My excitement about all the publicity surrounding Israel’s newest beauty queen has dropped as swiftly as an evening gown during a backstage quick-change before the talent competition.
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When Yityish Aynaw was crowned, I joined wholeheartedly in Israel’s celebration of its first Ethiopian queen. Certainly, she is beautiful, poised and articulate, and she deserves a win on these merits alone. Yet I also believe that she bears this honor on behalf of countless other Ethiopian Israelis who remain on the margins, living somewhere between full civil acceptance and outright racism and exoticism. As an American doctoral student researching Afro-diasporic music and culture in urban Israel, I was hopeful that Aynaw’s victory might widen the bright circle of national fellowship ever so slightly, and create more space for Ethiopians within Israeli society.
I am aware, of course, that beauty pageants aren’t the same as activism or politics – they are, above all, symbolic. Yet if handled carefully, they can generate images, ideas and dialogues that have the potential to empower and enlighten. When national media raises up a beauty queen from among a marginal population, this symbolic potential is all the greater – yet the risks are greater as well. Possibilities for authentic social progress can easily be corrupted by superficial fetishism.
This is why I am disappointed and frustrated that Aynaw will, according to several reports, use any chance of chatting with President Barack Obama over dinner to advance Israel’s threadbare campaign for the release of imprisoned spy Jonathan Pollard. Jonathan Pollard?
As far as anyone can tell, the only thing that Aynaw and Obama have in common is the color of their skin, and perhaps that they are each the First Black Something in their respective countries. If Head of State and Beauty Queen take this opportunity to discuss their perspectives on race in Israel and America, maybethat conversation will be enough to justify the massive amount of American and Israeli resources that go into even the briefest of Presidential encounters. If, instead, they rehash Pollard’s thorny legal-political saga, this meeting won’t be worth the time it takes.
It is difficult for me to imagine that, given her choice of conversation topics with Barack Obama, Aynaw would have picked Pollard. His situation is, at best, tangential to the broad issues of race, gender and social equality that Aynaw might use her symbolic reign to productively address. Undoubtedly she has been pressed into service as a spokeswoman for the government of Israel on this issue; the question is, why? Will Obama reconsider Pollard because another black person asks him to? Can Aynaw convey Israel’s message in special black-language? Are Aynaw and Obama going to fist-bump on it?
Bibi and friends seem to think so. Otherwise, why have Aynaw raise Pollard, instead of a diplomat, a Member of Knesset, a lawyer? Herein lies the great embarrassment for Israel: that its leadership appears buffoonishly stuck in the era of minstrelsy when it comes to race. Ladies and gentlemen, thrill as the Black Beauty from Netanya sings, dances, and advances political agendas! By co-opting Aynaw’s invitation to dine with Obama in this way, Israel’s leaders have turned a potentially powerful national symbol into a national joke. Here, also, is the insult to President Obama. The Israeli government seems to believe that Obama isn’t going to see through this charade, or that it will not bother him - either because he is stupid, or because he is a black man first and a President second. And that maybe he won’t notice if his welcome dinner has turned into what may be history’s most farcical instance of racial profiling.
It’s true that presidents, like beauty queens, sometimes have to perform representational duties, such as cutting ribbons, or maybe even dining with symbolic figures like beauty queens. Yet slipping in policy maneuvers under the guise of representation is always a fairly dirty trick, and even more so when its only impetus is a hopelessly provincial faith in racial stereotypes.
Frankly, all parties here have better things to do with their time. Obama has a bilateral American-Israeli relationship to manage; Aynaw has a community of her own to assist and empower; and the Israeli government has a population of Ethiopians citizens that they must begin taking seriously.
Sarah Hankins is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at Harvard University, researching music and culture in Israel. She is also a DJ and dance music producer.