Open Zion

04.12.13

Israel’s Ethiopian Beauty Queen Sparks Debate

Yityish “Titi” Aynaw was crowned “Miss Israel” just in time to be invited to meet with President Obama on his first presidential visit to Israel. Titi is the first black “Miss Israel,” and the first from Israel’s 130,000-strong Ethiopian immigrant community.

Titi has a compelling story. She lost her father as an infant and her mother at age 10 while still in Ethiopia, and came to Israel to join her grandparents who had previously made aliyah. In one decade, she became an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, returned to Ethiopia to discover her parents’ story, and is now one of the most famous Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. A striking woman, at 5’9” and in heels, Titi towered over Israeli president Shimon Peres and even topped Obama.

Video screenshot

The 2013 version of the 63-year-old Miss Israel competition is part beauty pageant and part reality show. Given that viewers vote online or by text, Titi’s success can at least to some degree be seen to reflect the will of the people. As Tzvi Gottlieb pointed out in these pages, Titi is not alone; another Ethiopian woman and a Black Hebrew woman along with a number of Israeli Arab women have scored big on reality TV, peaking with the victory of Lina Makhoul in the Israeli version of The Voice on Passover.

But how do members of the minority communities interpret this trend? To find out, I quizzed my Ethiopian friends and colleagues about their reactions to Titi’s coronation.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that there has been an intense, Ethiopian-Israeli version of the “is it good for the Jews?” debate. The consensus, at least on the collective level, was deep satisfaction, pride and joy. For one week, there were positive news stories about an accomplished young Ethiopian woman rather than reports of social dysfunction. While there are no illusions that racist prejudice has disappeared, Titi’s win was seen as a clear signal of greater acceptance of Ethiopian immigrants by the majority Jewish population.

And Titi is seen as a role model. An Ethiopian colleague told me she and her daughter have spent long stretches on Titi’s Facebook page, where they admired her outspokenness more than her looks.

This points to a second internal debate that centers on the community’s anxiety about cultural valuation, related to, of all things, Titi’s beauty. On one side stand those who find her beauty indisputable, and her success a sign that Israelis are finally able to appreciate the beauty of a black woman. Titi’s image may soon be gracing billboards alongside that of Jewish Israeli model Bar Rafaeli.

But another colleague reported that his teenage sons complained that Titi was not “the prettiest candidate,” that she didn’t have the facial features expected of a beauty queen. He felt his sons were judging her too narrowly, exclusively by her face. He argued that Titi was stunning and had a magnificent presence, but to no avail. It turned out that this debate was not limited to my friend’s household.

I wondered if the question of beauty arose because Ethiopian Israelis are buying into the ideal of the blue-eyed blonde with perfectly symmetrical features. I was told by a female Ethiopian Israeli colleague that this was too simplistic; the concern was not that Titi didn’t match the white image of perfection, but that she didn’t reach the Ethiopian ideal. Isn’t it a good thing, I asked, that there are internal cultural standards of beauty? I know, for example, that there's an internal Ethiopian hierarchy of attractiveness related to skin tone. It’s not about dark versus light skin necessarily, but rather about a scale of redness. The answer again was that it’s not so simple; the standard of beauty in Ethiopia has been impacted by western media, so there’s now an Ethiopian version of the global archetype, which means we may be circling back to the same place.

In any case, the underlying anxiety was about whether Titi deserved to win or whether she had been handed the victory as a kind of misplaced affirmative action. Insecurity about the success achieved by individual members of minority groups is not unusual, and has always dogged beneficiaries of affirmative action.

The kicker is that when my colleague asked his teenage sons if they voted for Miss Israel, they sheepishly admitted texting for Titi, because, after all, it was good for the community for her to win.

What impact will Titi's reign have on other Israelis’ attitudes towards Ethiopians?

Writing in Salon recently, Andrew O’Hehir argued that “what we know about the world from our real lives and what we experience on TV tend to reinforce each other, and at the level of deep psychology we don’t necessarily tell them apart.” The effect is especially potent when personal experience reinforces what you see on the small screen.

The problem in Israel is that few Israeli Jews not working with or living adjacent to these minority populations will have direct personal encounters with Ethiopian—or Palestinian—citizens of Israel. Television may not be strong enough to alter attitudes on its own, but it might begin to break down stereotypes and dilute suspicion and enmity.