Eurovision officially launches in Tel Aviv with first semifinal
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Eurovision officially launches in Tel Aviv with first semifinal

Wildly popular pop music contest puts Israel, and its controversies, in the spotlight; Madonna lands in Israel; watch the whole show here

The first of the two semifinals in the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, with participants from 17 nations competing for the right to compete in Saturday’s final and hoping to bring the contest home to their country next year.

Israel earned the right to host after Israeli singer Netta Barzilai carried off last year’s prize with her spunky pop anthem “Toy.” Israeli contestant Kobi Marimi will be attempting to follow in Barzilai’s shoes by bringing Israel a second title in as many years. He faces an uphill battle, with oddsmakers currently predicting he will come in 25th place.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Tel Aviv’s purpose-built Eurovision Village for a live outdoor broadcast of the first semifinal contest.

Perhaps anticipating controversy, organizers decided to hold the contest in Tel Aviv — Israel’s freewheeling cultural capital known for its beaches and gay-friendly lifestyle — instead of the capital, the contested, conservative Jerusalem.

One of the acts competing on Tuesday, Iceland’s Hatari, which sings a message of anti-capitalism while dressed in spikes, leather and chains, said it was planning to show the “face of the occupation” in its performance, despite the pop music contest’s ban on politics. But the performance went off without the threatened on-stage protest.

Hatari initially claimed its song entry, “Hatred Will Prevail,” was a political statement against Israel’s government, though the song makes no reference to Israel. The band’s members have also challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a friendly match of traditional Icelandic wrestling.

The hosts of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, Bar Rephaeli, Erez Tal, and Lucy Ayoub on stage during a rehearsal ahead of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv on May 13, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The second semifinal is on Thursday, followed by the final on Saturday evening.

Coming just days after the latest skirmish between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, security is high at the contest in the Tel Aviv Expo.

Israel has poured over $5.6 million into security, “significantly more” than previous years, according to Sharon Ben-David, the Eurovision spokeswoman for Israel’s public broadcaster Kan. Tens of thousands of police will patrol the contest throughout the week.

Neil Farren, a Eurovision commentator live-blogging contest preparations in Tel Aviv, said the visibly heightened security and briefings on air raid sirens and bomb shelters likely rattled some contenders, who have so far remained tight-lipped about the political situation.

Israeli contestant Kobi Marimi walks on the Orange Carpet, during the opening event of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on May 12, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But at least Madonna is coming.

The Queen of Pop landed in Israel on Tuesday evening after she confirmed she had rejected calls for her to boycott Eurovision, saying she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda.”

The Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel had urged artists to skip Eurovision in Tel Aviv. In a statement, it accused Madonna of “artwashing” and urged her to cancel.

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