Reporter, BBC Radio 4: Crossing Continents
Arab Israeli singer Mira Awad has faced criticism for representing Israel
"No-one can try and accuse me of turning my back on my Palestinian heritage," says Mira Awad.
Yet that's exactly the charge that many in Israel's million strong Arab minority level against the elegant, flamboyant actress and singer - because she is representing Israel in this year's Eurovision Song Contest, alongside a Jewish performer.
The hope is that Eurovision will give a message of peace, but increasing tensions in the Middle East since Israel's Gaza operation in January have left the singer caught up in a very public row.
Her fellow Arabs have urged her to step down from Eurovision because they see it as propaganda for a racist state. On the Jewish side, support has grown for right-wing parties who worry that some Arabs are potential traitors.
Mira's Eurovision story is in many ways a microcosm of the tensions that have polarised Israel since since the 22-day military operation, which saw 1,300 Gazans and 13 Israelis killed.
The story began several months ago when Achinoam Nini, known as "Noa" - a Jewish-Israeli singer - was asked to represent Israel for the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow this May.
Jewish-Israeli singer Noa and Mira perform "There Must Be Another Way"
Noa, a long-time peace activist, insisted that her old friend and co-performer Awad should also be involved.
For Mira, it was a golden opportunity. "I believe that by representing this country I am nailing to the wall my existence here," she told me.
She sees it as a way to make Israel's Arabs more visible. "I am here, I am not moving when its tough," she says.
"So in a year, or in 10 years, this society will have to talk about my rights."
A fifth of Israel's population are Arabs, descendants of those Palestinians who did not flee or were not forced from their homes during the 1948 war. Many see themselves as second-class citizens in the Jewish state.
Mira was already a household name with Jewish TV viewers after performing in the award-winning Avoda Aravit comedy-drama on Israel's Channel 2.
The programme title is Hebrew slang for sloppy workmanship and translates as 'Arab Labour'. It features an Arab Israeli family and has been compared to The Cosby Show or Britain's Goodness Gracious Me.
There Must Be Another Way the duet she wrote together with Noa for Eurovision, recently won the public vote in Israel and was selected for this year's song contest in Moscow. It is a plea for peace which features lyrics in both Arabic and Hebrew.
But in the last days of 2008, Israel's war cabinet made a decision that would thrust Mira into the centre of Arab-Jewish relations.
On 27 December, the Israeli Defence Forces sent ground troops into Hamas-controlled Gaza in response to thousands of rockets being fired into Israel from the territory in the past few years.
Arab Israeli playwright Ala Hlehil tried to convince Mira not to sing for Israel
In the midst of the operation, it was announced that Mira and Noa would represent Israel at Eurovision. "I thought, oh my God, this is so not the time," says Mira of the announcement.
"For me it was a disaster," says Ala Hlehil, a prominent playwright and one of Mira's leading critics from within the Arab community in Israel.
"I tried to convince Mira, through SMS and e-mails and through phone calls, do not to this."
The advice in his texts to Mira was: "You are being played. You are becoming a tool in Israeli propaganda."
I met radical playwright Hlehil in at Al-Midan, an Arabic language theatre in Haifa where his next play will feature.
He argues that the only way to achieve equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel is to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and to abandon Zionism, the philosophy of building a Jewish state, within Israel.
"I don't want this state to be Zionist," he says. "If that strengthens [Israel's] right wing, then let it be."
Yet Arab expressions of anger with the Israeli state have, in turn, bolstered Jewish support for the Israel's right-wing political block.
We do not have equal rights yet, but the way to get our equal rights will not be by boycotting the country that we live in
Mira Awad, Arab-Israeli singer
They won the majority in the country's elections in February.
A particular success story was the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which came third with the slogan "No Loyalty, No Citizenship", which was seen as targeting Arab dissent.
"I would expect from all the Arab Israelis who live here to accept the character of the state," says Danny Ayalon, a newly elected Knesset member from Yisreal Beitenu. "So they will have to accept Israel is a Jewish state and accept Jewish immigration lovingly and acceptingly."
Taking a stand
Against this background of polarisation, Mira has had to defend her decision to sing under Israel's banner in Eurovision. Yet when I met her in her Tel Aviv home, the articulate actress was confident and robust about what she stands for.
"It's not so easy to banish me," she says.
"This whole operation in Gaza was such a painful time, I am still Palestinian and I will always be Palestinian."
But she says she's not representing Israel in spite of these beliefs - she's doing so because of them.
"We do not have equal rights yet, but the way to get our equal rights will not be by boycotting the country that we live in," she argues.
Mira is the daughter of an Arab father, a physician, and a Bulgarian mother. Her fluid sense of her own identity helped her to argue with her Jewish friends who supported the Gaza operation which she herself was against.
Noa and Mira Awad will still perform at Eurovision despite public controversy
In its early stages, the Gaza operation was even supported by some pro-peace voices such as Noa, her co-singer in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Noa posted a controversial message to Palestinians on her blog "I can only wish for you that Israel will do the job we all know needs to be done," she wrote
"And finally rid you of this cancer, this virus, this monster called fanaticism, today, called Hamas."
Mira defends her friend Noa - who later retracted the comments - and won't comment directly on the blog posts. But she says that many peace-loving Jewish friends were "confused" by their fear of Hamas in the build up to war.
"I took it in a motherly way, this confusion - and I insisted on having dialogue."
"A lot of times they would end the conversation by asking themselves: how did I think this could solve anything?"
She says her hope is to use her visibility as an actress and as Israel's representative in Eurovision to persuade Israel's Jewish majority to view the Arab community differently.
"I might at least be a thorn in the side of the extremists who want us out of the country," she says. "I am in the consensus, and I am representing their own country - so it is not so easy to banish me."
The edition of Crossing Continents featuring Mira Awad will broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 19 March 2009 at 1100 GMT. The programme will be repeated on Monday, 23 March at 2030 GMT.
You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast.
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