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Obama to dine with first black Miss Israel, but not without criticism

March 15, 2013 at 11:45 AM ET

Yityish Aynaw stands with other contestants during the swim suit part of the Miss Israel 2013 beauty pageant in Haifa, northern Israel, on Feb. 27.
AVISHAG SHAR YASHUV / EPA
Yityish Aynaw, age 21 or 22 according to various reports, stands with other contestants during the swim suit part of the Miss Israel 2013 beauty pageant in Haifa, northern Israel, on Feb. 27.

The young woman who became the first Ethiopian-born Israeli to be crowned Miss Israel last month has a very special dinner engagement next week.

Yityish Aynaw, who arrived in Israel about a decade ago as an orphan, was invited to meet President Obama at a gala dinner hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Thursday, according to media reports.

Obama’s staff invited her to the dinner being held in his honor that has a guest list of just 120 names, including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be Obama's first visit to Israel while serving as president.

"I have butterflies in my stomach," the beauty queen said Wednesday, according to ynetnews.com.

According to media reports, Aynaw's father was killed in a war when she was 2, and she and her older brother were raised by their mother. When she was 12, their mother died and she and her brother later relocated to Israel, where they lived with their grandparents, according to news reports.

“Ten years ago, I was walking around barefoot in Ethiopia and I never imagined that one day I would be in the land of Israel, meeting the Israeli president and the president of the United States,” Aynaw told ynetnews.com. “I could never have imagined such a powerful and exciting situation."

The meeting is not without controversy, with some critics saying she skipped ahead of important politicians and influential Israelis. “She’s the highest-ranking Israeli to grace Obama with her presence,” wrote one sarcastic commenter on ynetnews.com. “Just what America needs, wisdom and advice from a 21-year-old beauty queen,” chimed in another on YouTube.

Aynaw said she believes she received the exclusive invite to meet Obama because of their shared African heritage.

She was “the first black Miss Israel to be chosen and [Obama] is the first black American president,” she told The Jerusalem Post: “These go together.”

Aynaw is “very excited” about meeting the leader whose accomplishments had “notable influence on her life,” the paper reported. The American president, she told the Post, is someone who accomplished things by “his hard work.”

Yityish Aynaw, 21, stands with friends after being crowned Miss Israel  on Feb. 27.
EPA
Yityish Aynaw stands with friends after being crowned Miss Israel on Feb. 27.

Aynaw, it seems, also has a political agenda. She said she hopes to sway President Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel and serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison since 1987.

In a YouTube video posted March 13, Israeli Channel 2 News asked Aynaw what she intends to tell Obama during their first meeting. "That he is a role model for me, and second, that he should free Pollard," she answered. The response has been mixed, with some commending Aynaw for "being way more than just a pretty face," while others on Twitter consider it an "embarrassment."

During the pageant she won last month, Aynaw hinted that she was passionate about social justice and politics. She named Martin Luther King Jr. as one of her heroes.

"He fought for justice and equality, and that's one of the reasons I'm here: I want to show that my community has many beautiful qualities that aren't always represented in the media," she said, according to the Post.

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