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Diversity Reigns on Israel’s Reality Series Despite Social Issues

When Rose Fostanes, a 47-year-old openly gay Filipina caregiver who doesn’t speak Hebrew, took the crown on Israel’s “X-Factor” after belting out Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” this past January, it was clear that at least inside Israel’s television studios, the nation’s minorities and non-citizens can make it big.

Israeli society — where cronyism often veers straight into xenophobia — is notoriously insular, with political parties 

designated by ancestral origin, and neighborhoods segregated among Arabs, Christians, secular and religious Jews. The nation’s significant immigrant communities of Russians and Ethiopians routinely complain of discrimination, and its Sephardic Jews trail Ashkenazi Jews from Western Europe in both income and education.

But while racism can be shockingly casual among landlords, employers and on public buses, programs like “X-Factor,” “The Voice,” “Big Brother” and “Master Chef” are emerging as surprising oases of tolerance. Fostanes, one of 20,000 Filipino foreign workers, mobilized not only her community but all of Israel, winning over voters with her powerful pipes and stirring backstory (she moved to Israel six years ago and has lived in poverty to send money home to her girlfriend).

As a reality-program champ, she now joins Lina Makhoul, the 20-year-old Arab winner of last season’s “The Voice Israel”; Ethiopian-born model Tahunia Rebel, the champion of last season’s “Big Brother”; and Tom Franz, a German-born convert from Christianity who triumphed in last season’s “Master Chef” after beating out runners-up Salma Fiyumi, an Arab; and Jackie Azoulay, a religious Jew.

“I wanted people to see me as a regular human being just like everyone else,” says Makhoul, who sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English during her season of “The Voice.” “I was trying to let the Jewish Israeli community see who we really are. It helped me through every stage of the competition.”

Makhoul says she was troubled during the show’s run by bigoted comments on message boards, including those on YouTube videos of her songs, but that she also was buoyed by several Jewish viewers who reached out and told her she had forever changed their perception of Arabs.

Erez Ben Harosh, VP of content for Reshet, the media group behind “The Voice” and “X-Factor,” says that execs are always looking for diversity and specific character types when casting, but adds that ability, too, figures into the equation. “You have to have talent,” he says, “and you have to have a story.”

Some contestants have faced intolerance onscreen during their competition, with broadcaster Keshet evicting one of its “Big Brother” house guests last year after he assailed a lesbian contender about her sexuality, and made a series of remarks about Rebel’s skin color.

Others on the various shows, however, say they have felt nothing but support. “I was pampered and loved,” Fiyumi says, “but maybe it’s because of me, because I try not to think about these things.”

The finale of Fiyumi’s season of “Master Chef” was particularly remarkable, with her in a hijab; Azoulay in the traditional wig of a religious Jewish woman; and Franz, who is tall and Nordic-featured, speaking with a heavy accent.

“In the end, people want to connect,” Ben Harosh says. “People are looking for quiet and peace, and everyone feels that even people on the other side dream about singing — dream about finding success.”

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