Opinion |

Israel's Bizarre Competition: The Holocaust Survivors' Beauty Pageant

If this contest teaches us anything, it’s that the Israeli government loves the Holocaust as a diplomatic asset, but not the survivors, who are a burden on the state budget.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Holocaust survivors are seen backstage during a beauty contest for survivors of the Nazi genocide in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. November 24, 2015.
Holocaust survivors wait backstage during a beauty pageant in Haifa. November 24, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The beauty contest for Holocaust survivors is one of those rare moments when I regret that my mother, and actually also my father, is no longer alive (usually, I feel relief that they passed on years ago, because of the illiteracy of MK Bezalel Smotrich, the prison camp of Gaza, the West Bank’s Israeli-controlled Area C, the destruction of water supply systems – and we haven’t even mentioned the air force, Netzah Yehuda Battalion or Kfir Brigade).

Instead of trying to formulate my own sense of discomfort at this spectacle, it would have been simpler to ask them what they think of the participants, who clearly enjoyed the event, and to hear them say that enjoyment isn’t the main criterion by which to judge anything. Instead of thundering by myself about the deep roots of the objectification of women in our society, it would have been nice to quote them. (She: perhaps a quote from Simone de Beauvoir and a didactic sentence about the challenges of feminism. He: What a kitschy joke.)

But that’s life. My parents have missed the opportunity to address the connection between trafficking in women’s bodies and capitalizing on the Holocaust, so all we can do is rummage through the history of this bizarre competition (bizarre not because of the ages of the participants, but because of the need to imitate the beauty-based selections of young women that are customary in the misogynistic, ostensibly aesthetic, world, and because of the egregious ignorance of social criticism of these circuses of humiliation).

Google tells us that the pageant was the brainchild of Shimon Sabag, who founded and runs a charity that helps Holocaust survivors. This charity created a group home for them, with help from the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. The fact that Sara Netanyahu presided over the pageant this week bestows a royal embrace on this private charity venture.

In the first contest, in 2012, the winner, Hava Hershkovitz, said she participated “only because of the survivors, and the need to raise awareness of their difficult situation and put it on the agenda. That’s what the competition was about, not beauty. I’m happy that at least it succeeded, and there has been interest. After all, the bottom line is that no one really does anything for Holocaust survivors; everyone just talks.” (Ynet, June 29, 2012)

Here’s an interesting fact: In the reports Google turned up about the following years’ contests, which have become a tradition, this internal Israeli social criticism has disappeared. The principle motif now is that beauty (“internal beauty,” as Sabag put it), remaining alive and establishing a family are victories, or revenge, and the competition is a way of telling “the world” about the Holocaust.

Please. If there’s one thing the world knows, it’s that all criticism of Israel the occupier will be construed as denigrating the Holocaust, as anti-Semitism and so forth. If this contest teaches us anything, it’s that the Israeli government loves the Holocaust as a diplomatic asset, but not the survivors, who are a burden on the state budget. If the survivors – a small and shrinking group – need alms from Israel and abroad to live out their old age in a semi-dignified manner, something is rotten to the core.

Not by chance, the Forum for Public Housing announced yesterday that at least 3,600 survivors, most of whom have passed the age of 85, “are living in shameful housing conditions, because the rental assistance they receive is insufficient and there is no public housing for them.”

And look, what a surprise: The very first law passed in the Knesset’s winter session was an amendment to the law on benefits for Holocaust survivors that repeals the unjustified cuts in their allowances. The very modest stipend (320 euros, or about $350) that they receive from Germany as survivors will no longer be deducted from their National Insurance allowances. The bill passed 70-0.

The amendment was sponsored by MK Tali Ploskov of the Kulanu party and – no surprise here – MKs Dov Khenin, Ayman Odeh and Abdullah Abu Maaruf of Hadash, a faction in the Joint List. The survivors don’t need charity or benevolence or models strutting across a well-lit stage, but more legislation for social welfare (and not just their own), far from state demagoguery.

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