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Obama's Israel agenda: negotiate, visit sites – and dine with beauty queen

President Obama invited Yityish Aynaw, the first black Israeli to be named Miss Israel, to join him and the prime minister for a meal. Her success is a victory for long marginalized Ethiopian-Israelis.

By Correspondent / March 14, 2013

A Palestinian woman walks past posters showing President Obama in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday. Obama's trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israeli officials say will take place next week, is the US leader's first trip to the region as president, and his first overseas trip since being reelected.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

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In a 48-hour trip to Israel next week, President Obama will tick off the usual diplomatic visit boxes: meeting diplomats and visiting the country’s historic sites.

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Correspondent

Ryan Brown edits the Africa Monitor blog and contributes to the national and international news desks of the Monitor. She is a former Fulbright fellow to South Africa and holds a degree in history from Duke University. 

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And then he will have dinner with a beauty queen.

Obama’s staff personally invited the newly crowned Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw – who is the first black Israeli to the hold the title – to a dinner at the home of President Shimon Peres next Thursday, a symbolic nod, perhaps, to the country’s 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, a community that has long faced discrimination in Israel.

Ms. Aynaw, who was crowned last month and will represent Israel at this year’s Miss Earth pageant, has already dazzled the Israeli press with the narrative of her hardscrabble childhood and rags-to-riches rise to beauty-queen stardom – and is now making the rounds in international outlets as well.

"Ten years ago I was walking around barefoot in Ethiopia,” she told Israeli news site Ynet News yesterday. “I never imagined that one day I would be in the land of Israel, meeting the Israeli president and the president of the United States. I could never have imagined such a powerful and exciting situation."

Born near the town of Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia, Aynaw was an orphan by age 10, and immigrated to Israel two years later to live with her grandparents. By the time she was 19, she’d become fluent in Hebrew, won a national student film competition, and was training to be a military police commander in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Aynaw eventually led a cadre of guards, whom she trained to fire guns, man security checkpoints, and find bombs, according to a profile in Tablet, a US-based Jewish magazine.

“I taught them to be human,” Aynaw said of her soldiers, who checked Palestinians driving through military checkpoints. “My soldiers would ask, ‘How can I be so nice when there were instances of a 9-year-old kid or a pregnant woman blowing themselves up at a checkpoint?’ ” She’d tell them: “There are many Palestinians who have a wife waiting at home, a family waiting for dad to bring bread home.”

Aynaw has offered other hints of her politics as well. She told an Israeli news station that she hoped to ask President Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew who is currently serving out a life sentence for spying on the US for Israel.

And when a reporter told her that American beauty queens often tout their hopes for “world peace,” she shot back, “to say a sentence like that, in my opinion, is to sound retarded.”

Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, China is trying to become a superpower,” she continued. “To say that I want world peace, of course I want it. It’s a dream. But I don’t think it will happen now.”

Ethiopian Jews have a checkered history in Israel. A series of dramatic airlifts in the 1980s and 1990s by the Israeli government brought thousands to the Jewish state, but they, their children, and subsequent waves of African immigrants have faced a hostile – and at times overtly racist – reception.

Today, the average income of an Ethiopian Israeli is half that of Israelis at large, and more than half of employers surveyed in 2010 said they would prefer not to hire an Ethiopian. In January, the Israeli state copped to giving a number of Ethiopian women in Israel long-term birth control shots without their consent.

Aynaw has walked into that fray with diplomatic beauty-queen aplomb.

"It's important that a member of the Ethiopian community win the competition for the first time,” she told a judging panel during the Miss Israel competition. “There are many different communities of many different colors in Israel, and it's important to show that to the world."

As the Tablet profile notes, however, Aynaw is not the first politically charged pick for Miss Israel. Israeli beauty pageants, he writes, have long been a powerful lens for understanding the image Israel wants to project to the world.

In 1952, at the height of tensions between Israel’s European veterans and Middle Eastern Jewish newcomers, Yemen-born Ora Vered became the first Miss Israel of Middle Eastern Jewish descent. In 1993, in the midst of Israel’s tidal wave of Soviet immigration, Kiev-born Jana Khodriker won, and in 1999, the peak of Israel’s optimism that Arab-Israeli peace was imminent, judges crowned Rana Raslan the first Arab Miss Israel.

Now, Israeli diplomats seem intent on building similar goodwill with Aynaw. Leo Vinovezky, Israel's deputy ambassador to Ethiopia, told an Israeli newspaper last week that “this is the Ethiopian Jewry's finest hour." 

Aynaw will have her own shot at diplomacy of sorts when she competes in the Miss Earth pageant later this year: The competition will take place in Indonesia, a country with which Israel has no formal diplomatic ties. 

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