Miss Iraq discovers her political voice in Israel

A portrait of Iraqi beauty queen Sara Idan and her Israeli counterpart on the cover of an Israeli magazine drew both criticism and adulation.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Miss Iraq Sarah Idan (R) and Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman (L) pose for a selfie during preparations for the Miss Universe 2017 beauty pageant in Las Vegas, last November. (Social media)
Under fire. Miss Iraq Sarah Idan (R) and Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman (L) pose for a selfie during preparations for the Miss Universe 2017 beauty pageant in Las Vegas, last November. (Social media)

Sarah Idan, one of three women who share the title “Miss Iraq,” has been at the centre of much controversy over her budding friendship with Miss Israel.

An intimate portrait of the beauty queens on the cover of LaishaMag — an Israeli lifestyle magazine — drew both criticism and adulation. The storm grew in response to Idan’s surprise visit to Israel after accepting the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) invitation to tour Israel and speak at its global forum, which was in Jerusalem for the first time.

“We became like sisters,” Idan said, speaking of her first encounter with Israeli counterpart Adar Gandelsman at the Las Vegas Miss Universe pageant in 2017.

What drew her deeper into the ocean of controversy was the platform on which she spoke and the ideas she presented. The AJC as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reminded attendees was “the first American-Jewish organisation to establish a full-time office in Jerusalem 60 years ago.” It was on this pro-Israel advocacy platform that Idan chose to spread ideals of “love” and “coexistence.”

Behind the glossy images of Idan’s blossoming friendship, she is establishing herself as a peacemaker whose voice is distinctively political.

Like other celebrities in the media spotlight, certain details of Idan’s personal life have risen to the surface. Few could have predicted the 28-year-old’s military past. During the US-led occupation of Iraq, the Baghdad-born model served as a US Army translator, not so dissimilar from her Israeli counterpart, whose two years of military service in the Israeli Defence Forces recently concluded.

Idan’s growing fanbase commended her commitment to peaceful coexistence but others viewed it with caution.

Her personalised speech, peppered with childhood tales and references to Iraq’s Babylonian ancestry, reaffirmed the right for both Israelis and Palestinians to coexist, “on this beautiful land,” Idan told the crowd.

Her reading of Israel’s “rights” and negation of the disproportionate violence it exercises against unarmed Palestinian civilians led to accusations of bias against Idan — for advancing a narrative void of the broader context.

Idan’s tour included visits to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre and the Western wall but did not include spots in the occupied Palestinian territories. She was warmly received by shoppers at the Mahane Yehuda Market “as if she was royalty,” an Israeli citizen wrote on his Facebook wall.

Not everyone has embraced Idan’s politicised role as peacemaker in her capacity as Miss Iraq and a marginal social media influencer.

Allowing Israel’s repeated violations of peace treaties and its systematic theft and illegal occupation of Palestinian land to go unchallenged made her unpopular with a host of people. While emphasising the need to move forward “instead of planting hatred… and emphasising difference,” the approach she vocalised raised more questions than answers of how to resolve the conflict.

Her hope, Idan said at the AJC forum, is to see Jews “roam free from Jerusalem to Ramallah, to Babylon and to the Nile” and for “Arabs and Muslims… to walk through Israel without fear of having Israel’s stamp on their passport.” As for Palestinians, Idan wishes they can live free of “the fear of being displaced … [and] to cross Tel Aviv’s beaches and pray at al-Aqsa without complication.”

The beaches Idan speaks of were accessible to Palestinians from all religious backgrounds prior to the establishment of a Jewish state 70 years ago. Her dreams skim over the ideological motivations that transformed Arab cities such as Jaffa and Tel Aviv into Zionist entities with the help from the Jewish National Fund and its sponsorship of unlawful activities in Palestine.

The potholes in Idan’s rhetoric embody Israel’s distorted perception of itself — the single democracy in the Middle East, as its officials repeatedly boast.

Whether unaware or feigning ignorance, the biases captured by Idan’s speech disappointed global observers and betrayed the promise of spreading peace.

The victors of beauty contests, historically speaking, are chosen for not only their looks but also for their desire to represent their nation but this, in Idan’s case, has been called into question. While some Iraqis are proud to see Idan, a Christian Iraqi woman, representing a liberalism that Iraq is no longer associated with, her fondness of Israel does not chime with public opinion or Iraq’s historically fraught relations with Israel.

Her decision to serve the occupying force responsible for the destruction in her country earned her more criticism than her endorsement of an apartheid state.

Failing in her responsibility to speak fairly as an ambassador of peace, the new chapter for Palestinians and Israelis that Idan visualises will require greater actions, beyond the revisionism and gimmickry she has come to represent.