Sarah Idan is a young Iraqi woman who represented her country in the 2017 Miss Universe competition. At a photoshoot related to the competition, fellow contestant Adar Gandelsman smiled shyly at Sarah. Sarah went over to say hello, and discovered that Adar was competing as Miss Israel. Adar was hesitant about revealing her nationality, fearing that Sarah would reject her, but instead, Sarah was warm and friendly. She suggested the two beauty queens take a selfie together, to show that just because their countries were at war, it didn’t mean they needed to be at war with each other.
After posting the selfie with the caption, “Peace and love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel,” Sarah continued with several other pageant-related activities, then went to sleep without checking her phone. When she woke up, she had 40 messages and 50 missed calls. The Miss Iraq organization insisted she take down the picture immediately, and she was threatened with the loss of her crown and removal from the Miss Universe pageant. She insisted that her intentions were good, and she wasn’t supporting the Israeli government, just trying to show that the people of Iraq want peace. She posted this message of tolerance in Arabic, but the fallout was immediate.
Arab social media exploded with anger, with many people cursing Sarah, calling her a “Zionist shill” and worse, but she refused to take down the post.
Eventually, her entire family was forced to flee the country due to death threats. Sarah said, “People in Iraq recognized my family, they immediately knew who they were. And they were getting death threats. My mom was freaking out. I told her ‘Mom, just get out. Get out. I told her I’m sorry and asked if she wants me to leave the competition. I was ready to drop out right then.”
The whole experience was a wake-up call for Sarah about antisemitism in the Arab world. In an interview with David Suissa of the Jewish Journal, Sarah said, “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 antisemitism 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… 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.”
Sarah’s June 2018 visit to Israel “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 – walking together with Jews on the street. That’s something we never saw or heard about.”
Sarah went to visit her friend Adar Gandelsman in Jerusalem and was received warmly by the large community of Iraqi Jews there. Sarah said, “It actually felt weird – the people look like my people… Everything seems familiar to me.”
“I don’t think Iraq and Israel are enemies. I think maybe the governments are enemies with each other, 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.”
Today, Sarah is focused on her new organization, Humanity Forward. She said, “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 people to hear what they don’t hear on TV. They need to see what I saw.”
She also works with Save A Child’s Heart, an Israeli organization that brings children who need heart surgeries that cannot be performed in Iraq to Israel for treatment.
On June 26, 2019, Sarah gave a brave speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, and criticized media bias against Israel, and state-sponsored antisemitism in the Muslim world. She asked, “Why did the Iraqi government fail to condemn the threats, or allow my freedom of speech? The issue between Arabs and Jews goes beyond policy disagreements. It’s deeply rooted in the belief systems taught in Muslim countries, which are antisemitic… I’d like to remind Arab countries that today you share more common interests with Israel than the terrorist militias. Negotiating peace for both states isn’t betraying the Arab cause, but a vital step to end conflict and suffering for all.” On July 9, 2019, Sarah learned that Iraq planned to strip her citizenship because of her UN speech.
Sarah is a musician and songwriter who graduated from the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, where she currently lives. She plays piano, guitar and harmonica, and sings in English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and French. Sarah has performed numerous times on Egyptian television.
For courageously building bridges between Arabs and Jews, at great cost to herself and her family, we honor Sarah Idan as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.
Image: The controversial selfie, Adar Gandelsman (Miss Israel) on left; Sarah Idan (Miss Iraq) on right.