Miss Iraq 2017, whose selfie with her Israeli counterpart triggered heavy backlash in her home country last year, called Wednesday for coexistence and regional peace in a speech during her first visit to the Jewish state.
Baghdad-born Sarah Idan, 28, had posted the picture on her Instagram account with her newly made friend, Israel’s Adar Gandelsman, during the 2017 Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas.
The outcry in her native Iraq, which does not recognize Israel and is formally at war with it, compelled Idan’s family to relocate to the United States, where Sarah had been living.
Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem led by a global Jewish advocacy organization, Idan called for peace between Iraq and Israel.
“I traveled thousands of miles and put my life in a risk not just to express how so many of us are tired of this endless war between our countries,” she said in English, quoted by the American Jewish Committee Global Forum, where she spoke.
Her visit to Israel was aimed at calling for a “new method” to achieve peace, which seeks “reasoning, mutual compromise and… unity,” she said, rather than “emphasizing our disagreements and implanting hatred.”
Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Idan said she believed both nations “have a right to co-exist in this beautiful land,” adding she hoped to see Jews and Arabs traveling the region freely and fearlessly.
She told the AJC conference she hoped for “a new chapter for Israel and Palestine, with less blood and more amity.”
Idan, who arrived in Israel on Saturday, met up with Gandelsman ahead of the conference, posting pictures and videos on her social media accounts.
A report on Israel’s Hadashot television showed Idan touring Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, where she was warmly welcomed by locals, including Israeli Jews of Arab origin, who spoke with her in Arabic.
“It actually felt weird — the people look like my people. And the city looks like Damascus, like Syria, and I’ve been there, so everything seems familiar to me,” Idan said in a TV item aired Tuesday by Hadashot.
While Idan toured the market, she encountered numerous Israelis of Iraqi origin, one of whom told her she would like to go back to Iraq.
“Inshallah,” or God willing, was Idan’s answer.
Idan was showered with praise, with one Israeli woman telling her: “Thank you for being so brave, you are an inspiration to all the women in the world.”
Idan came to Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee, and the AJC’s Israel chief Avital Leibovitz said it had taken “several pretty long conversations to convince her to come to Israel. She really wanted to, but was a bit afraid.”
Speaking to Israeli television this week, Idan said Iraqis and Israelis are not enemies.
“I don’t think Iraq and Israel are enemies, I think maybe the governments are enemies with each other,” she said. “But there are a lot of Iraqi people who don’t have a problem with Israel or with the Jewish people. There are a lot of Iraqi people on my side, and I believe they are happy I am here.”
She also recalled the major backlash she received upon posting the Instagram image last year.
“I did not think it would blow up like this when I took this picture,” she said in Israel. “I lived for many years in the US, I have many friends who are Jewish or Israeli, I don’t think about people like that.”
“I cannot go to Iraq anytime soon,” she added, saying she would only feel safe traveling to her home country when it had better relations with Israel. “That’s a price I paid and also my family paid since they were forced to leave the country.”
The TV report also aired footage from Idan’s reunification with Gandelsman at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel this week.
“She was scared of me when she first met me,” Idan said of her first encounter with her Israeli friend, adding that Gandelsman had told her “I’m scared to talk to you.”
“After that, we sat down and talked for hours and hours, and the Miss Universe staff got really angry at us, telling us ‘come on, we have a photo-shoot,'” she recalled, smiling.
As reports of Idan’s visit to Israel came out, both her and Gandelsman’s Instagram pages were targeted by hackers, the report said.
Miss Iraq Sara Idan is currently visiting Israel & has reunited w/ Miss Israel, her old friend from the @MissUniverse pageant. Welcome to Israel!
Friendly relations between Israelis & Arabs will defeinitely help in ushering in a better tomorrow for all of us in the Middle East. pic.twitter.com/mOLKNv4IiZ
— Ofir Gendelman (@ofirgendelman) June 12, 2018
In December, Idan spoke about her ordeal to CNN, recounting “scary” death threats and anxious calls to her mother back home.