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JERUSALEM: The reigning Miss Universe said on Wednesday that the long-running beauty pageant should not be politicized, even though its next edition will be held in Israel amid pressure on contestants to drop out in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The 70th Miss Universe pageant takes place in the resort town of Eilat, in southern Israel, in December. Dozens of competitors from all over the world will arrive there in the coming weeks to compete in national costumes, evening dresses and swimwear. They will also have their public speaking prowess tested with a series of interview questions.
But the contest is in the spotlight for taking place in Israel amid calls to boycott the country for its treatment of Palestinians. At least one country has already canceled its participation.
âEveryone with different beliefs, different origins, different cultures, they all come together and when you are there you forget about politics, your religion,â Andrea Meza, the current Miss Universe, told the Associated Press before a tour. of the Old City of Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. âIt’s just about kissing other women. “
Meza, 27, represents Mexico and was crowned in May, in a ceremony delayed by COVID in Florida, where contestants accessorized their sparkling dresses with face masks. She presents the crown to Eilat on December 12.
Hosting the show is a coup d’etat for Israel, which for years has faced an international Palestinian-led campaign calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Israel hopes the competition will help attract tourists and project an image of Israel as a safe destination during the pandemic.
Paula M. Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, said Israel was on the shortlist of host countries “because of its rich history, beautiful scenery, myriad of cultures and its appeal as a nation. as a global tourist destination â.
But candidates are under pressure to boycott the event and put aside hope that the crown will make a political statement.
PACBI, a group of Palestinian activists and founding member of the boycott movement, called on candidates “not to undermine our struggle for freedom, justice and equality by withdrawing from the competition.”
Citing COVID, Malaysia has announced that it will not send a candidate. And the South African government has said it is withdrawing its support for the country’s representative for her participation in the event.
“The atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinians are well documented,” the government said in a statement, adding that it “cannot in good conscience be associated with such things.”
Both countries are strong supporters of the Palestinians.
Israel’s foreign ministry declined to comment and requests for comment to the country’s tourism ministry, which hosted Meza’s visit to the old city on Wednesday, went unanswered.
The impact of the boycott movement has been mixed. It has had a number of successes over the years, with major artists like Lorde and Lana Del Ray canceling appearances due to Israel’s policies. But big stars have always stopped in Israel, and major events like the Eurovision Song Contest – which included a performance by Madonna – have taken place in the country despite high-profile boycott calls.
The Miss Universe pageant will attract candidates from Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, Arab countries that have recently normalized their relations with Israel.
The boycott movement, known as BDS, promotes boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli institutions and businesses in what it says is a non-violent campaign against Israeli abuses against Palestinians.
Israel says the campaign is an effort to delegitimize and even destroy the country, and claims its motives are anti-Semitic. BDS leaders deny allegations of anti-Semitism, saying their campaign is against Israeli policies.
Meza said she didn’t blame the women who wanted to skip this year’s competition, but said she had no problem with the competition being held in Israel.
The Old City of Jerusalem, home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, is at the heart of a conflict that has lasted for decades. Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Middle East War of 1967.
Israel then annexed East Jerusalem – a decision not internationally recognized – and regards the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians seek the three territories for a future independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Clad in a long, flowing gown with flat sandals, Meza meandered through the mostly empty cobbled lanes of the Old Town, stopping to peek at the shops as a media melee followed. Vendors, unaccustomed to seeing crowds since the start of the pandemic, watched and wondered aloud about the attention Meza was attracting.
Meza, who is a software engineer, said she was “just a girl” from a small town in Mexico who was not a “perfect, flawless” beauty queen. She said she worked hard to become Miss Universe, and the contest wasn’t just about scrolling women in bikinis, but also testing their intelligence.
When asked if she could come up with a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, she replied that she did not believe in violence and that communication was key.
âPeople have to compromise and I really hope we can achieve that by talking and talking,â she said.