Miss Universe Pageant, Held in Israel for First Time, Draws Boycott Calls for Contestants

Calls for prospective Miss Universe contestants to drop out of the pageant are growing, the Associated Press reported.

The Palestine-based activism group PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) issued a statement to participants for December's event asking them to "do no harm to our struggle for freedom, justice and equality by withdrawing from the pageant." Malaysia will not participate in the pageant for COVID concerns, while South Africa is withdrawing support for its attending representative.

"The atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians are well documented," the government said in a statement. The South African ministry also said that it "cannot in good conscience associate itself with such."

The calls to boycott the pageant are part of the larger push to boycott Israeli goods and events over the past few years. Palestinian-led grassroots campaigns, known collectively as BDS, promote boycotts, divestment and sanctions in what they refer to as a nonviolent campaign against policies and abuses. Israel has criticized the movement as anti-Semitic, while organizers insist that the boycotts are targeted toward the government, not Judaism.

Andrea Meza, the current Miss Universe representing Mexico, said politics should not matter in the pageant.

"Everyone with different beliefs, with different backgrounds, with different cultures, they all come together and when you are in there you forget about politics, about your religion," she told AP. "It's just about embracing other women."

Israel's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the boycott calls.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Andrea Meza in Israel
Andrea Meza (right), the reigning Miss Universe, stands with a tour guide in the women's section of the Western Wall as she tours the Old City of Jerusalem on November 17, 2021, ahead of the 70th Miss Universe pageant in the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat next month. She said Wednesday that the long-running beauty pageant shouldn't be politicized, even as its next edition is being held in Israel and contestants have faced pressure to drop out in solidarity with the Palestinians. AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo

The 70th Miss Universe pageant is being staged in the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat. Dozens of contestants from around the world will arrive there in the coming weeks to compete in national costumes, evening gowns and swimwear. They'll also have their public speaking prowess tested with a series of interview questions.

Meza, 27, was crowned in May, during a COVID-delayed ceremony in Florida, where contestants accessorized their sparkling gowns with face masks. She hands over the crown in Eilat on December 12.

Israel hopes the pageant will help draw tourists and project an image of Israel as a safe destination during the pandemic.

Paula M. Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, has said Israel has been on the shortlist of host countries "due to its rich history, beautiful landscapes, myriad of cultures and appeal as a global tourist destination."

The boycott movement's impact has been a mixed bag. It has notched a number of successes over the years, with major artists like Lorde and Lana Del Ray canceling appearances because of Israel's policies. But big stars still have made stops in Israel and major events like the Eurovision song contest—which included a performance by Madonna—have been held in the country despite high-profile boycott calls.

The Miss Universe pageant will draw contestants from Morocco and the United Arab Emirates—Arab countries that recently normalized ties with Israel.

Meza said she didn't fault women who wanted to sit out this year's contest but she said she had no problem with the competition being held in Israel.

Wearing a flowing, full-length dress with flat sandals, Meza meandered through the mostly empty cobblestoned alleyways of the Old City, stopping to peek into shops as a media scrum followed. Vendors, unaccustomed to seeing throngs since the onset of the pandemic, stared and wondered aloud about the attention Meza was drawing.

Meza, who is a software engineer, said she was "just a girl," from a small town in Mexico who was not a "perfect and flawless" beauty queen. She said she had worked hard to become Miss Universe and that the competition wasn't only about parading women in bikinis but also about testing their intelligence.

Asked if she could offer a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, she said she didn't believe in violence and that communication was key.

"People have to make compromises and I really hope that we can make this through talking and conversation," she said.

Correction 11/17/21, 4:39 p.m. ET: This article was updated to remove reporting that South Africa's contestant will not be competing. She will be at the pageant, but the South African government has removed support for her.

Calls for prospective Miss Universe contestants to drop out of the pageant are growing. The Palestine-based activism group PACBI is asking them to "do no harm to our struggle for freedom, justice and equality by withdrawing from the pageant." Above, CUNY students of Palestinian descent and their allies hold a rally to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine and demand that the university system divest from Israel, on May 28, 2021, at John Jay College in New York City. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images