July 19, 2019

Sarah Idan: ‘Peace and Love From Miss Iraq and Miss Israel’

In 2017, Sarah Idan was crowned Miss Iraq, becoming the first woman in 45 years to represent her country in the Miss Universe pageant. While rehearsing for the televised event in Las Vegas, she posted a selfie with Adar Gandelsman, Miss Israel, with the caption, “Peace and love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.” 

The seemingly innocuous photo caused a scandal. Idan received death threats and pressure from the Iraqi government to renounce the photo. The media storm took the Baghdad-born model/musician by surprise, forced her family to leave the country and put her on a path to becoming a  Middle East peace activist. 

Idan, 29, who now lives in Los Angeles, spoke with Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa on his podcast. This excerpt has been condensed. You can hear the entire interview on JewishJournal.com.  

Jewish Journal: How did you meet Miss Israel?

Sarah Idan: We were at a photoshoot. She was standing across from me and she smiled and she waved and said, “Hi,” but then she didn’t come over. She looked kind of shy or scared, so I walked up to her and started talking and I asked which country she was from and she said, “Well, this is why I didn’t come and talk to you. I was scared you might not respond, or walk away.” She didn’t wear her sash at the time, so I didn’t know she was Miss Israel. She pulled the sash [out] and said, “Because of this.” When she showed me that I felt really embarrassed. Because we’re there for Miss Universe, we’re supposed to be peace ambassadors. So I said, “Why would you be scared?” and she said, “Because our countries are at war.” And I said, “They’re at war, we’re not. If anything, we need to show the people we don’t have any problem.” Then we took the photo.

JJ: Then what happened?

SI: They kept us really busy, to the point we didn’t even have time to check our phones. So I took the photo, posted it and went and did other things. I went to sleep and didn’t check my phone. When I woke up, my phone had like 40 messages and 50 missed calls. When I talked to the Miss Iraq organization, they said, “You need to take the photo down.” I said, “I’m not going to take it down, I didn’t do anything wrong.” They said, “You realize what you’re doing? We have a minister, he just called us. You can’t have a representative of Iraq doing that. They’re going to take away your title and you cannot compete.”

I said, “Listen, the photo’s been posted. My intentions were good. If they have any problems …” and they said, “You’re supporting the Israeli government.” I said, “If that’s the case, I’ll just make a post and say this is not political. I’m not supporting the Israeli government policies in the Middle East, I’m just trying to show the people that we want peace.” I posted it in Arabic. 

JJ: It became international news. How did that change your life?

SI: It was crazy. I was so anxious at that time, but I knew what I was doing was right. I felt like I was on trial. I did not know there was anti-Semitism in the Middle East. I did not realize it was this strong in Arab countries. I began to hear all these stories about how the Jews were persecuted  in Iraq and Iran and Egypt.

 JJ: How were you learning all this?

 SI: From my Jewish friends here in America. I started reading a lot about the subject because if you want to make any statement — whether it’s on TV or an interview, a conference or something — I did not want to look like an idiot. The first act I took trying to make peace, I went to Israel with the American Jewish Committee. 

JJ: What was that like?

SI: It was a shock. The people who came to get my bags and the manager of the hotel, they were Arabs. They were Muslims. And I thought, What’s going on? I thought it was just going to be Jewish people. When I was in Haifa, it was during (the end of Ramadan) Eid [al-Fitr, breaking of the fast]. I noticed everyone greeted each other in both Arabic and Hebrew, and I thought that was wonderful. I see all these families — women wearing hijabs with their kids — walk[ing] together with Jews on the street. That’s something we never saw or heard about. 

JJ: Tell us about the new organization you’re trying to start.

SI: It’s called Humanity Forward. We’re trying to rebuild relations between the Muslims and the Jews, Arabs and Israelis. First thing, we’re starting channels on YouTube and talking about politics and religion and history in Arabic. I want the people to hear what they don’t hear on TV. They need to see what I saw. 

JJ: So, what happens if you meet people like that who may be anti-Israel? 

SI: It happens. Some friends had no problem and they like what I’m doing and they support it. I’m talking about Arab/Muslim friends, and some of them …

JJ: They cut off the relationship.

SI: Yes. I think that’s their problem. 

JJ: How are you meeting Arabs in L.A.? 

SI: It’s a huge population. In Glendale there are many Iraqis, and when I go somewhere, to the mall, they recognize me. In Sherman Oaks, in the Valley, there are many Arabs.

 

JJ: Do you plan to take them to Israel one day?

SI: Maybe. My plan is to first bring people from Iraq to Israel. Probably journalists — open-minded writers who can see and influence the people.

JJ: Who else are you dealing with?  

SI: We’re working with an organization called Save A Child’s Heart. I thought it would bring people closer to have an Israeli organization help Muslims and Iraqis. We’re bringing children who need heart surgeries that cannot be performed in Iraq to be treated in Israel. n