"Miss Holocaust Survivor" - a bizarre celebration of beauty

By all means celebrate survival, but why must it be through the prism of women's looks?

Young women parading in bikinis, talking about world peace, and getting marks out of 10 for their physical appearance. That is probably what most people think of when they hear the words “beauty pageant”. A throwback to another age that has somehow continued unfettered, the very notion of the beauty pageant is questionable – after all, it is as close to an actual manifestation of the objectification of women as you can get.

So a rather unusual beauty pageant in Israel this week has caused some controversy. Fourteen women, aged between 74 and 97, competed for the title of “Miss Holocaust Survivor”. Whittled down from 300 entrants, each of the women had survived the horrors of World War II.

Certainly, it jars to think of judging ageing women who have endured so much on the basis of their appearance. Critics said that the contest was macabre and offensive, while the cosmetics company recruited to dress the women for the pageant was accused of using the survivors for a cheap marketing stunt. Pageant organisers Shimon Sabag responded that it was a “celebration of life” and that just ten per cent depended on appearance, with women being judged also on their stories of survival and their contribution to their local communities.

The strange disjunction of the event is illustrated by its judging panel – three former beauty queens, and a psychiatrist specialising in Holocaust trauma. There is something about it which sounds like dystopic satire.

Yet for the participants, it clearly meant something. The winner was 79-year-old Hava Hershkovitz, who was forced to leave her home in Romania in 1941. She said: "This place is full of survivors. It puts us at the centre of attention so people will care. It's not easy at this age to be in a beauty contest, but we're all doing it to show that we're still here."

Esther Libber, a 74-year-old runner up who fled Poland as a child, hiding in a forest before being rescued by a Polish woman, echoed this sentiment: "I have the privilege to show the world that Hitler wanted to exterminate us and we are alive. We are also enjoying life. Thank God it’s that way.”

There is something moving about the women’s attitudes: the fact that they are still standing is testament to the strength of human spirit. But is a beauty pageant really the best way to illustrate this? Lili Haber, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, posed the same question: "Why use a beauty contest to show that these people survived and that they're brave?"

The discomfort in Israel has largely originated from the sense that Holocaust survivors should be spared such frivolities. The Holocaust saw over six million Jews killed, and millions of people in Israel have either lost family members to the Holocaust, or are related to survivors. Around 200,000 survivors live in Israel.

Gal Mor, editor of the popular Israeli blog "Holes in the Net", summarised this:

"Why should a decayed, competitive institution that emphasizes women's appearance be used as inspiration, instead of allowing them to tell their story without gimmicks? This is one step short of 'Survivor-Holocaust' or 'Big Brother Auschwitz.' It leaves a bad taste. Holocaust survivors should be above all this."

It appears to come back to the bizarre preoccupation with women’s appearances that can be seen across the world. It is hard to imagine an equivalent contest being held for men. Why is it that a celebration of female life must be through the prism of their looks? Even if, as competition organisers said, physical appearance was just a small component of the judging criteria, there is something peculiar about setting stories of survival against each other. Participants were judged on their stories of the Holocaust, as well as their subsequent contributions to their community, adding a competitive element to a great tragedy. This beauty pageant may have been well intentioned, but it is strange to say the least.

 

Winner Hava Hershkovitz (L) and fellow competitor Klara Berkovitz. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.