Arab singer wins TV talent contest and Israeli hearts

A young Arab woman who won a popular Israeli music competition has become an unlikely star, capturing hearts in a country where suspicion and hostility often mark relations between Arabs and the Jewish majority.

Nissren Kader recently won first place on “Eyal Golan Is Calling You,” a television show hosted by one of Israel’s most successful entertainers. Over the course of a 3-month competition, Golan chooses the best performer of Mizrachi songs, the musical tradition of Middle Eastern Jews.

In winning the show, the 25-year-old Kader seems to have pulled off a difficult balancing act: She touched on the nostalgia that many first- and second-generation Mizrachis, or Jews of Middle Eastern origin, feel for their ancestral homelands. And by singing beautifully in Hebrew, she charmed her audience by showing that she, too, was moved by their cultural traditions.

Nissren Kader is the first Arab to win a Hebrew-singing TV program. photo/ap-sharon ravivo

“I am so proud: I’m the first Arab to win a Hebrew singing program,” said Kader, of Haifa.

“I never imagined that [Jews] would like me to the degree that they did. I’m an Arab citizen in a state that has troubles and disagreements between Jews and Arabs, and they saw something else,” she said. “They saw another side.”

Kader, who before competing on the show worked as a wedding singer in the Arab community, shared her win with Maor Ashwal, a Jewish Israeli. The finals in late March, on a cable TV music channel, were the second-most-watched show on television that night, according to an economic magazine that publishes TV ratings.

During the final, her audiences sang along, cheered and clapped to songs in Hebrew — and Arabic.

Kader has stirred up mixed feelings among Israeli Jews. They marvel at the power of her voice, but are uncertain about how to deal with her Arab ethnicity.

“My friends criticized Eyal Golan: ‘Why did you pick an Arab? You chose an enemy and let her win the show,’ ” said Moshe Alfassi, an Israeli of Moroccan descent who works with troubled youth. Alfassi, 27, said he found it strange to see an Arab woman singing Mizrachi music, but like many other Israelis was quickly won over by her voice.

Eliyahu Haviv, a 70-year-old Iranian-born Israeli, said Kader deserved her victory, and shouldn’t be viewed through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He noted, as many Israelis did, that Kader sang in Hebrew to God to protect the people of Israel in a song that was originally written to commemorate slain Israeli soldiers.

“She sang our prayers, and I think it was very good because she sang them with emotion,” Haviv said. “I say yes, there are Arab terrorists, but this is something else. We need to be as one heart.”

The popularity of Golan’s show also highlights just how far Mizrachi culture has come in Israeli society.

When Middle Eastern Jews fled en masse to Israel in the years following its founding in 1948, they encountered a European Jewish establishment that regarded them, and their cultures, as inferior and threatening because they resembled their Arab enemies.

That included Mizrachi music, which was seen as lowbrow — a stigma that still lingers. The music ranges from soaring liturgical chants to cheesy pop that is undistinguishable from top-40 tunes in the Arab world. In an echo of that Arabic heritage, many Mizrachi Jews enjoy classic Arabic songs — tunes that Kader belted out to the delight of the audience in the studio for the show’s final.

Golan said he faced criticism for his choice but Kader’s talent couldn’t be ignored. He is producing an album for her that will likely have Mizrachi and Arabic music on it, and Golan believes Israeli Jews are ready to hear it.

“There will always be those who will jump up and say, how did you pick an Arab?” Golan said. But, he added, “I didn’t do a political program. In the end, what wins is the songs, and not whether she’s an Arab or a Jew.”

AP writer Amy Teibel contributed to this report.