"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.

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496