Middle East

Israeli Arab voted best singer in Israel's The Voice

Lina Makhoul on stage
Image caption Lina was voted number one after her rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah in the song contest

It was an impressive performance of Hallelujah, a song by Jewish-Canadian musician Leonard Cohen, that ultimately gave Lina Makhoul, an Israeli Arab, victory in Israel's version of TV talent show The Voice.

Speaking on Saturday just before the finale, she told me that if she finished in first place after the public vote her success would not be just personal, but a victory for all members of Israel's Arab minority.

"I'm happy with people who are voting for me because they think I sing well, but I'm also happy for people who vote for me because I'm representing a sector in Israeli society," she said just before going on stage.

"If I win, it will be a triumph of not just this sector, but an entire nation."

Lina, who is 19, was born to Christian parents in Acre, northern Israel. She put her studies in biology at the prestigious Technion Institute on hold during the contest.

Although she is not the first Arab-Israeli to have won a prominent singing competition in Israel, she was the first to take the top prize in a prime-time TV show on the leading commercial channel.

Triumphing over "racism"?

Her final performance was in one of Tel Aviv's biggest arenas in front of thousands of fans where she beat three other competitors. As winner she received a music school scholarship and a record contract.

On stage, she told supporters that she had been the victim of racism over the course of the season but that she also received a lot of positive responses to her appearances. "The majority rules, right?" she said to the cheering audience.

Image caption President Obama's keynote speech stressing Zionism upset some Arab-Israelis

Some well-wishers held up signs with her name written in both Hebrew and Arabic.

"I was drawn to her from the early stages of the show. She's able to melt my heart no matter what language she chooses to sing in," said Ella Golan, 26, who was yelling her support for Ms Makhoul.

About 20% of Israel's population are of Arab-Palestinian descent. They routinely complain that they are treated like second-class citizens.

During US President Barack Obama's long speech to young Israelis last week, he was heckled by an Arab-Israeli political science student who objected to his strong support for Israel as a Jewish state.

He later complained that he had expected a "democratic speech" but said that Mr Obama's words were "provocative".

Blind auditions

In the first selection sessions for The Voice, music industry professionals choose who will go through to the next stage of the competition without seeing the contestants. They only listen to them sing.

"When I first heard Lina I was only hearing her unique voice," says noted Israeli singer, Shlomi Shabbat, who went on to mentor Ms Makhoul.

"I didn't know she was Arab and I didn't care when I did. It doesn't matter if someone's Arab, religious, Ethiopian, Georgian. She could be anything, but her voice is one of a kind."

In one of the highlights of the season, Lina Makhoul chose to perform the Arabic version of the song Les Feuilles Mortes, made famous by the revered Lebanese singer Fairouz.

Her fellow contestant, Dan Salamon, says it was a bold move.

"I remember listening to her singing in Arabic, not being able to understand a word but still getting chills. This is a moment that shows you what music's about, listening to someone's voice and talent and not judging by his or her background and race."

"I think the crowd now sees it this way too," he adds.

Image caption Lina was delighted by her first prize in "The Voice"

In the end, the finale of The Voice somewhat reflected the diversity of Israeli society.

As well as Ms Makhoul there was Ofir Ben-Shitrit, a religious teenager who managed to join the show despite restrictions on religious Jewish women singing in public, and an Ethiopian-Israeli soul singer, Rudy Beinsin.

After taking the top prize, Ms Makhloul told me: "I'm speechless. It will take a while for the triumph to sink in".

"I'm so pleased that we've reached a place where the crowd was able to distinguish between the mind and the heart. I hope that I was able to excite them and make them understand me.

"By voting for me it shows that the people followed their hearts. That is the most important thing of all".

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites