+972 Magazine's Stories of the Week

Directly In Your Inbox

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

Representing Palestine, not Israel: Arab Idol's contestants from Israel

The Shin Bet interrogated them, the judges were sympathetic. Their selection as representatives of Palestine, however, sparked a political controversy. Will Manal Moussa or Haitham Khalailah, both Palestinians from within Israel’s borders, manage to repeat Mohammed Assaf’s achievement and win the Arab Idol contest?

By Yael Marom (translated from Hebrew by Shoshana London-Sapir)

One year after Gazan Mohammed Assaf won Arab Idol, the Palestinians have two new and promising contestants in the pan-Arab competition in Beirut. Manal Moussa, 25, from Deir al-Asad and Haitham Khalailah, 24, from the neighboring village of Majd al-Krum were chosen to represent Palestine in the contest, one of the most widely watched programs in the Middle East.

But for Manal and Haitham it is not only a personal opportunity, they are also navigating a complex political reality: the Shin Bet, Israeli legal restrictions on the travel of Palestinian citizens, the complicated relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Arab world, and a huge sack of political expectations placed on their shoulders.

Haitham Khalailah’s first audition (Screenshot from Arab Idol, MBC)

Haitham Khalailah’s first audition (Screenshot from Arab Idol, MBC)

Hundreds of millions of viewers watch the contest, broadcast for the third year on the Saudi MBC network, uniting the whole Arab world around it. Most of them are young people, of course. The contestants are judged for their musical abilities, performance and charisma, but regional politics also plays a role.

The last program before the live performance stage of the contest aired last Saturday night, and 26 (9 women and 17 men) out of 52 contestants were selected to move on to the next round. The two Palestinian representatives from northern Israel made the cut. The contest also included three brothers, the children of Palestinian refugees living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. One of the brothers also moved up to the live performance round.

Traveling to Lebanon through the PA

This year’s contestants also included male and female singers from Iraq and Syria who sang in Kurdish, Assyrians and Turkmen. The last selection stage included a contestant from Japan (a student of Arabic and oud player) and two devout Muslim women from Egypt and Algeria who appeared with their heads covered. To reach the live performance stage, contestants had to defeat tens of thousands of others who were tested in preliminary auditions all over the world. Auditions were also held in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Bahrain, UAE, Berlin, Paris, and for the first time in the history of Arab television reality shows of this type, in Ramallah.

Manal Moussa’s first audition has already received more than 2 million views on YouTube:

Haitham Khalailah’s first audition:

Manal and Haitham were selected in the first stage in Ramallah and chosen to represent Palestine from among dozens of candidates. But after passing the first stages, a problem came up: the pair had to travel to Beirut, where the remainder of the contest is filmed before a live audience.

However, for an Israeli and Lebanese passport holder to even meet is against the law – in both Israel and Lebanon. In order to go to Lebanon for the first part of the contest, the two received a special laissez-passer from the Palestinian Authority. When they returned to Israel, however, they were interrogated by the Shin Bet and their passports were confiscated. Despite their success on the program, their chances of staying in the contest looked bleak and uncertain.

Breaking the cultural siege

Haitham and Manal introduced themselves as Palestinians in the show. Nevertheless, Hebrew media like Ynet, in an article about them from early May, declared: “History: Two Israeli singers in Arab Idol.”

A Palestinian friend from central Israel, an avid viewer of the program, explained to me:

When Haitham passed one of the auditions he dedicated his victory to Palestine. They are reminding the world that ‘48 is Palestine. [“’48” is used to refer to the area of historical Palestine that became Israel in 1948. It is also a term used to refer to Palestinians who live in Israel and are hold Israeli citizenship — y.m.] Especially the Arab world, which has forgotten about the occupation, Gaza and what is going on here.

There is a certain similarity between Gaza and what is happening here in ‘48. There is a huge barrier surrounding Gaza in the form of a siege and occupation. Anyone leaving Gaza needs Israeli and Egyptian permits. The barriers are also psychological barriers of isolation from the world, cultural and social separation and a lack of belonging. Here too. Mohammed Assaf’s victory gave hope to other young people that you can break the wall or the barriers and separation.

A photograph sent to Manal Moussa by fans in Gaza is posted on her Facebook page. The poster says: “From Gaza, Manal Moussa’s fans thank our brothers in Deir al-Assad for their efforts to stand with us.”

Last April Palestinian Majd Kayyal, a journalist from Haifa, was detained and interrogated by the Shin Bet after returning Lebanese journalism conference Beirut. He told Rami Younis at the time, in an interview with +972: “As far as the Israeli establishment is concerned, all contact between ‘48 Palestinians and the Arab world is criminal and a danger to national security. Their goal is to intimidate and try to cut us off from the Arab sphere in which we live; they really do not want us to be in contact with our brothers abroad.”

The Ayoob Kara affair

After the Shin Bet confiscated their passports, one of their relatives suggested they approach former Likud member of Knesset Ayoob Kara. The pair were afraid they would not be allowed to leave Israel, or that if they did leave, they would not be allowed to come back.

The discovery of Kara’s involvement drew criticism by Palestinian activists and media who called on the two to come back, not participate in the contest and not represent the Palestinians at any price. The feeling was that Kara was trying to take advantage of Manal and Haitham’s popularity to increase his own appeal to the younger generation. Ayoob Kara is perceived as someone who shows absolute loyalty to Israel and the Likud and frequently criticizes young Palestinian activists in Israel for their support of Gaza and the occupied territories. Therefore, just agreeing to take his help was perceived as collaboration with the occupation – a heavy price to pay for appearing in a television contest.

Manal Moussa’s first audition (Screenshot from Arab Idol, MBC)

Manal Moussa’s first audition (Screenshot from Arab Idol, MBC)

In reality, however, the public criticism began the moment the program went on the air and even before Kara’s involvement came to light. Questions like how far one had to go in order to participate in such a contest came up for discussion. Influential Lebanese cultural journalist Nidal al-Ahmadiya, pointing to the pair’s Israeli citizenship, challenged the legitimacy of Haitham and Manal’s participation. She asked how two Israelis could be selected to participate in the program. In the mainstream and social media, the debate continues about whether people with Israeli citizenship should be allowed to participate in the contest as representatives of the Palestinian people.

My friend who follows Arab Idol explains:

There was a complete disconnect – and ignorance — until recent years in the Arab world, about who the Palestinians living in ’48 are; about the significance of our status within Israel. They viewed us as collaborators with Israel and some even thought we were Jews. Very few intellectuals, poets, writers and singers managed to break through that barrier and disconnect. Those who succeeded paid, and continue to pay a price. One example is Mahmoud Darwish, who was forced to leave Israel and live in exile for years, and some singers who pay the price of Shin Bet interrogations and persecution every time they travel to cultural events in Arab countries.

Mohammed Assaf’s win paved the way for other Palestinian talent to try to realize their dreams and break through the cultural barriers. For the Palestinians here it brought home the fact that we have very strong cultural ties with the Arab world and that is our natural milieu in terms of culture and language. At the same time, it brings up the question of what political price must to be paid. What is the limit of cooperation with the Zionist establishment in order to realize such goals, which are both personal and national, and how should the Palestinians of ‘48 behave?

In the footsteps of Mohammad Assaf?

Like in every musical reality show, the judges, too, have an important role to play. The Arab Idol panel of judges this year is headed by Ahlam. She is a famous singer from the Gulf who calls herself “al-Malika,” the queen. Ahlam is the strong, straight-forward character, the one who speaks her mind no matter what. Next to her sits Egyptian musical producer Hassan a-Shafii, in the role of the tough but fair judge who knows his music. The younger generation is represented by popular Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, who is held in high regard by viewers, and famous Lebanese singer Wael Kafouri, who maintains the image of someone who does not cooperate with the media. The judges play their traditional roles: they fight among themselves, argue, and let their egos clash in front of the cameras and millions of viewers throughout the world.

The Arab Idol judges. (Screenshot from Arab Idol, MBC)

The Arab Idol judges. (Screenshot from Arab Idol, MBC)

On Saturday night Haitham Khalailah received praise from the judges for his performance. They all agreed about his talent and advanced him to the next stage without reservations. Manal Moussa is in a slightly more delicate position. She started the auditions with a storm but in the last show the judges expressed disappointment with her performance. Nevertheless, they decided to give her another chance and advanced her to the next round.

In the case of Mohammed Assaf, the tremendous support he received from Palestinians enabled him to win the contest. Currently, Manal and Haitham are continuing to gain followers in the Arab world. The ’48 Palestinian press is following, too, and providing ongoing coverage of their progress. Criticism of the two, however, which is coming mainly from the occupied territories, but also from Palestinians in Israel and around the world, might impede their success in the competition. But if the storm calms and they receive support at home, there is a chance that the Palestinians may have another winner in the contest this year.

Watch Haitham’s performance on Saturday night:

Yael Marom is Just Vision’s public engagement manager in Israel and a co-editor of Local Call, where this article was originally published in Hebrew.

Related:
After ‘Arab Idol’ win, Gaza goes to sleep with hope
‘The Shin Bet was very nice, and therein lies their racism’
You didn’t win Arab Idol? Kindly wait a few more years

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article

TAGS:

  • LEAVE A COMMENT

    * Required

    COMMENTS

    1. bir

      So two Israelis disrespect their own country, allow others to disrespect their country, demonstrate support for those who seek to eradicate the country but somehow they’re in a delicate situation and it’s weird that the Shin Bet wanted to take a closer look.

      Imagine, dear author, if they sang under the heading of being Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        So it’s OK to intrude on the privacy of people who don’t agree with the state.

        B-B! B-B!

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard

          Nothing more private than an international televised singing competition, you’re right.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            So if George W Bush had used his authority to order the FBI to wiretap the Dixie Chicks phones and keep them under 24/7 surveillance, you would have been OK with that. They’re public figures.

            Reply to Comment
          • bir

            If the US federal government was at war with Mexico and Mexican Americans traveled to Mexico and declared themselves to be Mexican, not American, you would definitely expect the FBI to interrogate them. Nobody is monitoring these young people 24/7, Israel is a small country with limited resources. I think they’re going after, you know, Hamas folks.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            Is Israel currently at war with the PA and Lebanon?

            Reply to Comment
          • AMC

            Ray, actually Israel and Lebanon are still legally at war; there is only an armistice between them. Hence the restrictions (btw, I note a totally unsurprising lack of condemnation for the reciprocal Lebanese law barring contact with Israelis. Odd …)

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard

            Ray – these ppl are speaking publicly, nobody is wiretapping them…and again, the dixie chicks did not go to international competition as a national rep of Iran or Cuba or one of America’s enemies. You’re not going to find a persuasive analogy for your argument bud, sorry.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            “Bir” said that he/she was down with the Shin Bet investigating Israeli citizens for public statements. Everyone in the world knows what the Dixie Chicks said, so it does matter. By your moral litmus test, they would be fair game for an investigation as well.

            Arab-Israelis just can’t win, can they? Either they shut their mouths and be good children, or they speak up for their fellow Arabs in Palestine and be accused of treason. They went under PA sponsorship, to the event, because there was no other way to do so.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard

            Arab-Israelis who want to fight the system can win – they can leave the system.

            Reply to Comment
          • bir

            I’m definitely down with someone being investigated after going to an enemy country – even in times of cease fire – and labeling themselves not by their citizenship but by their enemy’s.

            That’s you’re surprised by this is funny.

            Reply to Comment
      • Amar Yasser

        Palestinian will prevail and claim their houses that were stolen and robbed. It is a matter of time. It is not fiction, reality keeps knocking in your sleepy ears Dreamers.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Coptic Christian

      Why would they represent a regime that openly speaks of it’s hatred for Arabs?

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        Good thing Sisi staged a coup, otherwise the Copts wouldn’t have such a rosy view of Arabism right now. If ISIS ever comes knocking on Christian doors in Upper Egypt, you’ll be singing a different tune.

        Reply to Comment
      • bir

        Israel isn’t a “regime” and doesn’t have a “regime.”

        Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain are regimes, however.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Richard

      If they want to renounce their citizenship on TV, let them. Maybe the PA can take them or they’ll be allowed to stay in Lebanon.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        How does publicly supporting a Palestinian state based on the 1948 borders “disrespect” Israel? Should we have exiled Ward Churchill for his writing that Americans massacred Indians and stole their land? Democracy means that you can say what you want and not fear persecution or punishment for it. If you want it to be the other way, move to a dictatorship.

        Reply to Comment
        • Spaniard

          That’s asking for the destruction of Israel, genius! Yes, in a democracy you can bark against democracy and use democracy to destroy democracy.

          Reply to Comment
        • Richard

          You don’t understand what ’48 Palestinians means – that’s what people who DON’T support a two-state solution say. In any case, going to a country Israel is at war with and claiming to represent another country which Israel is also at war with is a loose renunciation of citizenship, in my view. If a Cuban American went to the Olympics as a member of the Cuban Olympic team, that wouldn’t be covered by the first amendment. Your Ward Churchill analogy doesn’t make sense.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            They had to go under PA diplomatic sponsorship, thanks to diplomatic issues between your country and Lebanon. Accusing them of treason for having to jump hoops to get to their destination is kind of dickish.

            Reply to Comment
      • Spaniard

        Exactly! If they hate Israel they should leave.

        Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        But Richard – They are not disputing their Israeli citizenship but asserting their Palestinian nationality.

        In all other States, citizenship and nationality are one. Israel is the only Nation State where it is possible to be a citizen but not a national. Israel is the Nation State of all Jews – whether they reside permanently in Israel or New York. By its own definition, a non-Jew cannot have Israeli nationality although he or she can have Israeli citizenship.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard

          Eliza – that’s not what they’re doing. Nobody goes to an international competition as a representation of an ethnic group or nationality within their actual country – they represent the COUNTRY. If an Italian American went to the Olympics on the Italian team, he would do so as a represent of ITALY, the country, not Italian Americans. Your concept of ethnic minority representation just doesn’t make sense in the context of how countries are represented in international competitions. These people are either claiming to representing Palestine, a nascent country in the West Bank which isn’t Israel, or they’re claiming to represent an irredentist Palestine that in their minds should include sovereign Israel. Either way, their stated position is at odds with their citizenship as Israelis – it doesn’t harmonize their citizenship and their nationality as you claim. So if they want to represent a Palestine that is MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE of Israel, let them take Palestinian passports and discard their Israeli ones.

          Reply to Comment
          • Laura Anna

            Richard, as a literal Italian American, your analogy is flawed. As an American, my rights are from the Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is the opposite of the Palestinian condition. Not only do I have freedom of religion, my religion is none of my government business. I have freedom of movement, there are no checkpoints or permits needed to travel. I can live and work anywhere. I have property rights which can not be taken without due process of law. The same is true for Italy. Gaza and the West Bank Palestinians have none of these rights. Israel gives rights depended on religion, Even inside of Israel, there is segregation based on religion in schools. Palestinians have no freedom of movement within or out of the occupied areas. Israel limits the imports and exports of the occupied terrorites. Palestinian land taken, against international law, settlements are built. As the Palestinians lack basic human rights are they actually citizens of Israel? Would any intelligent person identify with a country that does not grant full rights?

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard

            Laura – nothing you just said is relevant to my argument.

            Reply to Comment
          • Moe salem

            Laura well said, richard is missing the basic point when Palestinians in 1948 were forced to leave their lands or forced to hold an israeli citizen under the the new establishment of the state of israel which never existed ; that is why these two contestants are not representing Israel!

            Reply to Comment
          • bir

            I see. They shouldn’t represent a country in which they were born and probably their parents as well because the country didn’t exist before 1948.

            Um, neither did a state called “Palestine.”

            In fact, such a state never existed.

            And are the Palestinians who were born in Jordan also not Jordanians? After all, that state was created in 1946.

            How about Saudis? That state is relatively young. So is Kuwait. So are the Emirates.

            Reply to Comment
          • Moe salem

            Richard you will never be wrong your a lost cause.

            Bir, you are absolutely right. These arabic countries which you speak of were newly established, but they were established for a people who lived there for thousands of years NOT people who came from all over the world to steal one’s land to evict and murder its people then call it their country! By the way Im talking about israel, if you didn’t know.

            P.S. if you want to talk about the reason why these arabic countries were established the subject will get deeper.

            Reply to Comment
          • Moe salem

            Also i forgot to mention before 1948 it was called the british mandate of PALESTINE!

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard

            Moe – wow really? Did you also know that when the British drew the map of “Palestine” (ignoring the boundaries of the Ottoman provinces which had different names and had existed for hundreds of years) they were TRYING to recreate a geographic entity that resembled the Biblical/Christian interpretation of history in the region? The “Palestine” that all the anti-colonial kool kids love to talk about is a colonial invention of the most Eurocentric kind. Even the FLAG was designed by a European according to an Orientalist interpretation of the history of “Palestine.” But good job on your research Moe!

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            “P.S. if you want to talk about the reason why these arabic countries were established the subject will get deeper.”

            Yea Moe we know how it works for you guys. Arabs have more rights than anyone else.

            Why? Because they are Arabs and all Arabs know that non Arabs are inferior to Arabs. You know what the problem is though? I’ll tell ya: the rest of humanity does not agree with the Arabs on this either. Go figure …

            Reply to Comment
          • Moe salem

            Ha?

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard

            Moe maybe try actually reading and understanding the comments before you write one yourself.

            Reply to Comment
          • Eliza

            Richard: You state ‘Your concept of ethnic minority representation just doesn’t make sense in the context of how countries are represented in international competitions’.

            Here, I agree with you entirely. It doesn’t make sense. But then neither does Israel’s concept of who is, and who is not a national of Israel.

            All Jews (certified of course) are, by definition nationals of the State of Israel. This holds even if they are nationals and citizens of another State, say USA etc, though they will not be citizens of Israel. But non-Jews who are born within Israel and who are citizens of Israel cannot be nationals of Israel. This is what does not make sense.

            As far as I am concerned, if a non-Jewish citizen of Israel cannot be an Israeli national, then why not accept that they may have nationality of another State, (even if that is an imaginary State) and be pleased if they are able to enrich their lives via a singing competition?

            Of course, the simplest thing would be for Israel, like all other states, to combine the concept of citizenship/nationality. Just give up on this very odd notion of a Nation State being for people of only one religion, especially when most people who identify as Jews choose not to live in, or be citizens.

            Reply to Comment
          • amr

            you are great >>>

            Reply to Comment
    4. Victor Arajs

      I am concerned that the zionists may use this participation to claim that the zionist entity has been accepted by the Arab world. While calling for 1948 Palestine is admirable, the singers would have more impact if they burned their zionsit passports on live tv

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        I’m totally with you Victor – that should have happened.

        Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Why would one want to give credence to a person who comes here with a name of Victor Arajs? The guy below was probabably his Grand Pappy.

        Viktors Arājs (13 January 1910 – 13 January 1988) was a Latvian collaborator and Nazi SS officer, who took part in the Holocaust during the German occupation of Latvia and Belarus (then called White Russia or White Ruthenia) as the leader of the Arājs Kommando. The Arajs Kommando murdered about half of Latvia’s Jews.[1]

        Reply to Comment
    5. horrible

      jews came in 1948 , they stole land from palestinians and put them in ghettos , and even today they forbid 2 palestiniand to sing on musical competition ! horrible !
      and those 2 palestinians live much longer in palestine then those “israelis” who came there as intrudes in 1948 !

      Reply to Comment
      • Arieh

        Yes, yes, yes …

        Crap, crap, crap …

        Simplistic one sided crap.

        Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        Ignorance.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Click here to load previous comments