On May 26, Iraqi lawmakers passed a bill criminalizing the normalization of any ties and relations, including business ties, with Israel. Violation of the law – approved with 275 lawmakers voting in favor in the 329-seat assembly – is punishable with the death sentence or life imprisonment. A parliament statement said the legislation is “a true reflection of the will of the people.”
Influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliamentary election last year, called for Iraqis to take to the streets to celebrate this “great achievement.” Hundreds later gathered in central Baghdad, chanting anti-Israel slogans.
This past year, I had the chance to befriend two amazing women who became friends five years ago at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant, where Sarah Idan (Miss Universe Iraq) and Adar Gadelsman (Miss Universe Israel) took a famous selfie together showing a beautiful symbol of unity.
In December 2017, Idan and her family fled Iraq due to outrage from Iraqi citizens over her posing for a photo with Miss Israel, who had also served in the Israel Defense Forces. I had the chance recently to speak to both of them regarding the famous picture, and how life has been ever since.
Sarah, as a young girl growing up in Iraq, when were you first aware of the history of the Babylonian Jewish community that spans over 2,000 years from the times of the First Temple?
I knew of the rich heritage as a very young kid. I would study the ancient history of Nebuchadnezzar and how the Jewish people left Jerusalem. Also my family had a house in Babylon, and I remember that my father would point out various historic sites in Iraq, but I didn’t know the full history of what happened to the Jews of Iraq (like the Farhud in 1951) until I came to the US. I would hear the term Farhud growing up (a term meaning “violent dispossession”), but found out the full extent of the events that occurred to the Jewish people years later.
When you took the picture with Adar Gandelsman, it was a courageous symbol of unity. What backlash did you receive from the Iraqi government?
Well, first of all, I was told to take down the picture, and “you are considered a traitor even by the Tourism Ministry in Iraq.” I didn’t deal with the government directly, but they would try to scare me. I was told that if I came back to Iraq I would be considered a traitor and disloyal to the country, and even be executed for treason. The Iraqi government was quiet and didn’t say anything about it until I went to the UN and I spoke about this. The Iraqi parliament voted to revoke my citizenship, and since then they remained silent regarding the status of my citizenship. Until today I have no idea what the status is regarding that. To me it doesn’t matter, they can take away my citizenship because I know that I’m still Iraqi and will always be. I don’t think this government will succeed based on the fact that they don’t have any real power and are dominated by the Iranian regime. Maybe the day will come when they will welcome me back if they have a true government that stands up for its people and for what’s right.
I come from a distinguished Iraqi Jewish family. Over 250,000 Iraqi Jews came to Israel and helped build and contribute to the country in every way. When you took a picture at the Western Wall, it showed your deep connection to Israel and the Jewish people. What did that experience mean to you personally?
I have been to Israel before but didn’t know anything about Israel. I would hear about Israel growing up, and I had very open ears but would hear Iraqi propaganda against Israel, but I wanted to know the truth. They would claim that all Americans want to kill Iraqis, but didn’t believe this. I maintained an open mind for the truth. Once I stepped foot in Israel I loved it. I didn’t know beforehand that they had Arabs and people of all religions who can live freely. When I saw that, I saw that it was really beautiful. I have never seen such freedom in any Arab country. Only in Israel, a true outpost of democracy in the Middle East. To see Jews and Muslims living together was truly beautiful and I loved it.
Your life has taken an amazing turn in addition to all of the accomplishments that you have already achieved. You have become an activist and a humanitarian, and have spoken at the UN. You have defended Israel and all of humanity, and have used platforms such as social media to have your voice heard. What inspires you and gives you fuel to fight for what’s right on a daily basis?
I think that for me it was really personal what I went through from just taking a picture. When I went to Israel, I went to all of the Jewish museums and also loved learning more about the rich Iraqi Jewish heritage. I have a chance to learn more in Los Angeles as well, and I felt really bad when I heard the story of what the Jews in Iraq had to endure, and I wanted to be more active and raise awareness. I have used social media outlets like Twitter, and I have always been very outspoken even when I was younger. I would voice my opinion about politics and stand up for what’s right and for true human rights.
What is your hope for any type of normalization of ties with Iraq in the future? I truly believe it’s the restrictions of the government more than the people.
Exactly. I said this many years ago, and I still believe that this is the truth. When I went to Germany and started talking more politically, I said that we should be focused on supporting Israel and raising awareness of the dangers that Iran poses to the world and every Arab country in the region. I hope and pray to see the day that the voice of the people in Iraq can be heard, and that there can be a true connection with the beautiful nation of Israel. Iraq and Israel should cooperate because they have common enemies. With the historic Abraham Accords, I hope that this will expand to other countries that will create diplomatic ties with the nation of Israel. By making peace with Israel, they are sending a message of hope for the world.
Adar, tell me about your incredible journey to becoming Miss Universe Israel 2017?
Before I was in the Miss Universe competition, I was really shy and had social anxiety at times and didn’t speak to people I didn’t know. I was in a very different place in my life than I am now. When I joined the Israeli army, it made me think that I need to start doing something to raise my self-confidence. The best treatment for that was going on to become Miss Israel. It put me on a large stage where I could utilize that platform as well. It raised my self-esteem – I was shy at the beginning of the pageant, but step by step I became more confident and self-aware and was able to look at myself in a different way.
When you took the picture with Sara Idan, it was very spontaneous and very symbolic as well. The picture with her changed her life, forcing her to leave Iraq, and spoke volumes to the world.
I took a picture with all of the contestants in the Miss Universe competition. It was funny because in the beginning, I didn’t approach her because in Israel they conveyed not to approach the Arab countries (due to the sensitivity and lack of diplomatic ties with certain countries). It also had more to do with the problems it would cause for them. But in the end, we took a picture together as dear friends. I was very concerned afterward for Sarah and her family as they had to leave Iraq. On the other hand, it was an issue that needed to be talked about. When we were in the Miss Universe competition, the media was talking nonstop about it. I even asked Sarah, “Are you sure you want to do this and take the photo?” In my heart I knew that we were doing something good, and eventually we decided that every day we would post together and be together because we felt we were giving a voice. A lot of people contacted us and thanked us for standing up for what’s right. These are people who don’t have a voice who felt they were finally given one. Even though we may have received bad comments, we received a huge outpouring of positive feedback as well. ■
The writer received his undergraduate degree in business (cum laude) from Yeshiva University and his MBA with double distinction from Long Island University. He is a financial adviser who resides in New York City, and is involved in Israel-based and Jewish advocacy organizations.