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Sunday, 5 March, 2000, 16:30 GMT
Singer's death prompts Aids debate
Ofra Haza
Ofra Haza: Loved as a role model
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

More than a week has passed since the death of Israel's First Lady of pop, Ofra Haza, and the country is not only still mourning but remains gripped in an intense debate over the nature of her death.

At the beginning of the week, Haarets, a leading daily newspaper, published unconfirmed reports that the internationally-renowned singer had died of Aids-related complications.

If it is true, Ofra will be Israel's first celebrity to die of the disease - in a land where discussion of the condition is taboo.


The debate, which gripped the nation, did not hinge on whether the story was true - most people believed the newspaper's report.

Instead, it began by focusing on the stigma attached to the to the disease in a still traditional society and switched to anger as people looked to assign blame for Ofra's death.

At the news of the 41-year-old singer's death, radio stations filled the airwaves with Ofra's Middle-East-flavoured dance tracks and ethereal ballads.

Success story

The nation started to mourn and the media focused on how, throughout her life, Ofra had enjoyed an outpouring of love from thousands of fans.

She had been loved as a role model - one who grew up in the slums of Tel Aviv, the daughter of Yemeni immigrants.

She rose to fame fighting discrimination and helping to bring the ethnically inspired music of her forefathers into the mainstream.

Sephardic Jews - from North Africa and the Middle East - are often seen as the underclass in Israel, but correspondents say Ofra's success inspired many Sephardic immigrations to the state.

The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak described her as the Israeli success story.

Education opportunity

"Ofra emerged from the Hatikvah slums to reach the peak of Israeli culture," he said.

Then, the Aids story broke and the same radio shows that had continuously played her hypnotic music switched to debating the nature of her death, inviting listeners to have their say.

Some people spoke of the sadness that her inspirational life should have ended in such an early death and that the epilogue was such as sad one.

Others spoke compassionately about the shame that Aids sufferers in Israel confront and others that this stigma had apparently kept Haza and her family silent.

Health advocates lamented that the singer did not confront her disease in a more public way and that a valuable education opportunity had been lost.

Unwittingly, the singer, who had lead such an intensely private life, had sparked a very public debate on a painful issue.

Health workers reported a significant increase in applications for HIV tests and the Haaretz reported "there is hardly a house in Israel in which the word Aids did not get spoken in recent days".

But it went on to say that public awareness in the way that it was needed would have to wait for an Israeli "Magic Johnson" prepared to disclose he or she is a HIV carrier.

This was a reference to the US basket-ball star who went on record declaring he was HIV-positive.

By the end of the week, the media switched to assigning blame for Ofra's death - with her husband Doron Ashkenazi emerging as the culprit.

One music director who had worked with Ofra, Tsedi Tsarfati, said in his mind, Ofra was "like a nun" and he said most Israeli's saw her in the same light.

He said people would find it difficult to think of such as person as having Aids.

"We have to blame somebody because we just can't understand this," he said.

At her funeral, which brought together the elite and working class, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai spoke of "the little princess" from the "poor neighbourhood".

For those the thousands who idolised her in her neighbourhood, it will take some time before they will forgive the media for adding such a controversy to her epitaph.

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24 Feb 00 |  Entertainment
Singer Ofra Haza dies
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