Yityish Aynaw made history in late February when she became the first Ethiopian-born woman crowned Miss Israel. The momentous occasion made news in Israel and abroad, immediately turning the international spotlight on the 21-year-old former military officer and aspiring model from Netanya.
UPDATE: Miss Israel Titi Aynaw met Barack Obama at state dinner. More photos and full story to come.
The beauty queen, whose first name aptly means “a view to the future” in Amharic, has even caught the attention of America’s President, Barack Obama, who invited her to meet him at a dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres on Obama’s first official state visit to Israel, in March.
The Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand recently spoke by telephone with Aynaw, who goes by the nickname Titi. Ghert-Zand asked her about her aliyah to Israel at age 12, her views on racism in Israeli society, how she plans on representing her country and what she’s planning on saying to Obama. The interview was conducted in Hebrew and is translated here.
Renee Ghert-Zand: Tell us about yourself and how you ended up competing in the Miss Israel pageant.
Titi Aynaw: I was born in Ethiopia, and I lived there until I was 12. My parents both died when I was very young, so my older brother and I made aliyah to Israel with an aunt. My grandparents were already in Israel, and I went to live with them in Netanya. It was hard and weird at first. I had to learn a new language, and I didn’t go into a special language course. Instead, I was thrown into deep waters and had to learn how to swim, so to speak.
I like life in Israel. I feel I belong here and I no longer have to be afraid. And I really like the sea and going to the beach.
I was an officer in the army, a commander and instructor in the military police. Since being discharged, I’ve been working in a shoe store and thinking about getting into modeling. At first I didn’t really want to enter the Miss Israel competition; I didn’t think it was for me. But a good friend of mine signed me up, and I thought it would be important for me to represent Ethiopian Israelis.
What were you thinking when you won the title, and what was your family’s reaction?
To be honest, it’s kind of hard to remember what I was thinking at that moment. It was very exciting, and there were so many things running through my head. My family has been totally supportive. They give me a lot of love, and they are proud of me.
You are breaking ground in a society where not everyone associates black skin and African features with beauty. What are your views on racism and discrimination in Israeli society? Do you have any personal experience with them, and what do you think you can do to help in this area?
Racism exists in Israel, which is very sad. I have not experienced it, thankfully, but many of my friends have suffered from racism. My win is a very significant statement. I see a great opportunity to create a bridge of knowledge between the Ethiopian community and the rest of Israel. I was an officer in the army. I studied here, and I really love my country. Except for my skin color, there is no difference between me and other Israelis. Winning the competition has been a great source of pride to the Ethiopian community. We are currently in the newspapers and on television in a positive way. I am planning many activities in my role, and there’s a wonderful opportunity to make a change.
Some people would not associate beauty contests with feminism. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I grew up with my grandparents from the age of 12. I was a very good student. I was an officer in the army. I work for a living. I participated in a beauty contest and won. I always speak my mind. I am free to do what I want. I think this answers the question.
How are you planning on representing Israel on the international stage at the Miss World competition in Indonesia — should you be able to travel to that country, which doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Israel?
It’s important for me to let the world know that there are all different ethnic and cultural groups in Israel. People of all different skin colors live in Israel, and the media doesn’t show that. The main reason I want to be a model is to show that Israelis come in all different hues. I, a former military officer, also want to convey that Israel isn’t all about wars. We don’t want wars. We want peace. We are a humane people.
What are you planning on saying to President Obama when you meet him?
If I get to talk to the president, I’ll tell him that he is a role model for me. I am a strong person because of him. He and Martin Luther King Jr. are sources of inspiration for me.