This week Yityish Aynaw, the first black Miss Israel will sit down with Barack Obama, the first black U.S. President. The former may be a beauty pageant winner and the latter the leader of the free world, but beyond the different job descriptions they have a lot in common. Their respective victories made them “firsts,” and by making the strides they have, they’ve also been subject to unfair and unwarranted vitriol, much of it downright racist.
Both Aynaw and President Obama have found success in nations that were founded on noble ideals about freedom from persecution, and proven that individuals can overcome discrimination. As Aynaw herself noted, “For me, [President Obama] is a role model who broke down barriers, a source of inspiration that proves that every person really can reach any height, regardless of their religion, race or gender.”
But unfortunately while success for minorities is possible in both countries, it remains far from probable due to entrenched oppression. In fact, both nations have won new measures of freedom for their own people too often and too intrinsically on the backs of the oppressed, whether second-class citizens at home or victims of occupation and foreign wars.
Obviously I am painting with broad strokes here — and looking at this historic meeting with my own agenda as a young progressive American — but the parallels really do exist. I wish that as they sit together over what will undoubtedly be a delicious meal, Aynaw won’t just schmooze with the President and advocate for the release of Jonathan Pollard (although by all means, she should advocate for whatever she wants to!).
In addition, I hope that her overall experience as a woman and a person of color in Israel (a country like ours whose lofty aims have fallen short in reality), will inform the meeting. In my fantasy, talking with Aynaw will push the President to be courageous and stand up for Mizrahi Jews, Jews of color, Arab-Israelis and women who wish to pray alongside men but can’t. I also hope it will encourage him to seek out an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories alongside a commitment to peace.
Of course, none of these things can be achieved without offending someone, but after all, we’re talking about a pair of people who both know how to look graceful while upending entrenched norms and win over hearts and minds while disturbing others with their very presence.