Israel Bows to a Young Arab Queen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 11, 1999; Page A23 JERUSALEM, March 10 And the winner of the 1999 Miss Israel Beauty Contest is ... an Arab.
What's more, she has chutzpah.
"I conquered Israel, why shouldn't I conquer Miss World?" said Rana Raslan, a peppery 21-year-old secretary whose riotous black curls frame a smile as wide as the gulf dividing Arab and Jewish Israelis. "Am I not pretty enough?"
In the judges' view, she is, and on Tuesday night she became the first Arab woman to be crowned Miss Israel in the contest's 49-year history. She is now eligible for the 1999 Miss World competition, which was won by another Israeli a Jew last year.
Many Israelis who stayed up late enough to catch the outcome on television practically fell off their seats. Accustomed to a half-century of Jewish Miss Israels and the last 30 years without a single Arab contestant some seemed scarcely aware that the country's 1 million-plus Arab citizens were even eligible.
Today, Raslan's beauty inspired much less debate than did the political and social significance of her selection to represent Israeli womanhood before a world of television viewers. As with many subjects in Arab-Jewish relations, the meaning was often in the eye of the beholder.
"It's shameful, very bad," said Moishe Dadon, 32, a truck driver. "What, she doesn't have a different country? She can't be the beauty queen of another country?"
Other Israelis confessed their surprise but celebrated the result. "Wonderful!" said Tzvika Buchakovsky, 52. "She's pretty, and she deserves it."
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu quickly seized on Raslan's victory to parry the common criticism that Israeli Arabs, who make up 17 percent of the country's population, are treated as second-class citizens in the Jewish state.
"This is a clear manifestation of equality and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement issued also on behalf of his wife, Sara. "We are proud that Raslan will shortly represent Israel all over the world."
At a news conference today, Raslan thanked her supporters and promptly burst into tears for a full two minutes as reporters and photographers jostled for position. Regaining her composure, she bristled at suggestions that anything beyond her looks should be relevant to the clamor attending her victory.
"I am Israeli, and I still haven't heard that anyone reacted [to my selection] negatively," she said, speaking nearly flawless Hebrew but with a pronounced Arabic accent. "I don't want to deal with politics. ... I came to represent beauty. I am a beauty queen; I am not a queen of politics."
Smiling but with some heat, she added: "We all want peace. We are one nation; there is no difference between Arabs and Jews."
The status of Israeli Arabs has long been seen by human rights groups as a smudge on the country's image as a democracy. Israeli Arab living standards are far below those of Jews, and the country's Arabs are severely underrepresented in many choice occupations. Arab activists maintain that they still face official and unofficial discrimination in a number of areas, including access to land and employment.
Like Raslan, the pageant's sponsor, Israel's Woman magazine, rejected the notion that anything other than beauty had decided the winner. But it was difficult to divorce Raslan's selection from Israeli domestic politics and image-making. One of the contest's 11 judges, Pnina Rosenblum, a former model-turned-cosmetics-magnate who is now running for parliament, made clear she had voted for more than Raslan's comeliness.
"It is the first time in Israeli history that an Israeli Arab has been chosen as beauty queen," Rosenblum said. "The message is that we ... want a true peace."
Israeli Arabs have their own annual beauty pageant, which Raslan won in 1996. But Arab beauty contestants had been reluctant to compete for the all-Israel crown and not only because it is politically fraught. The Miss Israel contest includes not one but two swimsuit competitions both one-piece styles and bikinis are featured and that is anathema to many conservative Arab families.
The result is that few of the nearly 800 women who submit photos for consideration by pageant organizers each year have been Arabs. Of the 20 contestants in the televised contest Tuesday night, Raslan, whose family and upbringing were comparatively liberal and secular, was the only Israeli Arab.
"I liked it," she said of the swimsuit competition. "I am at ease with what I did. I come from a very secular, open family. ... Just like you have extremists in Bnei Brak," an ultra-Orthodox Jewish town near Tel Aviv, "we have extremists also."
The Miss Israel title and its international adjunct, Miss World, took on a special resonance for Israelis recently. The reigning Miss World, Linor Abargil, is a 19-year-old Israeli who stunned the beauty pageant world in January when she went public with the allegation that she had been raped in Italy two months before last November's pageant. An Egyptian-born Israeli who was working at the time as a travel agent in Milan has been charged by Israel in the case and is currently on trial.
Abargil passed her Miss Israel crown to Raslan Tuesday night. "I've been through a lot this year," Abargil said, weeping, at the end of the two-hour live telecast from a Tel Aviv theater. "To all those who relate to beauty contests as meat markets, you should know: We do with our bodies what we want," she said. "Only what we want, and no one else."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company