Jerusalem minister slams decision to host Eurovision in Tel Aviv

Elkin accuses Kan broadcaster of abandoning capital; but Netanyahu and others welcome announcement that contest will be held in Tel Aviv

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Zeev Elkin, speaks at the Jerusalem Center for Public and State Issues, on September 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Zeev Elkin, speaks at the Jerusalem Center for Public and State Issues, on September 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin on Thursday censured the decision to host next year’s Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv and not the Israeli capital, even as other politicians welcomed the announcement.

Ministers had initially insisted that the competition be held in Jerusalem after Israel won hosting rights in May, but most backed off after the European Broadcasting Union reportedly expressed concerns over politicizing the song competition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that even in Tel Aviv “it will be an excellent Eurovision.”

“Tel Aviv is an international city, a vibrant city, and the whole world will see it and Israel,” he said in a statement.

But Elkin, who is running for mayor of Jerusalem, said in a statement that he was “sorry” to hear about the decision made by the Israel Public Broadcaster Kan and the EBU to hold the contest in Tel Aviv.

While he was “not surprised by the position of the Europeans,” he accused Kan of abandoning Jerusalem.

Holding the 2019 competition in Tel Aviv represents “a missed opportunity to strengthen the status of Jerusalem in the world and contribute to the development of the city,” Elkin said.

Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, who oversees the Kan public broadcaster which will broadcast the event, also welcomed the decision, saying, “There’s no city more fitting to host a cultural event of this magnitude…I’m sure the implementation will be perfect and will showcase Israel in all its splendor.”

In her own statement, Culture Minister Miri Regev, who had previously led the campaign for the competition to take place in Jerusalem, accepted the move, but said she still believed it was “right” to hold the event in Jerusalem.

“As I said at the beginning of the process, I thought it was right that Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, would host the Eurovision Song Contest,” she lamented. “Since the decision over hosting the Eurovision Song Contest has been made, I have no doubt that the State of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv will host the Eurovision Song Contest in the best and most respectful way possible.”

Regev had initially vocally insisted on holding the popular event in Jerusalem. But Netanyahu later instructed his government not to politicize the event, fearing it could cause Israel to lose the chance of hosting altogether. Israeli ultra-Orthodox leaders had also demanded that contest rehearsals not be held on the Sabbath in Jerusalem, against Eurovison regulations that bar any type of religious restrictions.

Organizers of the Eurovision contest said that Tel Aviv had beaten out rival bids from Jerusalem and Eilat to secure the globally watched event.

“We received three strong bids, but in the end we decided that Tel Aviv has the overall best setup to host the biggest entertainment show in the world,” Jon Ola Sand, executive supervisor of the contest, said in a video released Thursday.

The contest will take place at the EXPO Tel Aviv International Convention Center — also known as the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds — with the first semifinal to be held on May 14, 2019, followed by the second semifinal on May 16 and the grand finale on Saturday, May 18.

Israel won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in two decades on May 12, when Netta Barzilai snagged first place with the women’s empowerment anthem “Toy.”

Barzilai’s victory won Israel the right to host next year’s Eurovision competition — an event expected to bring many thousands of fans and worldwide exposure to the Jewish state.

But the event has also been accompanied by pressure and controversy, with critics of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians calling for a boycott of the contest.

Israel’s singer Netta Barzilai celebrates with the trophy after winning the final of the 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, on May 12, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Francisco LEONG)

Last week, organizers sent a letter to the Israeli government conditioning Israel’s hosting of the 2019 event on a governmental guarantee that it will grant visas regardless of visitors’ political opinions and let contestants hold general rehearsals on Shabbat.

While the demands would seem standard and straightforward in the case of any other country, in Israel, they could force the government to change some current policies and possibly clash with ultra-Orthodox coalition members.

After representatives of the European Broadcasting Union toured the country last month for possible venues — naming Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Eilat as possibilities — its director sent an official letter to Netanyahu with the list of demands.

Israel is required, according to the list, to grant visas and let visitors travel in Israel with no restrictions, regardless of their political leanings.

The preliminary logo of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Israel, to be used until the host city is known. (Courtesy/European Broadcasting Union)

The government must also grant absolute freedom of press and freedom of speech to all participants and all delegations during their visit, the letter said.

The EBU letter also demanded that Israel lift any religious restriction on holding events related to the contest on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, which begins Friday night and ends on Saturday evening.

The letter also demanded that the Kan public broadcaster be given complete independence in holding the broadcast.

A spat between the Kan public broadcaster and the government over funding had cast doubt on whether the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest would indeed take place in the Jewish state, but a last-ditch deal reached last month seemed to clear the way for Israel to host the competition.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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