'There is no air left to breathe/ No place, no me...'

Discord with Eurovision over song choice could risk Israel’s spot in contest

Kan public broadcaster says it will refuse to switch songs if EBU disqualifes ‘October Rain’ from submission amid charges that its references to Hamas massacre are too political

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Hosts Alesha Dixon, Graham Norton, Hannah Waddingham and Julia Sanina appear on stage during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2023 on May 13, 2023 at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, northern England. (Paul Ellis/AFP)
Hosts Alesha Dixon, Graham Norton, Hannah Waddingham and Julia Sanina appear on stage during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2023 on May 13, 2023 at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, northern England. (Paul Ellis/AFP)

Israel’s public broadcaster is locked in a disagreement with Eurovision organizers over the nature of the song it plans to submit to this year’s contest, raising the possibility that the Jewish state will back out of the competition.

After selecting Eden Golan to represent Israel at the contest — slated to be hosted in Malmo, Sweden in May — the Kan public broadcaster planned to unveil the song early next month once it had been selected by an internal panel. On Saturday, Kan noted that the song had been finalized and that once it was approved by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), as is generally standard, it would be announced.

But reports in recent days suggest that the EBU, the body that organizes the global singing competition, is pushing back against the selection as too political amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, on the backdrop of calls from many activists for Israel to be barred from competing at all.

In a terse statement on Wednesday, Kan said only that it was “in dialogue with the EBU over the song that will represent Israel at the Eurovision.” On Thursday, the broadcaster confirmed to The Times of Israel that it would not agree to switch its song if the EBU were to invalidate the current selection.

After leaks of some of the lyrics of the ballad, titled “October Rain” and seemingly referencing the Hamas massacre, Kan published the full lyrics of the song on Thursday evening. The lyrics are mostly in English, with a few final lines in Hebrew which read: “There is no air left to breathe/ No place, no me from day to day/ They were all good kids, every one of them.” The English lyrics include parts reading “Writers of the history/ Stand with me/ Look into my eyes and see/ People go away but never say goodbye,” as well as a repeated section reading “I’m still wet from the October rain/ October rain.”

A spokesperson for the Eurovision told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that “the EBU is currently in the process of scrutinizing the lyrics, a process which is confidential between the EBU and the broadcaster until a final decision has been taken.” The statement noted that if a song is “deemed unacceptable,” then Kan would have the opportunity to submit a new song.

Eden Golan (Shai Franco)

According to official Eurovision bylaws, songs cannot have any political message or nature, and the contest bills itself as “a non-political event,” though many observers note that geopolitics routinely plays a role in the annual competition.

In 2016, Ukraine won with the song “1944,” a haunting ballad about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Joseph Stalin, which was widely seen as a comment on the Russian annexation of Crimea two years earlier. The EBU said at the time, however, that the song did not contain “political speech” and it was allowed to compete.

When the Eurovision was held in Tel Aviv in 2019, Iceland’s contestant, Hatari, unveiled a Palestinian flag during the live show, garnering Iceland’s public broadcaster a fine and sanction from the EBU.

Likud’s Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar said Wednesday that the EBU’s “intention to invalidate Israel’s Eurovision song is scandalous.”

In a post on X, Zohar wrote that “Israel’s song which Eden Golan will perform is a moving song, which expresses the spirits of the people and the country during these days, and is not political.” Zohar added that he hopes the EBU will “continue to act professionally and neutrally, and not to let politics affect art.”

Noa Kirel of Israel during the flag ceremony at the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool, England, May 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

The dispute over the song comes amid months of calls for Israel to be barred from taking part in the contest amid growing international criticism of its war against Hamas in Gaza. The EBU, however, has repeatedly dismissed any such calls and maintained that Israel will be allowed to participate.

Calls have been notably strong from artists and activists in Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, with petitions circulating calling for Israel to be barred and for their own nations to drop out if it is not. Finland’s public broadcaster announced this week that despite its belief that Israel should not be allowed to participate, it will still compete itself this year.

Iceland is slated to select its own contestant next weekend, and is widely expected to pick Jerusalem-born Palestinian artist Bashar Murad, setting up a potential Israeli-Palestinian showdown on the stage in Sweden.

This year’s Eurovision is to be held from May 7-9 in Malmo after Sweden won last year’s competition in Liverpool.

Israel has competed in the Eurovision since 1973, and has won four times, in 1978, 1978, 1998 and most recently in 2018 with Netta Barzilai’s “Toy.” Last year famed pop star Noa Kirel represented the Jewish state and nabbed third place with “Unicorn.”

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