On Wednesday, 21-year-old Yityish Aynaw was crowned Miss Israel for 2013. The occasion marked the first time an Ethiopian Israeli had won the national beauty pageant.
Despite the landmark moment, I have to be honest: I was more excited when Pnina Tamano-Shata, a lawyer and member of the Yesh Atid party, was recently elected the first female Ethiopian Member of Knesset.
I am obviously far more into brains than beauty. But not everyone is, and rather than hate on this breakthrough moment for Israeli women of color, it would be far more productive to look at the positives associated with Aynaw’s achievement.
First, the fact that black is finally beautiful in Israel is a big step forward. Aynaw, a shoe store manager from Netanya, could not look more different from many of the pretty faces that have graced Israeli fashion magazines over the years and represented the blue and white on fashion runways around the world. Now, young Israeli girls will know that they don’t need to aspire to be a carbon copy of tall, wavy-haired blond models like Bar Refaeli and Michaela Bercu (who appeared on the cover of Anna Wintour’s first issue of “Vogue”).
The cover of the latest issue of La’Isha, Yediot Ahronoth’s women’s magazine is more of what young Israelis should be — and are — seeing. On it are the four young women who reached the quarter-final round of Israel’s version of “The Voice.” They are a varied bunch. One is a blond Ashkenazi Jew, one a Palestinian citizen of Israel, one a Black Hebrew Israelite, and one of Sephardic background (Ophir Ben-Shetreet, whose suspension from her religious high school for singing on the show was covered in the Forward).
However, these signs of progress are not contained to the new Miss Israel. I am more interested in seeing what she will do in her role in the future. I hope she will use some of the lessons she learned as an IDF officer to take a stand and speak out on issues of importance, especially full integration of Ethiopians and other minorities into Israeli society. Many young Ethiopians are fighting for a place at the table. Aynaw would do well to reach out a helping hand to those who are relying on strengths other than appearance and charm to rise to the top.
We live in an era when, for better or worse, celebrity is power. I hope Aynaw uses her newfound celebrity well. She said during the pageant that she admired the great American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but she was also quoted as saying that she aspires to be a model and perhaps the Israeli Tyra Banks. I hope she’s more interested in emulating Banks’ philanthropic efforts to empower girls than her Victoria’s Secret photo spreads. Only time will tell.