JERUSALEM — 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 popular television show hosted by one of Israel's most successful entertainers. On the program, Golan as host chooses over the course of a 3-month-long competition the best performer of Mizrahi 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 Mizrahis, or Jews of Middle Eastern origin, feel for their ancestral homelands, even though most proudly identify as Israeli. And by singing beautifully in Hebrew, she charmed her audience by showing that she too was moved by their cultural traditions.
"I am so proud: I'm the first Arab to win a Hebrew singing program," said Kader, who is from the northern Israeli city of Haifa.
"I never imagined that they (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 told The Associated Press. "They saw another side."
Kader, who before competing on the show worked as a wedding singer in the Arab community, shared her win in late March with Maor Ashwal, a Jewish Israeli. The finals, on a cable TV music channel, were the second most-watched show on television that night, according to an economic magazine that publishes Israeli television ratings.
During the final, her audiences sang along, cheered and clapped to songs in Hebrew — and Arabic.
Israel's Arab minority makes up about one-fifth of the population and occupies an uneasy place. They are citizens of a Jewish state who identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Arabs in Israel are generally poorer, less educated and complain of discrimination.
In recent years, Jewish and Arab politicians have used increasingly harsh rhetoric against each other, further polarizing relations.
Kader, for her part, has stirred up mixed feelings among Israelis. They marvel at the power of her voice, but are uncertain about how to deal with her Arab ethnicity.
"My friends criticized (host) 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 Mizrahi 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."
"We are taught that in the house of Israel, there will be a prayer for all people," said Eliyahu Dahan, 50, a Jerusalem bar owner. "That was her song."
The popularity of Golan's show also highlights just how far Mizrahi culture has come in Israeli society.
When Middle Eastern Jews fled en masse to Israel in the years following the Jewish state's establishment 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 Mizrahi music, which was seen as lowbrow — a stigma that still lingers. The music ranges from soaring liturgical chants to cheesy pop that is indistinguishable from top-40 tunes in the Arab world. In an echo of that Arabic heritage, many Mizrahi Jews enjoy classic Arabic songs — tunes that Kader belted out to the delight of the audience in the studio for the show's final.
Her victory is part of a small but growing trend of Arab artists and entertainers rising to prominence.
One of the country's most popular sitcoms is a comedic satire about an Israeli-Arab journalist trying to fit into Jewish society whose attempts frequently backfire. The program is written by Sayed Kashua, an award-winning Arab writer.
All but one of Israel's soccer league teams have Arab players, including the season's top scorer, Ahmed Saba.
Israeli entertainer Golan said he faced criticism for his choice, but said Kader's talent couldn't be ignored. He is currently producing an album for her.
It will likely have Mizrahi 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 told the AP.
But, he said, "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."
Associated Press writer Amy Teibel contributed to this report.
Diaa Hadid can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/diaahdid