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There’s no apartheid in Israel, says Arab beauty queen

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Former Muslim beauty queen turned global interfaith activist, Sarah Idan, has left South African shores after a whirlwind trip as an ambassador for peace during the annual global Israel hate fest known as Israel Apartheid Week (IAW).

During her visit to the University of Cape Town (UCT), the former Miss Iraq encountered anti-Israel students who were visible during IAW. She described some of her brief exchanges with them as “heated”.

Idan told the SA Jewish Report she had an argument with one Muslim student who was standing next to an “apartheid” wall holding a sign which read, “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free”.

“She was a South African Muslim who told me she had learnt everything from her Arab Muslim friends, and that Israel was the same as when black South Africans lived under apartheid,” said Idan.

“I told her I was an Arab myself, and that I’d been to Israel and it was nothing like apartheid which was imposed by one set of people on another in the same country. The Palestinians are self-governing, they’re not ruled by the Israelis.”

She asked the student if she understood the words on the poster, to which the student replied it meant “co-existence”.

“I told her this was incorrect, it was a line by the Palestine Liberation Organisation which seeks to remove Israel.

“After a long argument with her, and her attempt to defend Hamas [you know, Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist at one point], I asked her if she believed Israel had a right to exist and an end to the conflict, to which she finally replied, ‘Yes’.”

Idan then told her to remove the poster because “it tells Jews and Israelis that you don’t believe they should exist, and that she should look it up”.

Speaking to members of the Jewish community last week, Idan said, “Zionism is believing that Israel has the right to exist”, and that it’s “unfair” that so many Muslims don’t see this when Islam is the second largest religion in the world practiced in so many countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

“They are Muslim majority, so it’s really unfair that this small piece of land [Israel] isn’t allowed to be the Jewish state,” she said.

During her stay in South Africa, Idan, the founder and chief executive of nongovernmental organisation Humanity Forward, visited schools in Johannesburg and Soweto and spoke to students on campus at UCT and at the University of the Witwatersrand. She talked about her extraordinary life experience first as a young girl living under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, then as a refugees in Syria, and lastly as a human-rights activist for peace in the Middle East. Idan spoke about human rights, peaceful resolution to conflict, bullying, women’s empowerment, gender-based violence, and freedom of speech.

She said from her interactions with people in the country, she had come to realise that anti-Zionists were “using the apartheid tragedy for their own agenda” which she found “unacceptable”.

She began the Johannesburg leg of her trip with a visit to Sharpeville to commemorate Human Rights Day.

During her stay, Idan persistently defended Israel against accusations by the anti-Israel lobby that Israel was practising apartheid.

“I didn’t see any apartheid [in Israel],”Idan told Bafana Modise of the South African Friends of Israel, saying that what she witnessed there was co-existence between Arabs, Jews, and Christians.

She said Israeli Arabs held “high government positions” including as members of the Knesset and ambassadors to foreign countries.

She told Modise, “What amazes me is that people use this term [apartheid], but what happened in South Africa was done by the government to its own people. What we have in Israel is a war between two nations.

“They’re two different nations. They’re two different governments. How can you apply that term to the country? All Arabs who live in Israel have exactly the same rights as Israelis.”

Idan enthralled different audiences around the country with her story about growing up under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. She said she knew what it was like to live under an oppressive regime where women’s rights were severely curtailed.

“When American troops entered Iraq, my whole view of the West changed. I was taught to believe everything about the West was bad, but the US soldiers were sweet and kind,” she said.

Idan told audiences that upon her return from Syria, where she spent several years as a refugee during the civil war, she couldn’t wait to join the US military at 18, seeing it as her way out of Iraq, where she knew in her heart she “didn’t feel she belonged”. A few years after joining the military, she moved to the US, where she studied music. She told audiences that she entered beauty pageantry in order to “give a voice to the voiceless”.

However, her life turned upside down after she posted a selfie with Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, during the run-up to the 2017 Miss Universe pageant captioned, “Peace and love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel #missuniverse.”

The photograph set off a barrage of criticism.

She and her family faced death threats, and were forced to flee Iraq, becoming refugees once again. She was labelled a traitor and to this day, receives messages of hate. She hasn’t returned and has had her citizenship revoked.

When she heard of Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane’s plight last year for choosing to take part in the Miss Universe pageant in Israel, she said she had “flashbacks” of the time she was vilified and attacked by her own country. This prompted her to speak out publicly online, rallying to Mswane’s defence.

Idan’s experiences have inspired her to promote peace in the Middle East and beyond through her work with Humanity Forward.

“Encouraging peace between Israelis and Palestinians isn’t a betrayal of the Arab cause,” she said, “I see this as vital step to end conflict and suffering on both sides.”

She has returned to Los Angeles, where she intends to continue to lobby for peace and dialogue.

At the time of going to press, Idan hadn’t heard from Mandla Mandela, who she challenged last week to a conversation on the Middle East conflict.

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