Israel’s ‘different’ Eurovision winner has a message for Jerusalem too

2019 contest can highlight need for tolerance in a city where religious pluralism is a battlefield issue, ads with women are defaced, and a teen was fatally stabbed at Pride Parade

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israel's Netta Barzilai celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon, Portugal, May 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
Israel's Netta Barzilai celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon, Portugal, May 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

This was always going to be a tumultuous week for Israel, with our capital in the eye of the storm.

Jerusalem Day on Sunday — when celebrations of Israel’s reunification of the city in the 1967 war often spill over into violence between Jew and Arab in a capital that, in reality, is far from united.

US embassy inauguration day on Monday — with President Donald Trump coming through on his promise to formalize his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by moving the embassy from Tel Aviv. Hundreds of guests will be attending the ceremony, including a huge American delegation, and Israel’s security forces are on full alert facing threats of violence in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“Nakba” Day on Tuesday — the annual Palestinian commemoration of what they regard as the “catastrophe” caused by the establishment of Israel 70 years ago. Gaza’s Hamas terrorist rulers are encouraging Gazans to march on the border fence and break through in their masses en route to the “liberation of Palestine.”

And who knows what else on other frontiers, with Iran bent on “retaliation” for Israel’s air assault on its military infrastructure in Syria last week, smarting over the humiliation of having its nuclear weapons archive purloined by the Mossad from under its nose in Tehran and its duplicity incontrovertibly proven, and fuming at Trump for withdrawing from the nuclear deal that was rewarding it so handsomely for partially and temporarily suspending its pursuit of the bomb.

As it turned out, however, the drama kicked off even earlier than expected, on Saturday night, when Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision Song Contest with a demonstrably irresistible song at least partly highlighting female empowerment amid its chicken noises. Overwhelmed by her victory but still retaining her composure, Barzilai in her moments of triumph proved an admirable Israeli icon, praising her country, showing generosity to her defeated rivals, and hailing the contest and its voters for embracing the difference and diversity she champions.

“Thank you so much for choosing difference,” she enthused to the watching world (an estimated 200 million people). “Thank you so much for accepting differences between us. Thank you for celebrating diversity. Thank you. I love my country. Next time in Jerusalem.”

Unsurprisingly, the backlash was not long in coming. Anti-Israel activists, notably from the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, are vowing to utilize the fact that Jerusalem will now host next year’s contest to mount a major campaign highlighting ostensible Israeli “apartheid” policies regarding the Palestinians. (The charge does not withstand serious scrutiny: For all the complexity and argument surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the bottom line is that Israel does not claim sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, and its key caveat over partnering the Palestinians to statehood is the eminently reasonable demand that their state not come at the expense of ours.)

But Barzilai’s victory already constituted a stinging defeat for the BDS campaigners, who had urged Eurovision participants to boycott Israel’s entry by giving it zero points. In the event, the juries from the participating nations elevated Israel to an impressive third place, and it was then the viewers’ votes in those 43 countries that lifted Barzilai into top spot — a win by genuine public acclaim.

Eurovision nerds spend hours analyzing the politics behind the votes, and there was certainly national self-interest at play in some of the scoring, but the vast margin of Israel’s victory — with 529 points, compared to runner-up Cyprus’s 436 — underlined that this was a genuine phenomenon, a song and an artist that captured the imagination, and whose supporters would not be deterred. (The contest’s official video of Barzilai’s performance had almost five million YouTube views in its first 12 hours.)

“How great is it that we won the Eurovision,” Barzilai enthused in Hebrew at her winner’s press conference. “How great that we got to change the image [of Israel]… We deserve it.”

Shira Banki. (Courtesy)

Indeed, the singer and her theme showcase a very different Israel from the widespread international mis-perception of the country as primarily a combat zone — albeit a democratic, feisty, innovative one. But we are not without our flaws, and if next year’s contest is indeed hosted in Jerusalem, it could usefully highlight the imperative for tolerance in a city where religious pluralism is a battlefield issue, advertisements featuring women can be banned from buses and are routinely defaced, and where 16-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed to death at the Pride Parade three years ago.

Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem who rapidly hailed Barzilai’s victory and promised to put on a great Eurovision next year, won’t actually be running the city by then. He’s stepping down ahead of the October municipal elections, and aiming for national office. One has to hope that the differences and diversities hailed by Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest winner will be firmly protected under the next mayor, when the contest won by the admirable Netta Barzilai comes to our endlessly tumultuous capital in 2019.

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