At Israel’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration marking the 67th anniversary of the state of Israel, one of the 14 individuals selected for the honor of lighting torches kicking off the celebration was Lucy Aharish, a television newscaster and actor who happens to be an Arab citizen of Israel.
Of course, “happens to be” is an obfuscation given the charged nature of life in Israel and its region. The fact that she is an Arab citizen of Israel is not at all an insignificant fact. That, certainly, was the opinion of critics from across the political spectrum when it was announced that she would be among those centre-stage at the annual Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl Cemetery.
Her participation in the ceremony was politicized by both left and right – by the right for reasons that can hardly be described as anything but racist and by the left for reasons that seem based on the assumption that any Arab who participates in an official Israeli ceremony is a collaborator with some sort of Zionist … whatever.
Hopefully, the critics were schooled by Aharish’s magnificent, emotional words at the ceremony. Holding back tears, Aharish said that she was lighting the torch “for all human beings, wherever they may be, who have not lost hope for peace, and for the children, full of innocence, who live on this earth…. For those who were but are no more, who fell victim to baseless hatred by those who have forgotten that we were all born in the image of one God. For Sephardim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular, Arabs and Jews, sons of this motherland that reminds us that we have no other place. For us as Israel, for the honor of mankind, and for the glory of the state of Israel.”
Aharish, the only Arab lighting a torch in the ceremony, shifted into Arabic, Israel’s other official language, saying: “For our honor as human beings, this is our country and there is no other.”
A different yet parallel development occurred at the same time, when the annual Israel Prize for poetry and literature was bestowed on Erez Biton.
The Israel Prize is widely considered the country’s highest civilian honor and the jury that selected Biton described his five collections of poetry as “an exemplary, brave, sensitive and deep grappling with the wide range of personal and collective experiences, revolving around the pain of immigration, the travails of rooting oneself in Israel, and the establishment of eastern identity as an inseparable part of the full Israeli profile.”
Biton happens to be the first Sephardi Jew to receive the award in this crucial cultural category. Again, “happens to be” is a phrase that diminishes the cultural and historical realities that make this achievement one that transcends the individual and stands in for the history of neglect felt by this significant minority in Israeli society.
These two stories, each pleasant in their way yet tinged with the deep and diverse troubles of Israeli society, carry innumerable lessons for not only Israel but countries around the world.
There are people in every country who, because of the groups to which they belong, have experienced discrimination, decreased opportunities and, well, far worse. Yet within these groups are individuals who have nevertheless achieved accomplishments that suggest there is room for a better future, one that accepts diversity, that encourages creative grappling with a society’s complexities and that respects those who are unafraid to assert their rights.
Here’s hoping that this year, and in future years, a more diverse and equal world means that “happens to be” becomes the norm, not the exception.