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February 27, 2023 2:44 pm

Miss Universe Former Contestants From Iraq, Israel Open Up About Their Friendship Despite Facing Backlash, Death Threats After Taking Selfie


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Former Miss Iraq Sarah Idan, right, speaking alongside former Miss Israel Adar Gendelsman at the AJC Global Forum in June 2018. Photo: Screenshot / YouTube.

Two former beauty queens from Iraq and Israel spoke recently on a podcast about how their friendship blossomed and shed new light on the scandal surrounding a selfie they took on the sidelines of the 2017 Miss Universe pageant.

Sarah Idan, who competed in the 2017 Miss Universe pageant representing Iraq, and Adar Gandelsman, who represented Israel, both posted the photo on their respective Instagram pages. Shortly after, Idan and her family received death threats for taking the picture, including from Hamas, and her family was forced to leave their home country. Still, she refused to delete the photo, despite pressure to do so from her Iraqi sponsors and the director of the Miss Iraq Organization. Iraq does not recognize Israel and the two countries have no formal diplomatic relations.

Idan, who is Muslim and was the first Miss Iraq in 45 years, hosted Gandelsman on her podcast the Sarai Talk Show last week to discuss the incident. The former Miss Iraq revealed that she approached Gandelsman to take the picture as they were waiting to do a photo shoot for the Miss Universe competition. Idan added that while other Miss Universe contestants had previously come over to her and introduced themselves, Gandelsman was “the only one” who did not initiate a conversation with the Iraqi beauty queen.

Gandelsman explained the reason why, saying that before she came to the Miss Universe pageant, “the Miss Israel organization told me, ‘don’t go close to any Arab country. You don’t have a problem with them but they [might] have a problem with you. It’s better not to make the situation awkward.’ So I knew I’m not going to get close to anyone from an Arab country. If you want you can come to me, I have no problem with anyone, but I knew that I could not come close to you. That it would make problems for you … I knew that I didn’t want to make any trouble.”

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Gandelsman said she knew about the incident at the 2015 Miss Universe competition where Miss Lebanon faced backlash for taking a picture with a contestant from Israel, and that also deterred her from speaking with Idan.

“Even after we took the picture I told you, ‘Are you sure about that?’ Are you sure you don’t have a problem with this?” Gandelsman recalled saying to Idan. “Because I was really scared to talk to you, to make this friendship. But when we started to talk, it was so natural for both of us … You were so lovely and friendly and I was so afraid for you.”

Gandelsman said she is still “shocked” that a simple photo between two friends caused such a stir.

“I remember both of us posted the picture [on Instagram] and my picture was with a lot positive comments from all around the world and yours was with so much hate,” she told Idan. “And I remember all the Israeli news were applauding [us] and with so much love about our post, and your side was the opposite and I was so afraid for you.”

She added, “It’s crazy that this is something that people care about. Because two people take a picture [and] become friends from two different countries? Why can’t people make relationships because of their personality and not their nationality?”

The podcast host and activist, who is the founder and CEO of the NGO Humanity Forward, concluded by saying that overall she is “thankful” for what unfolded at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant and is “so glad for everything that happened.” She said it gave her an opportunity to draw attention to life in Iraq, and also launch her activist work of trying to bring Muslims and Jews together.

In 2021, the Miss Universe contest took place in Eilat, Israel. This year, for the first time in seven decades, Israel did not send a beauty queen to the Miss Universe pageant that took place in January in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Watch the entire episode of the Sarai Talk Show featuring Adar Gendelsman in the video below.

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