Steven Aiello

A Torch and a Song: Role Models in Overcoming Adversity

This past week Israel marked Yom Hazikaron—national Memorial Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut—Independence Day. In the Israeli calendar, Memorial Day flows right into Independence Day, and the entire country pauses to commemorate, to mourn, and to celebrate. It’s an emotional week, with many moving moments.

This year, two especially inspiring stories caught my attention. On Independence Day, fourteen “Pioneers” were honored with lighting torches at the national ceremony. One was Lucy Aharish, the first Arab news presenter on Hebrew language Israeli TV (she now presents on international channel I24 in English). Aharish is an Israeli-Arab who grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and city (she was the only Arab in her school), and has already broken a number of professional glass ceilings and stereotypes in her career. She’s also been a model of moderation, tolerance and respect for the different identities and views that can clash within Israel, punctuated by her showdown with the extremist (and quite despicable personality) Bentzy Gupstein this summer. In the same breath Aharish criticized tarring all settlers or right-wingers with one brush, as well as espousing stereotypes about Arabs or any other group. In so doing she rose above the loathsome rhetoric of Gupstein, who told her explicitly on national television that in his eyes she had no place in Israel, because of her religion and ethnicity, despite her citizenship, place of birth, and indeed her identity.

That Aharish showed such class is commendable, but unsurprising given that she’s faced such adversity her whole life. From acts of terror and violence during the Intifada, to racist slurs and graffiti on a daily basis during elementary school, Aharish saw the worst of Arab and Jewish extremism. Her response has been to embrace and promote moderation. And she is clear and proud of her identity, as an Israeli Arab woman, that is unapologetic, and truly inspiring for the next generation of youth.

Standing at the podium during the most emotional two day period in the Israeli calendar, she spoke in Hebrew and Arabic—but her message was universal. She mentioned her parents and siblings, and then said that she accepted the honor on behalf of everyone—Ashkenazim, Sepharadim, Jew and non-Jew, religious and secular. Her message was one of unity. Before and after the ceremony, Aharish continued to be attacked by extremists on the right and the left, but that only underscores the importance of who she is and what she represents, and it’s nothing compared to what she’s already overcome.

Her speech can be seen and heard here.

Tension within Israel and between Israel and Palestinian populated areas rose this summer after the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish Israeli boys in June 2014. The situation escalated and led to further bloodshed, but the families of the three boys—Gilad, Naftali and Eyal, have shown great fortitude in calling for unity and positive acts in memory of the boys.

On Wednesday a tribute video clip was released, a collaborative effort of friends and classmates of the boys and a diverse group of Israeli and Jewish musicians. The song, which was written in honor of the boys, uses Hebrew references to their names, and the composer explained that the singers deliberately reflect a range of religious and secular backgrounds to emphasize the message of unity that the video promotes. The idea fits the yeshiva high school that the boys went to, which promotes serving God and advancing unity via music and joyfulness. It’s a powerful and stirring clip. But the most moving parts are the reactions of the families. They’re shown sitting and listening to the recording of the song, singing along, with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces. Two of the mothers talk about their reactions to the words of the song (“Open Your Heart”), how it relates to them, and about their experiences throughout the ordeal over the last year, and explain how the positive, the light that they find and found is an opening of hearts, a showing of compassion and empathy, and an overall strengthening of unity and bridging of differences.

There are many different ways to react to trying circumstances. The manner in which the families of Gilad, Naftali and Eyal have conducted themselves, is inspiring. They responded to the most tragic, and devastating situation that a parent, or a family could face by spreading and promoting a message of love, acceptance, empathy and unity. It’s perhaps not reasonable to accept that everyone could react in such a way to such heartbreaking grief, but at the very least it’s something that we can all learn and be inspired by.

Links to the video and interviews with the families: here and here

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at