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Voices

Iraq beauty queen – the face of tolerance

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At the height of the clamour against Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane competing in the Miss Universe pageant in Israel last year, there was unexpected support from a courageous young woman from Iraq who had experienced something similar. During the 2017 Miss Universe, Sarah Idan was vilified and even subjected to death threats after posting a picture of herself with fellow contestant, Miss Israel. Rather than backing down in this face of this intimidation, she stood by what she intended to be a gesture of peace and friendship, not a political statement. Now living in the United States, Idan has become a global ambassador for peace and tolerance and a staunch advocate for Jewish-Arab reconciliation in the Middle East.

At a time when we’re confronted by a resurgence of violent conflict in Europe and a persistent erosion of democracy and the values of human rights in many parts of the world, Idan’s message has never been more important. It’s for this reason that she has been in South Africa over the past week as a guest of the Jewish community. During her visit, Idan has spoken to university students in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and met a range of youth and women’s rights groups, the media, community leaders, and nongovernmental organisations. The primary purpose of her visit has been to counterbalance the toxic “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW) campaign that has become an annual fixture on our university campuses and further afield.

One of the high points of Idan’s stay was taking part in a Jewish delegation that visited Sharpeville ahead of Human Rights Day. The site of one of the worst atrocities of the apartheid era, when 69 peaceful protestors were killed and many more injured, Sharpeville has become a global symbol of the struggle against racism and oppression. During her visit, Idan met local pastors and community leaders, hearing their stories and sharing her own, and laid a wreath at the monument commemorating the victims of the massacre. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn was part of the delegation, and delivered a message from the Jewish community. The Board has for a number of years arranged for a delegation of Jewish communal and youth leaders to take part in the annual Human Rights Day memorial events at Sharpeville. For participants, the experience has always been extremely moving, and this latest visit was especially memorable.

Over the past few years, the South African Union of Jewish Students, working closely with the SAJBD, South African Zionist Federation, and allied organisations, has run effective counter-campaigns in response to IAW. Its consistent approach has been to stress the importance of peaceful dialogue and tolerance for diverse viewpoints in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian question. These are just the values and principles that Idan has been conveying throughout her stay, and the fact that she speaks from personal experience as a Muslim Arab woman gives her message particular resonance. They are values that we as a community must likewise firmly adhere to, regardless of the invective and intimidation that may confront us from the other side.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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