The crowning of an Ethiopian-born beauty queen last week marked a big step forward for Israel, where—disturbingly—appearance has come to count for a lot. The new Miss Israel, 21-year-old Yityish Aynaw, is one of tens of thousands of black Falasha Jews who have migrated to the Holy Land since the mid-1980s famine, yet who still struggle for acceptance in Israeli society. Many toil in low-paying jobs, while some have been shut out of housing complexes, with residents telling reporters they thought Ethiopians and their food were smelly.
These episodes and others have forced Israel—founded to be a refuge from anti-Semitic persecution—to confront its own layers of xenophobia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised Ethiopian-Israelis employment programs, easier access to mortgages and allocated job slots in the civil service. De facto segregation remains: many Falasha live in poor neighbourhoods where their children attend all-black schools. But Aynaw hopes her success heralds a new spirit of cosmopolitanism. “There are many different communities of many different colours in Israel,” she said. “It’s important to show that to the world.”