Arab beauty rides Miss Israel title through thorny issues

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NEW YORK — The first Arab to win the Miss Israel competition recently left Israel to become a model, the sounds of discord still ringing in her ears.

Muslim fundamentalists called Rana Raslan immoral for stripping down for the pageant's bathing-suit competition. But because she is a secular Muslim, Raslan said, she is often seen wearing a bathing suit on summer days at the sea.

And now, because of an upcoming modeling job for Gottex swimwear in London, summer won't be the only season for viewing Raslan in a swimsuit.

But it isn't the issue of bathing suits that has generated the most heat since she's been crowned — it's coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

When Raslan won the contest in March, Arab politicians and Muslim fundamentalists claimed Israel was using her 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.

Nonetheless, Raslan was recently the toast of the Abraham Fund at its 10th anniversary celebration in New York. The nonprofit fund, which promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence programs in Israel, flew in the 22-year-old for her first trip to the United States.

In an interview, Raslan tossed 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 Bloomingdale's with her Israeli bodyguard.

"The clothes were so beautiful to look at," she said, though 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 the issue of coexistence was such a sizzling one 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 admitted that she isn't familiar with the activities of the Abraham Fund, an organization that supports educational programs and community organizations in Israel that promote coexistence.

However, the Abraham Fund wanted Raslan to help promote the anniversary celebration because, "she is what the fund is all about," said fund representative Hilary Dunst.

"Raslan's attitude towards coexistence is important to the fund because she is very young and represents the next generation of Israelis," Dunst said. "Here in America, we support what the Abraham Fund does, but it's the people in Israel who live it every day."

Raslan shrugged off a lot of the political discussions that her image has generated. She described her views as "middle-of-the-road." 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.

She said that winning Miss Israel is the best thing that 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 believes that her modeling career won't last forever, so she has decided to attend an education school in Akko, Israel. She said 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 explained. "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."