There’s no way. She won’t do it.’”
Why don’t you become a politician? A Knesset member, a minister.
“I’ve received offer. Of course I have, from everyone. Yair (Lapid) and the Zionist Union, and somewhere more to the right – from everyone. And the moment they said, ‘Lucy, we…’ so no, not right now. I still have a very important job as a journalist. And I still have some respect for politics. And let me get some wrinkles first. I’m not ruling it out, but let’s wait for when my chin gets attached to my neck. I have to gain a few more scratches and scars.”
By the way, are you troubled by your looks? ‘The screen star’s sad aging process’?
“Look (she reveals a few white hairs). I dyed my hair once, it annoyed me, and that’s it. And anyway, I don’t see myself growing old on the screen, but in the public area and behind the scenes. And the person with the real influence is not the politician, but the person beside him.”
The prime minister’s bureau chief, Lucy Aharish?
“Or the White House. No, really, I know life will take me there, and I will not give up the ability to change and make an impact. You know, as a child I would watch Dan Shilon’s show, ‘The Circle,’ and say to myself, ‘It would be really interesting to interview me there. And then, years later, I get a phone call from the show and I see Lucy sitting there in the circle.
“So it’s not just a pun, coming full circle. It’s really telling a different story, and making an impact, knowing that life has taken me to a place where not everyone will like me and not everyone will hate me, and some will criticize and some will support. Just remember: In all the worst events, including the Holocaust, the majority wanted peace – it was just irrelevant. And I look at people and say, are we f**king irrelevant? F**k! I don’t want to be irrelevant. And no one will tell me to shut up.”
She laughs for the last time. “The first Arab prime minister? Why not. My daughter, Yasmin.”
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