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Sunday, November 23, 2014

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Treating the foreigner with respect

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Rose Fontanes, 47, a Filipina caregiver who lives and works in Tel Aviv, recently shot to fame after her star turn on the inaugural season of X-Factor Israel. The unlikely diva is the most recognizable face in Israel these days, but when she first auditioned for the televised singing competition, she tearfully admitted just how detached she felt from Israelis. In a segment that aired during an early episode, Rose told an interviewer: “I feel that everyone is looking at me like I am an alien.”

That certainly appeared to be the case the first time Fontanes performed on X-Factor - no one quite knew what to make of her. As she made her way to centre stage, the cameras captured the quizzical and bemused looks of her fellow contestants and the panel of judges. Who was this foreign intruder?

Then she begun belting out a pitch-perfect rendition of Lady Gaga's You and I and the answer didn't seem to matter much anymore. Almost immediately, Israel fell in love with Rose. Week after week, she sang her heart out on TV - to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, Shirley Bassey's This Is My Life and Sinatra's My Way, among others - and Israelis responded by voting for Rose online and on their phones until she completed her improbable ascent to reality TV supremacy. It's a heartwarming story, especially for Filipinos, who deserve some good news in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

And yet Rose's comment from way back when about feeling like an alien remains, and it seemed especially poignant a few weeks ago when thousands of African migrants protested for days near the Knesset and in Tel Aviv. The migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, accuse the Israeli government of stalling on their asylum requests, which has forced many into detention and prison, and which the government has not entirely denied.

The migrants present an awkward dilemma for Israel. It is unclear what sort of long-term future they can reasonably expect in the Jewish state, and yet they deserve to have their voices heard and their complaints addressed - that is, after all, why they chose modern, democratic Israel over their backward, war-torn homelands. The mixed reaction to the migrants indicates Israelis are still grappling with how to move forward.

As for Rose, Israel's very own Susan Boyle, her X-Factor run proves that a non-Jewish foreigner can make it in Israel, at least as long as she has a wonderful talent to share. Given her unique story - and her penchant for singing the pants off of one classic after another - one senses that Rose has a long career ahead of her.

The Torah commands us to treat the ger (foreigner) with utmost respect, since we ourselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt. The rise of Rose Fontanes proves many Israelis - critically, younger ones - have taken that message to heart, and that the Jewish state can be a welcoming home to those who aren't. Israel gave Rose a chance to fulfil, as she put it on X-Factor, her “dream to be something else.” Fifty-thousand-plus Africans are hoping they'll get the same shot.

 

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