Paul Gross

Lucy Aharish symbolizes the success of Zionism

There were, broadly speaking, three reactions in the country to Israeli-Arab journalist Lucy Aharish’s torch-lighting at the official state Yom Haatzmaut ceremony. First, a reminder of what she said before she lit the torch:

“I am Lucy Aharish. Daughter of Salwa and Maaruf. Sister of Saida and Suzanne. I am honored to light this torch for the 67th Independence Day of the State of Israel. For all human beings wherever they may be, who have not lost hope of peace; and for all the children, full of innocence, who live on this earth, to whom we have continually promised a better future. For those who are no longer with us, who fell victim to baseless hatred at the hands of those who forgot that we are born in the image of one god. For the Mizrahim and the Ashkenasim, the religious and the secular, the Arabs and the Jews. For the sons of this homeland, who remind us that we have no other other country. For us, Israelis; for all human beings; and for the glory of the State of Israel.”

The first reaction, exemplified by the loud applause that followed her speech, was the one of – presumably – the vast majority of Israelis: huge appreciation and admiration for such a beautifully rendered and clearly heartfelt message by a representative of our country’s often conflicted minority community.

The second reaction was that of certain leaders within the Israeli-Arab community – and doubtless many of the rank-and-file: Aharish is an Arab Uncle Tom. She has internalized “the defeat of the victim to the point of admiring the oppressor and his victory” in the words of Arab Member of Knesset Basel Ghattas. She is, in other words, a traitor to the sacred Arab cause of undoing the Israeli occupation of Palestine – that is, the occupation that began in 1948. The likes of Ghattas and Hanin Zoabi make no pretense of objecting only to Israel’s control over the West Bank. Israel’s very existence, and Zionism, remain the Original Sin for which the Jews much atone.

The third reaction was that of the Lehava organization and its fellow travelers on the Jewish far-right: to protest the decision to give Aharish this honor on the declared grounds that she was an “anti-Zionist”. In actuality of course, something more prosaic was going on. It’s called racism. Aharish is not Jewish, and therefore has no right to take a leading role in Israel’s independence celebrations.

Far from being an “anti-Zionist”, Lucy Aharish represents a key component of the Zionist project. From its earliest days, Zionism imagined not just a democratic state, but one where the Arab minority would feel an equal part of that state. Theodore Herzl’s novel Altneuland very clearly depicts this. Admittedly, Herzl was writing before it was obvious that the Arab inhabitants of Palestine were generally ill-disposed to the notion of a Jewish state, of any size, anywhere in the land. Nevertheless, the most uncompromising of the Zionist leaders, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, openly hoped for a future of complete equality for Arab citizens and this is exactly what is proposed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, written by David Ben-Gurion and signed by representatives of every Zionist faction.

No less then than a new immigrant fulfilling the state’s raison d’etre to bring the ‘exiled’ Jews back home, Lucy Aharish is a poster child for Zionism; an Arab citizen who declares: ““I’m not ashamed of my Israeliness. Then I’m a woman, and then I’m an Arab Muslim. That’s the order: Israeli, woman, Arab Muslim.”

The corollary of this is that the blatantly racist reaction to Aharish by the Jewish far-right was no less an attack on the very fundamentals of the state than was the predictable griping and name-calling from Arab MKs.

There is little Israel can do to change the minds of committed anti-Zionists on the Arab side but the incoming government should be doing all it can to make it as easy and welcoming as possible for those Arabs who wish to be ‘Israeli first’ to do so.

Benjamin Netanyahu is starting on minus points with the Arab community after his cynical election day “warning” about Arabs going to the polls. He can make up for it by putting the full weight of his office behind addressing the shortfall in the allocation of resources to the Arab sector. The governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (1992-96) brought the expenditure on Arab schools to near parity with Jewish schools after decades of gross inequality, demonstrating that where there is the political will from the top, significant change can occur.

Anti-Arab racism should be swiftly and unequivocally condemned, whether it come from fascist politicians like Baruch Marzel (who thankfully, did not make it into the Knesset), far-right Rabbis like Dov Lior and Shmuel Eliyahu, or the moronic thugs who chant obscenities at Betar Jerusalem football matches.

The ‘Jewish State’ bill, approved by Netanyahu at the end of the last Knesset, should either be changed significantly or shelved. As it stands, the wording is less inclusive and democratic than that of the Declaration of Independence. Arab citizens cannot be blamed for feeling that this would further erode their status in Israeli society; unquestionably it will embolden the most bigoted and chauvinistic elements among the Jewish population.

In the right-wing coalition that looks to be taking shape, there will be a need for whatever liberal elements remain in the Likud to push and prod the prime minister on these measures, while known progressives within Kulanu such as Michael Oren and Rachel Azaria will also have to make their presence felt. Encouragement and perhaps even a little gentle pressure can be expected from President Reuven Rivlin, who has proved an extraordinary champion of minority rights in his new role.

While those Arabs who wish to emulate Aharish have not been given enough assistance from Israel’s Jewish politicians, they have been equally ill-served by the Arab political leadership, which thrives on conflict rather than accommodation with the Israeli state. Obsessed with the injustice as they see it of Israel’s very creation (forgetting it seems that a UN-endorsed Palestinian Arab state alongside the Jewish state was rejected by the Arab hierarchy of the time), they focus exclusively on exposing the ‘illegitimacy’ of Israel rather than on assisting those Arabs who want to be part of Israeli society.

Aharish is a threat to the anti-Israel Arabs because she presents a different model to young Arab citizens: ashamed of neither her Israeliness nor of her Arab identity; critical of the Israeli government (as one can and should be in a democracy) but proud to be a citizen; a firm believer that Arabs should not expect equal rights without equal responsibilities.

Lucy Aharish may not be able to identify with the words of Hatikva (“… a Jewish soul still yearns… the hope of two thousand years to be a free people in our land” etc); for her, 1948 will always be not just about Israel’s creation but the dispossession of many Palestinians in the war. But she is a part of the State of Israel and feels herself to be. Those Jews who believe she does not belong are traitors to the democratic traditions of the Zionist movement. Those Arabs who see her as a sell-out are stuck in a self-pitying and self-defeating struggle against the reality of Israel’s existence.

The State of Israel owes it to its Arab citizens to stand firm against both these forces and to help them to integrate. It’s the Zionist thing to do.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.