'This year is not just another Eurovision... It's a mission'

Eurovision set to kick off in Sweden under shadow of anti-Israel protests, threats

Eden Golan to perform ‘Hurricane’ in competition’s 2nd semifinal Thursday, as Malmo police bring in reinforcements armed with submachine guns from Denmark, Norway due to high alert

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

Israel's Eden Golan (center) rehearsing her song 'Hurricane' ahead of the Eurovision in Malmo, Sweden, on April 30, 2024. (Sarah Louise Bennett/EBU)
Israel's Eden Golan (center) rehearsing her song 'Hurricane' ahead of the Eurovision in Malmo, Sweden, on April 30, 2024. (Sarah Louise Bennett/EBU)

The 2024 Eurovision will kick off on Tuesday evening in Malmo, Sweden, with the song contest heavily overshadowed by protests against Israel’s participation and a heavy security presence due to a range of threats.

Israel’s Eden Golan will not be performing until the second semifinal on Thursday, but organizers will be on high alert for disruptions as the first live semifinal takes place Tuesday, with thousands expected to attend anti-Israel rallies in Malmo throughout the week.

Golan is accompanied in Malmo by a heavy security presence, and is skipping most events throughout the week aside from the live shows and rehearsals. Last week, Israel raised further its own travel warning to the southern Swedish city, citing “a well-founded fear” that terrorists would target Israelis attending the competition. Golan and the rest of the Israeli delegation sat out the opening “turquoise carpet” event on Sunday evening, instead holding a small ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Swedish police have significantly stepped up security in Malmo, including bringing in reinforcements from neighboring Denmark and Norway who are expected to be heavily armed with submachine guns. Security will be high at the entrance to all official events, and participants will be banned from entering with bags — a policy in place at major events in Sweden since November.

Demonstrations will be tightly controlled and, as a precaution, jail cells have been emptied and detainees sent elsewhere in Sweden to make room in case of a surge in arrests. Malmo Police told The Times of Israel that no demonstrations will be allowed in the area surrounding the Eurovision arena.

Like every year, flags of countries that are not represented at the Eurovision contest are banned from the audience at the live shows, which includes the Palestinian flag, something that has raised ire among activists in particular this year. Last week, the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the competition, reiterated that it would remove any Palestinian flags or protest symbols at the show.

The stage at the Malmo Arena for the 68th Eurovision Song Contest, seen ahead of the competition in Malmo, Sweden. (Peppe_Andersson/SVT)

Swedish singer Eric Saade, who will be among the artists performing in the opening act of the first Eurovision semifinal on Tuesday evening, spoke out this week against the ban on the Palestinian flag but defended his participation. Saade, whose father is Palestinian, called the EBU “disgraceful” and accused it of disseminating “Israeli propaganda,” adding that “it is more crucial than ever for me to be present on that stage.” It is not clear if Saade will attempt to use his time on stage to share a political message.

At the 2019 Eurovision hosted in Tel Aviv, Icelandic band Hatari broke the rules by displaying the Palestinian flag during the vote tallying portion of the live grand final; Iceland’s public broadcaster was issued a 5,000 euro fine for the stunt. That same year, Madonna, who performed in the interval act, also broke the regulations by having two of her dancers perform while wearing Israeli and Palestinian flags on their backs. The EBU expressed its disapproval but took no other action.

A ‘Hurricane’ on stage

Anti-Israel activists rallied for months to have Israel barred from the 2024 contest, a move the European Broadcasting Union rejected, and also to have other countries back out in protest of Israel’s participation, which also failed. While Golan has faced the majority of online harassment, other Eurovision participants have been targeted by activists angry that they did not drop out of the competition.

Come Thursday, Golan will be performing “Hurricane,” a largely English power ballad whose lyrics hint at the grief and strife in Israel post-October 7, including “someone stole the moon tonight/ took my light/ everything is black and white” and “I’m still broken from this hurricane.” The song was approved by the EBU after it rejected an earlier version, titled “October Rain,” on charges it was too political. Israel’s Kan public broadcaster originally said it would refuse to rework the song, but later capitulated, in part after President Isaac Herzog intervened.

In an interview with AFP last week, Golan said that “Hurricane” works on several different levels, and at its core is about a woman going through a personal crisis.

“Any person who listens to it can connect to the song on their level,” she said. “Our people, our country, connects to it on a very different, deeper emotional level because of the tragedy we’ve been through.”

Speaking with the Kan public broadcaster on Friday, Golan said she felt a sense of mission with her participation in the contest.

“This year is not just another Eurovision, it’s not just another song, it’s so much more than that,” she said. “It’s a mission, it’s also to show that we’re here, to show our voice — it’s just so much more than to sing a song on stage.”

With the high level of scrutiny and tensions, it seems unlikely that Golan will attempt to make a statement on stage beyond the message sent by the song — with all contestants barred from making political statements during the contest. Photos from Golan’s on-stage rehearsals do not show her wearing the yellow hostage pin that she often sports.

A second Israeli

Golan won’t be the only Israeli competing at the Eurovision this year: Tali Golergant, representing Luxembourg, was born in Israel and raised in Chile, Argentina and the tiny European nation, which is returning to the song contest this year after a 30-year hiatus.

Golergant has tried to stay away from the controversy surrounding Israel and the ongoing war, although she noted in an interview with The Times of Israel last month that she has “gotten a lot of hate [online], which I think is so unfortunate because this is a contest about music and togetherness… antisemitism – like I’ve had it always, moving around the world.”

In a message on Instagram ahead of Passover, Golergant wrote that “my heart goes out to all those who weren’t free to have their seder dinner with their families last night like I did yesterday,” sharing a yellow ribbon symbol, which has become a symbol of the hostages being held by Hamas. “I will keep praying for the safe return of all hostages and keep praying for a world with more empathy, love, togetherness, and peace.”

Tali Golergant rehearsing her Eurovision song ‘Fighter’ at the Malmo Arena in Malmo, Sweden, on May 1, 2024, ahead of the competition. (Alma Bengtsson/EBU)

Taking in the odds

Amid all the politics and security concerns, there is also still a music competition taking place. There’s virtually no chance Israel will win, and not just because of the geopolitical playing field. The often-reliable betting odds have predicted either Croatia, with “Rim Tim Tagi Dim” by Baby Lasagna, or Switzerland, sending “The Code” by Nemo, taking the top spot, with the Netherlands’ quirky and catchy “Europapa” by Joost Klein a heavy fan favorite online.

Israel is currently ranked 8th in the betting odds out of the 37 participating countries, but despite the high position, Golan could still be facing an uphill battle to qualify for the grand final on Saturday night. Unlike the final, there are no jury votes in the semifinals, only televotes from the public, and it is hard to predict how much weight voters will give to politics and where their sympathies lie.

Many of the most diehard Eurovision fans reject any injection of politics into the competition, and Golan has received praise for her strong vocals and the emotion of the song. In its roundup of all 37 entries, the BBC said “Hurricane” was the “best of the bunch” of this year’s ballads, calling it “a stirringly emotional piano ballad.”

Golan has skipped all of the many pre-Eurovision events in other countries ahead of the competition. Most of the major Eurovision news sites and fan blogs have significantly cut back on their coverage of Israel’s entry this year, largely ignoring Golan while heaping attention on the other contestants.

Golan, 20, a native of Israel who lived in Russia with her family for more than a decade as a child, was selected to represent Israel by winning this year’s season of “Hakochav Haba” (Rising Star).

Last year, Israel broke with tradition and sent an already well-established pop star, Noa Kirel, to the contest, landing in an impressive 3rd place with her song “Unicorn.”

Israel’s most recent win was in 2018, when Netta Barzilai took the top spot with “Toy,” leading to the 2019 competition being hosted in Tel Aviv. Israel also won in 1998 with Dana International’s “Diva,” 1979 with Milk and Honey’s “Hallelujah” and 1978 with Izhar Cohen’s “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.”

Israel has been taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest since 1973, winning four times and skipping the competition three times when it clashed with either Holocaust Remembrance Day or Memorial Day.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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