In 2009, Mira Awad made history as the first Israeli-Arab to represent Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest. Alongside her close friend, Israeli-Jewish singer Achinoam Nini—professionally known as Noa—the two women sang a duet called “There Must Be Another Way.” It was the first-ever song submitted to the contest from Israel that included Arabic lyrics. The historic entry set off a fierce debate in Israel about identity. Some criticized Awad for favoring her Arab roots while others accused her of aligning herself with Israel.
The daughter of an Israeli-Palestinian father from the Galilee and a Bulgarian-Christian mother, the 40-year-old singer lives in Tel Aviv with her Israeli-Jewish husband, Kosta Mogilevych.
On Thursday, Nov. 3, Awad will join the New Israel Fund (NIF) in Boston for an evening of music and conversation at The Regent Theatre in Arlington. On its website, NIF proclaims: “This is more than a concert. It is an opportunity to stand together for a shared society in Israel, to demonstrate for an Israel at peace with itself.” Post-concert, Awad will be in conversation with Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline.
Awad recently answered questions over email about her Arab-Israeli identity, prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and her music.
You identify as an Israeli and a Palestinian. Why don’t you like the term “Arab Israeli”?
This question encapsulates the obsession of identities that people have sadly developed. Does it really matter how I feel comfortable to identify myself? I actually did not feel a need to ponder on this question, and it is society that kept demanding an answer. When I wake up in the morning, I do not feel Palestinian, nor Arab, nor Israeli; I feel like a human being who needs to brush her teeth.
Humanity invented the concept of “country,” then became slaves to the idea of nationality. Now, if after this you insist on knowing why [I am a] Palestinian Israeli, then it is because I come from Palestinian heritage and I am an Israeli citizen. When you say Arab, I can be from Kuwait, or Morocco, but I’m not. Israelis don’t like us affiliating ourselves with Palestine, because they feel as if it is to challenge the very existence of the Israeli state. Well, stay assured, this is not the intention.
It reflects it in the way that Arabs and Jews are already living together, leading intertwined lives and careers. And the fact that right-wing political agendas want to blur that reality and introduce us as sworn enemies is ridiculous. Also, it reflects the complexity of being Palestinian within the Jewish state—trying to fit in, but encountering a lot of closed doors.
Can you talk about the message of the song, “There Must Be Another Way,” which you performed with the Jewish-Israeli singer Noa?
Well, the song is quite self-explanatory. We think there has to be another way of dealing with the diversity in the region where we live. We believe we need to see and recognize each other’s existence and pain, in order to start the healing. “And when I cry, I cry for both of us; my pain has no name.”
I read that in hindsight you’re not sure if your Eurovision performance did anything to further peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Arabs. Do you still feel that way?
I never thought a song, or a film, or a theater piece or a painting could bring world peace; only people can. Art can only suggest an alternative way of perceiving reality; it can open windows between people or peoples, but they are the ones who will choose whether to gaze through these windows to see the humans on the other side, or to close them shut. Therefore, in advance, and not only in hindsight, I knew we would not change the world on a large scale; we can [only] change it one person at a time.
You’ve been honored by the New Israel Fund. What’s your relationship with the organization?
I support what they are doing, and lately I am really upset with the demonization campaign against them led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government. Freedom of speech is being threatened on a daily basis now in Israel, which is very worrying.
You’ve said that once you were immersed in Israeli society, you understood the complexities of being a Palestinian. Can you elaborate?
I grew up in a Palestinian village in the north of Israel, and the Jewish people I encountered while growing up were friends of my parents and patients of my dad, who obviously believed in shared living like we did. It was only when I left the village that I started encountering discrimination, and even racism, because of the fact that I am Arab.
What are some of the current dilemmas facing young Arabs in Israel?
I would say it is the feeling of belonging. The right-wing government is doing everything in its power to demonize the Arab community, and this affects the feeling of affiliation to the state deeply. On the other hand, we have no other homeland. Other Arab countries often look at us as traitors for co-existing with Jews, and are not welcoming to us. This is a painful dilemma that young Palestinians inside Israel have to deal with.
What is your experience as an Arab woman and a feminist in Israel?
It is absurd that in 2016 the gender issue is still an issue, but sadly it is. Women are still unequal to men, even in the United States of America, which is an infuriating fact. Naturally, the more conservative the society, the harder it is for women. I see myself as an advocate for woman power, and I think progress is being made, but there is a lot yet to achieve.
Why do you stay in Israel?
Because it’s my home. The first air I breathed was the Galilee mountain air. I think this has an impact on a person; I will always be connected to that place. I stay because I still think it can go back to the right path and become a place that can include all people, regardless of religion and nationality. Once I lose that faith, I will probably leave, so I’m hoping I don’t.