World peace: It’s the clichéd and oft-satirized beauty pageant contestant’s answer to the question of what she hopes for most. But at the 70th annual Miss Universe competition, slated to be held this Sunday in the southernmost Israeli city of Eilat, a whiff of peace truly will be in the air.
For the first time ever, Bahrain — which normalized relations with Israel last year — is sending a contestant to the global competition. Morocco, which also relaunched diplomatic ties with Israel last year, is participating in the contest for the first time since 1978. The United Arab Emirates had also been slated to have its debut at the competition, but ultimately did not take part due to time and COVID constraints.
But with close to 80 women from around the world descending on Eilat — after touring the country from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and more — the mix of cultures, languages and backgrounds serves in some ways as a particularly elegant model United Nations.
“Coming here has just been such a wholesome experience,” Miss Morocco, Kawtar Benhalima, told The Times of Israel from Eilat on Thursday, “because of the historical side of things, because I’m here experiencing Miss Universe, because I am learning every day.”
Benhalim, 22, said she was also “pleasantly surprised by the amount of people [in Israel] that tell me that their parents and grandparents were Moroccan. It’s beautiful, I can really, really feel and notice the connectivity.” Close to half a million Moroccan Jews are thought to live in Israel, making it one of largest Moroccan expat communities in the world.
Miss Bahrain, Manar “Jess” Deyani, declined to speak to local media. But the 25-year-old design student living in Dubai told The National that she was enjoying touring Israel, meeting her fellow contestants and representing her home country.
“I am the shortest candidate in Miss Universe history, the first Miss Universe Bahrain and the first one to represent Gulf countries, so I think [of] it more as a responsibility,” the petite competitor told the news site.
And Turkey, whose rocky relations with Israel are something of a rollercoaster, sent 22-year-old student Cemrenaz Turhan to this year’s contest in Eilat.
“I really love this place, it feels like home,” Turhan told The Times of Israel. “Our cultures have so much in common.”
Despite the return of Morocco and the debut of Bahrain, some other countries opted to sit out the contest — being held just seven months after the COVID-delayed previous Miss Universe.
Malaysia, which has competed in the competition almost every year for the past six decades, said in August that it would not participate this year due to the COVID pandemic forcing it to cancel its own Miss Malaysia pageant. But many observers speculated that Malaysia’s refusal to recognize Israel was the real force behind the decision. Earlier this year, Malaysia banned Israeli athletes from entering the country to take part in an international squash competition, leading the sport’s global body to cancel the tournament.
Indonesia, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, also skipped this year’s event despite taking part for many years, announcing in late November that the “tight preparation time and local COVID-19 restrictions” led to the decision.
The South African government withdrew its support for Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, over her decision to take part in the competition in Israel. But Mswane defied calls for her to boycott the contest and has been posting snaps from around Israel on social media.
Inevitably, many of the contestants have been the target of negative comments online — often from organized BDS activists — over their decision to take part, but they said they brush off any such criticism.
“Of course I saw comments like that, but I’m not a politician, I came here for a competition,” said Turkey’s Turhan. “I love all countries, I didn’t think for a second that I would boycott Israel — I’m not thinking about that.
“I’m very happy to be here, the Israeli people are so kind and so amazing,” she added. “Miss Universe is the right place to show the world that we are sisters and brothers, we’re all the same, we all have the same color blood. This competition is, I think, the best place to show this.”
Morocco’s Benhalim said she felt very welcome in Israel, and had no interest in mixing politics with the competition.
“Nothing is black and white, nothing is ever as simple as it seems,” she said. “And so I personally just try to take a step back from what is being said, while doing some research and some learning from my end, and also separating politics from the people.”
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