Miss Israel 2013 is crowned, Yityish Aynaw.

Miss Israel 2013 is crowned, Yityish Aynaw.

In February, 21-year-old Yityish Aynaw became the first black Miss Israel. Born in Ethiopia, Aynaw was orphaned at the age of 12 and her maternal grandparents, already settled in Israel, sent for her and her younger brother. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Or it would be, if Israel wasn't still grappling with its own history of discrimination against black Ethiopian Jews since the first planeload were flown into Israel more than three decades ago. To understand both the significance and the hypocrisy of Aynaw's victory it is necessary to look at this history.

Suffering from pogroms and persecution in their homeland since the 1970s, the Ethiopian Jewish community was airlifted to the safety of the Jewish state in a series of audacious covert operations beginning in 1984.

Israeli Ethiopians, some with their faces painted, shout slogans during a protest in Tel Aviv against racism towards Israelis of Ethiopian descent January 25, 2012.

Israeli Ethiopians, some with their faces painted, shout slogans during a protest in Tel Aviv against racism towards Israelis of Ethiopian descent January 25, 2012. Photo: NIR ELIAS

In 2011, the last 8000 Ethiopians claiming Jewish identity emigrated to Israel, with the Israelis achieving the remarkable feat of transporting the country's entire 2000-year-old Jewish community to a new life in Israel, where they would theoretically be safe from persecution.

Sadly, for most of these 120,000 immigrants, it is a fairytale that does not have a happy ending. Since the 1980s, Israel's Ethiopian community has found itself the target of both opportunistic and systemic discrimination.

Living in highly segregated communities, they have complained of being refused jobs, housing, and their children being denied places in schools. This widespread and ongoing prejudice finally prompted thousands to protest in anti-racism rallies last year.

But nothing signifies the endemic discrimination against this community more than the bombshell that was the Israeli government's admission that it was guilty of giving a birth control drug to Ethiopian Jewish women, without their full consent.

While they were still in transit camps in Ethiopia, women were either misled or coerced into accepting injections of Depo-Provera. "They told us they are inoculations," one victim told the Israeli investigative journalist who broke the story. "They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn't want to." While some were persuaded to have the injection, others were told, point blank, that they could not immigrate if they refused the injections.

The birth rate of Israel's Ethiopian community has decreased by 50 per cent, even as the birth rate of the population increased, with rights groups directly blaming the government's deliberate drive to forcibly restrict and limit the fertility of Ethiopian women.

So what then, to make of Aynaw's crowning as Israel's latest beauty queen (apart, that is, from the irony inherent in treating winning an appearance-based contest as some sort of victory for human rights)?

Aynaw is said to have won the judges over by declaring it was simply "time" for a black woman to take the crown. It is indeed tempting to take her triumph as a sign that things are changing but her victory is at best purely symbolic and at worst utterly cynical.

It is a mistake to assume, when an individual belonging to a marginalised group manages to break through the barriers barring them to success, that suddenly these barriers no longer exist.

This is an argument that is frequently levelled against feminist and other social justice advocates. What do you mean women aren't equal? Look we have a female Prime Minister! That we do, but in 2010, the year Julia Gillard won minor government, Australia ranked a paltry 17 out of 21 developed nations in a gender equality index formulated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Likewise, would anyone seriously suggest that Indian Pakistani and Indian women are ‘equal' to men because both these countries have had female heads of government?

Last week Aynaw met with US president Barack Obama, who also makes an interesting case study in the dangers of taking individual success as representative of an entire group's opportunities. Obama may be the first black president but he also presides over a country in which blacks are seven times more likely to be jailed for marijuana use than whites (even though whites actually use marijuana more than blacks). Despite their black president, 500,000 black and brown people get stopped and frisked by the New York Police Department every year, with 90 percent not getting charged with anything. Unarmed black youths continue to be gunned down in the street by police with no legal repercussions.

If anything, the tokenistic number of women and people of colour granted access to privileged positions should serve as both proof and reminder of the continued existence of this very real discrimination. It is, after all, their very rareness that makes their success so notable. Cathy Freeman took our breath away in Sydney precisely because we understand the seemingly insurmountable odds she scaled to get there.

The same goes with Yityish Aynaw. Her victory is so stunning because of the conditions her community has to contend with. Unlike Freeman, Aynaw's win was largely dependent on other people who granted her victory. And one does not need to be a hardened cynic to be slightly suspicious that this came so soon after the government's remarkable confession that it had deliberately compromised the reproductive freedom of thousands of Aynaw's fellow Ethiopian women.

Sadly, despite being created as a safe haven, Israel has found itself to be just as susceptible to racism and bigotry as any other country. As in much of the rest of the world, the darker one's skin colour, the more discrimination they face .  This video captures a racist rally vilifying Sudanese immigrants with chants such as ‘Sudanese to Sudan, Tel Aviv is for Jews'.

Predictably, Aynaw's crowning was also met with jeers and jibes, with some ridiculing her on Facebook as a ‘toffee queen' (a racist play on the Hebrew word ‘yoffee', meaning ‘beauty').

Fortunately for her, her physical appearance meant she was able to transcend the circumstances of her discrimination. Aynaw, who dreams of becoming a diplomat, comes across as a very astute young woman who will no doubt use this opportunity to effect change.

What she should not be taken for, however, is a sign that Israel's race problem is history.  

Author's Update: It has recently been brought to my attention that the Israeli government did not, in fact, admit to injecting Ethiopian immigrants forcibly with a birth control drug. Rather, as reported in Ha'aretz:

"Health Ministry director-general Prof. Roni Gamzu instructed the four health maintenance organizations to stop administering Depo-Provera injections as a matter of course. The ministry and other state agencies had previously denied knowledge or responsibility for the practice. "Without taking a stand or determining facts about allegations that were made," Gamzu wrote, "I would like to instruct, from now on, all gynecologists in the HMOs not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian – or any other – origin, if there is the slightest doubt that they have not understood the implications of the treatment." http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/israeli-minister-appointing-team-to-probe-ethiopian-birth-control-shot-controversy-1.506266

In other words, while the Israeli government no longer denies the claims, it still falls short of confirming them. With the matter still under official investigation, it is worth noting that the failure of the government to acknowledge the practice does not mean it did not occur. The testimony of the many Ethiopian women who claim to have been deceived and/or forced into accepting birth control injections remains unchallenged. With the facts still pointing to a 50 per cent decline in the birth rate of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, at this point in time it remains this writer's opinion that Israel systematically forced thousands of Ethiopian women to accept birth control injections. 

This article has been edited to more accurately reflect some issues that may have been of concern to some readers.

Hear three extraordinary women discuss how they have bravely navigated their way through adapting to a new culture in a foreign land at Daily Life's All About Women Festival at The Sydney Opera House this weekend.

Author's Update: It has recently been brought to my attention that the Israeli government did not, in fact, admit to forcibly injecting Ethiopian immigrants with birth control. Rather, as reported in Ha'aretz:

"Health Ministry director-general Prof. Roni Gamzu instructed the four health maintenance organizations to stop administering Depo-Provera injections as a matter of course. The ministry and other state agencies had previously denied knowledge or responsibility for the practice. "Without taking a stand or determining facts about allegations that were made," Gamzu wrote, "I would like to instruct, from now on, all gynecologists in the HMOs not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian – or any other – origin, if there is the slightest doubt that they have not understood the implications of the treatment."http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/israeli-minister-appointing-team-to-probe-ethiopian-birth-control-shot-controversy-1.506266 

In other words, while the Israeli government no longer denies the claims, it still falls short of confirming them. With the matter still under official investigation, it is worth noting that the failure of the government to acknowledge the practice does not mean it did not occur. The testimony of the many Ethiopian women who claim to being deceived and/or forced into accepting birth control injections remains unchallenged.  With the facts still pointing to a 50 percent decline in the birth rate of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel; at this point in time it remains this writer's opinion that Israel systematically forced thousands of Ethiopian women to accept birth control injections.