Jewish college students are bombarded with images — most of them unflattering — of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israel Apartheid Week, mock security barriers and die-ins on the quad.
The image of a strikingly beautiful Ethiopian model — and a “Miss Israel” at that — must have been a sight for sore eyes.
Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, 25, made history in 2013 when she was chosen as the first black woman to win the title of “Miss Israel.” Late last month, while sipping a Caffé Americano in Bryant Park, wearing a brown fedora, a white-gray fur vest and a pair of brown boots with the slightest trace of a heel, she reflected on her rags-to-runway journey and her first U.S. campus swing.
It was a whirlwind — 30 events in 12 days, with venues that varied from an entrepreneurship class at Wharton to a class of black female writers at Ohio State.
The goal of the tour, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and Media Watch International, a nonprofit promoting accurate, impartial news coverage of Israel, was to put (literally) a new face on Israel, sharing the country’s positive attributes, such as the diversity of its citizens.
“Israel gave me a new chance and a new life,” said Aynaw, who grew up in an Ethiopian village and didn’t own a pair of shoes, learn in a classroom or realize that there were Jews who weren’t black until she immigrated to Israel at the age of 12 after her mother’s death left her parentless.
“Israelis live together amongst many different cultures,” she said. “Coming on this campus tour is an opportunity for me to tell the truth about Israel.”
That “truth” can be a complicated one, especially when it comes to Israel’s treatment of its African immigrants. Given the goal of the campus tour, she wouldn’t discuss the topic, but in an interview with Buzzfeed in 2014, she said: “I’m not ashamed to say that there is racism in Israel; it’s a problem … [one] that Israel is trying to fix, and it’s actually improving.”
In stressing the multicultural, melting-pot reality of Israel, Aynaw said she told campus audiences about the opportunities she had open to her in Israel, such as in the IDF, where she rose to the position of lieutenant and company commander overseeing 300 soldiers. “I have worked hard at opening doors for other Israeli-Ethiopians and to bring pride to the community,” she said.
As for the impression she made, not to mention the (6-foot-tall) figure she cut, “There has never been anyone like Titi on college campuses,” said Sharon Tzur, Media Watch’s founder and executive director. “People on college campuses met for the first time a black Jew, a black, beautiful Jew.”
When Aynaw and her family settled in Israel — they had long kept Jewish rituals and held out hope of making it to the Promised Land — one of the things that most surprised her was the discovery that not all Jews were black.
“I didn’t know that there is a ‘white’ Jewish,” Aynaw said. “I thought that all the Jewish people were like me. And I come to Israel, and I see that the ‘black’ Jewish, they are small [in numbers].”
Her assimilation in Netanya, where she lived with her maternal grandparents, happened quickly. During high school, she became student body president, competed in track and field and won first place in a national film competition for her film about an Ethiopian girl losing her culture in Israeli society.
From there it was onto the IDF. “This is the place that I could learn to be a good leader,” Aynaw said.
Being crowned Miss Israel (despite showing up to the audition in flats and no makeup) changed Aynaw’s life. She became the first black model to be pictured on Israel’s major billboards, and she became a source of inspiration for black girls and women all over Israel. She founded a community arts education center in Netanya for at-risk youth and met with President Obama, at his request.
And in a sign that she has become as Israeli as, well, hummus, she told the students on her campus swing, “After my modeling career ends, I would like to become a member of Knesset.”