NEW YORK, Oct. 31 (JTA) — The first Arab to win the Miss Israel competition left Israel this fall to model the two largest complaints made by her critics: bathing suits and coexistence.
Muslim fundamentalists called Rana Raslan immoral for stripping down for the pageant’s bathing-suit competition in March. But because she is a secular Muslim, Raslan says, she is often seen wearing a bathing suit on summer days at the sea. And now, because of an upcoming modeling job for Gotex swimwear in London, summer won’t be the only season for viewing Raslan in a swimsuit.
But it isn’t bathing suits, but coexistence between Jews and Arabs that has generated the most heat. When she won the contest, Arab politicians and Muslim fundamentalists claimed Israel is using Raslan to divert attention from what they say is negative treatment of Arabs by Israelis.
Moreover, some Jewish Israelis believed that an Arab Miss Israel did not best represent a Jewish state. Others claimed her victory was a political statement, noting that pageant judge Pnina Rosenblum admitted voting for Raslan to send a message of peace to the Arab world.
Recently, however, Raslan was the toast of the Abraham Fund at its 10th anniversary celebration. A nonprofit group, the fund promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence programs in Israel. The fund flew her in for her first trip to the United States — to New York, a city that mesmerized the dark eyes of the 22- year-old, 5-foot-9-inch woman.
At a recent interview with JTA in New York, Raslan tosses her black, sleek, spiral curls against the collar of her fitted denim jacket. Wearing matching tight jeans and an ivory turtleneck sweater, she spoke about the few hours she spent wandering the floors of Bloomingdales with her Israeli bodyguard.
“The clothes were so beautiful to look at,” she says, admitting she didn’t purchase anything.
Since childhood, Raslan had dreamed of becoming a cover girl, but not for Arab-Jewish coexistence. She said she never gave the issue much thought since it is something people have already mastered in her hometown of Haifa.
“In Haifa, there is a mixed population, and I don’t feel any difference in the way I’m treated, since Jewish and Arab people live together,” she said. “It’s only when I leave Haifa that I feel the difference, especially in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the Arabs are fighting even amongst themselves.”
Raslan didn’t realize how heated feelings are about coexistence until after she was crowned Miss Israel. Her manager received letters daily from Arab Israelis who condemned her.
“At first I was very angry with them because I felt that they should have been proud of what I accomplished,” she said. “But then I slowly decided that it is important to respect each person for their own ideas.”
Raslan admits that she isn’t familiar with the activities of the Abraham Fund, a philanthropic organization that donates funds to educational programs and community organizations in Israel that practice coexistence.
However, the Abraham Fund wanted Raslan to help promote the anniversary celebration because, according to fund representative Hilary Dunst, they believe that Raslan “is what the fund is all about.”
“Raslan’s attitude towards coexistence is important to the fund because she is very young and represents the next generation of Israelis,” Dunst says. “Here in America, we support what the Abraham Fund does, but it’s the people in Israel who live it every day.”
Raslan shrugs off a lot of the political discussions that her image has generated. This self-described “middle-of-the-road” woman appears to be grounded. She believes in God, but religion is not important to her. She didn’t vote in the Israeli election, but she is behind whomever the people believe can bring peace. Her best friend is Jewish; the only boyfriend she ever had was Arab.
Raslan does not currently have a boyfriend since she hasn’t met the “right one.”
And who is the “right one”?
“Love and respect,” she says. “That’s all that matters. Not religion, not looks, just love and respect. That’s all that matters about everything.”
The one thing that Raslan does feel strongly about is being in the spotlight. She says that winning Miss Israel is the best thing that has ever happened to her, adding that people are nicer and lavish her with attention.
“When I entered the Miss Israel pageant, my mom told me not to expect to win since I was too different from the other girls,” she said. “But being different has made me special.”
Raslan fears the day when her reign as Miss Israel will come to an end. Fidgeting with her French manicured nails, she sighs and says, “The world is cruel.”
Raslan believes that her modeling career will end soon after this as well, and has decided to attend an education school in Akko, Israel. She says that her new dream is to become a kindergarten teacher, although she doesn’t have any special love toward working with children. Instead, it is the practicality of this new dream that appeals to her.
“Aside from modeling, the power of the Israeli woman is found in studying,” she explains. “I can probably only model for two or three more years. I can’t promise I will become an ambassador in my country, but I have to study and get a diploma.”