Yityish Aynaw, or Titi as she is known to her friends, became the first woman of Ethiopian origin to win the Miss Israel contest. Like winners of the beauty lottery everywhere, Aynaw’s crowning has thrust her from obscurity into the limelight.
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But her victory has a political dimension that is often missing from the skin-deep world of beauty contests: Aynaw comes from one of Israel’s most marginalized ethnic groups. Some have interpreted the Ethiopian beauty queen’s victory as a sign of Israeli tolerance, and of how Ethiopians are becoming increasingly integrated and mainstream.
However, in the absence of substantive change, Aynaw’s success could prove little more than a Botox injection that quickly passes, leaving the ugly face of discrimination to sag again. Nevertheless, many in the community celebrated that one of their number has become queen for a year. “For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” asserted Aynaw.
And Aynaw has not just inspired members of her own ethnic group. Mimas Abdelhai, a Palestinian-Israeli, has been mulling the idea of taking part in Miss Israel since last year. “I have been so scared to make this decision and to even talk to the people closest to me about it,” admits Abdelhai, who is a student of government at a top private Israeli college. “But this year’s winner gave me strength and encouraged me to make this decision.”
Unlike Aynaw, who entered the Miss Israel pageant to pursue her modelling aspirations, Abdelhai’s motives are largely political and cultural. “Miss Israel is different to beauty contests in other countries. The title comes with a social and political dimension, especially if a contestant comes from a minority background,” she explains.
And for Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Palestinian minority, often referred to as the ‘Arab-Israeli’ population, this “political dimension” is a massive one, perched precariously as the community is on the main fault line of a decades-old conflict, as Rana Raslan, who won the title in 1999, discovered.
Although Palestinian-Israelis often welcomed Raslan’s unprecedented victory at the time, especially in her hometown of Haifa, many Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Arabs in the wider region reacted angrily, and tended to view the spectacle with distaste and distrust.
Distaste because the idea that an Arab would openly wear the label “Israeli”, carry the Israeli flag and represent Israel on the world stage is anathema, especially with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still living under the crushing boot of occupation. (Raslan herself fully and publically identified with her Israeliness: "I am totally Israeli, and I do not think about whether I am an Arab or a Jew," shesaid at the time). Distrust because people fear the propaganda mileage the Israeli establishment would try to extract from such a high-profile success, though one that is ultimately non-threatening.
And true enough, Bibi Netanyahu wasted no time. “This is a clear manifestation of equality and co-operation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,” he said at the time. One of the Miss Israel judges, Pnina Rosenblum, went even further, extrapolating that this showed Israelis “want a true peace.”
Though many Israelis applauded Raslan’s victory, in right-wing nationalist and religious circles little in the way of “equality and cooperation,” or aspirations for “true peace,” were on display, as reflected in the fan(atical) mail the beauty queen received urging her to renounce her crown in favor of a Jew.
This raises the poignant question of why Mimas Abdelhai would want to step into this political minefield. “[Participation] automatically gains political attention. With that attention and connections, I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me,” she says, belying her political aspirations encompassed in the name of the party with which she became involved during the recent elections, Hope for Change.
And those matters? Raising the profile of her community and drawing attention to the discrimination it faces, representing her generation and her gender, as well as highlighting the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and acting as an ambassador for peace and a bridge for coexistence.
And handling the inevitable public fallout? “Of course, there will be those to object on both sides and I understand why,” Abdelhai acknowledges. “My parents are scared about the controversy the possibility of me competing might cause [but] I am strong enough to face this controversy,” she adds, noting that she would only take part if she can win her parents over.
Although I have serious misgivings about the political spin the Israeli establishment would put on another Israeli beauty queen who happens to be Arab, what the rejectionists on both sides overlook is that Palestinian-Israelis, whether people like it or not, are not just Israelis by citizenship, but are increasingly “Israeli” culturally.
Political discourse is, in fact, lagging drastically behind reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarized than ever, and identity politics grow, a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis has grown up quietly in the background with a very mixed cultural heritage, as I discovered during my time living in Israel-Palestine.
Some acknowledge that they are both Palestinian and Israeli, while even those who reject or are uncomfortable with the “Israeli” label often recognize the influence of Israeli society on them. And this influence has been mutual, if you consider how much Palestinian culture Israeli Jews have assimilated over the decades, from food to language, including cuss words.
In the case of Abdelhai, she speaks natural Hebrew, her formal Arabic is underdeveloped and she has spent more of her educational career among Israeli Jews than Arabs. But with her state at war with her nation, as one prominent Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, juggling these two cultures causes an identity crisis.
“In my university right now, I’m the only Palestinian,” Abdelhai told me in an interview. Being a minority of one “is sometimes very scary. It feels very uncomfortable. I’m not sure I can represent where I come from in the right way. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”
The flip side is that being educated in the Israeli and international systems, despite the opportunities they have offered, have also somewhat alienated her from the mainstream of her community. “I find it hard to befriend people in my hometown,” Abdelhai admits. “The things I do and the things I like doing are very different.”
Although I am skeptical that a beauty contest can make any meaningful political difference, the rise of a new, assertive generation like Abdelhai’s can and will challenge lazy prejudices and artificial dichotomies, while the blurring of rigid identities could point a way forward toward peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs.
And like Mohammad Assaf demonstrated for Gaza and the West Bank with his Arab Idol victory, the feel-good factor and pride cultural success can elicit for an embattled community can be at least as important as its possible political utility.
Moreover, even if it does little immediately for the integration of Palestinians in Israeli society and even if there are influential forces in Israeli society trying to arrest or reverse what gains there have been, this kind of assertive gesture is a reminder to the mainstream that “we are here too and we will not be ignored.”
“This country should embrace its diversity because I believe that’s what makes it special,” Abdelhai urges.
It’s not often that a potential beauty queen’s story has such resonance, but Abdelhai’s decisions and the debate they trigger illustrate the two-tiered, but complementary nature of the Palestinian struggle: for greater integration and empowerment within Israeli society, and for enfranchisement and national self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea