Eurovision show of unity causes waves in Israel

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She will be the first Arab to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest when she performs a duet in Arabic, Hebrew and English with the Israeli Jewish singer Achinoam Nini in Moscow in May.

But Mira Awad’s decision to go ahead with the performance after being selected by the Israel Broadcasting Authority at the height of the Gaza war last month has put her in the line of fire from her fellow Palestinian artists.

She is accused of distorting the grim reality of the troubled relationship between Jews and Arabs by promoting a vision of co-existence at a time when relations have been soured by the war and the recent electoral success of the far-right anti-Arab politician Avigdor Lieberman. Those new tensions are layered on to discrimination and mistrust as old as the state as Israel itself.

Ms Awad says she understands the strong feelings among fellow Arabs, who make up one fifth of Israel’s population. "There was anger among the Palestinian population living inside Israel, they urged me to step down from representing the country that treats our minority as second-grade citizens and bombs our fellow Palestinians in Gaza. I understood their feelings, for I was also hurting from the events in Gaza," she said in an email interview.

But she defended her decision to sing with Ms Nini. Ms Awad is known in Israel but not abroad, although she recently appeared in a lead stage role at the Barbican in a production by Tel Aviv’s Cameri theatre.

"I see reality in a different light, I see a long term goal in front of my eyes, where eventually our two peoples have to find a way to live side by side, and where the Palestinian minority in Israel achieves equal citizenship. I believe that can be achieved only by persistence and not by stepping aside and disappearing from the arena," she said.

During the war, a group of Arab artists and performers sent Ms Awad a letter saying: "Your participation in the Eurovision is participation in the Israeli propaganda machine. Please Mira, for the children of Gaza and for the future of every child in this land, don’t be an accomplice to the killing."

Sami Abu Shehadi, a member of the central committee of the Arab nationalist Balad party, yesterday called on her to withdraw: "I don’t know what message of co-existence she is planning to send. She is lying."

Ms Awad rejects such criticism: "Neither Noa [Ms Nini] nor I are naïve people. We do not expect to convey a message that everything is okay. We are not portraying an existing situation, but a desired and hopefully achievable situation." She stressed that she has been working on songs to promote coexistence together with Ms Nini for seven years and is dismayed by the growth of extremism on both sides. She says she hopes to make it harder for the Israeli far-right to convince the public that "people like me are the enemy from within".

The singers were chosen on their merits, according to Li-Or Averbach, media correspondent for the Maariv daily, although he did admit that Israel wanted to convey an enlightened image.