Twenty thousand people made their way to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Monday night to welcome returning Eurovision champion Netta Barzilai at a hastily arranged victory concert.
At the tail end of a day of deadly clashes in Gaza and the tense relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, Rabin Square filled with flag-draped fans and girls sporting Barzilai’s trademark Mickey Mouse buns. Members of the crowd threw up their hands and danced, when the winning song, “Toy,” blasted from the speakers before and after Barzilai’s quick appearance.
“Tel Aviv, I love you! Look what we did together!” an emotional Barzilai told the crowd, songwriters Doron Medalie and Stav Berger alongside her onstage. “Look at everyone together! We have such a reason to be happy!”
Barzilai won the Eurovision song competition on Saturday night with her catchy female empowerment anthem. Her victory was Israel’s fourth win at the Eurovision since the contest began. The last time Israel won was in 1998, with “Diva,” by transgender performer Dana International.
“We write our own stories, I’m proud of all of you and I’m proud of our family,” she said, before launching into the well-known anthem twice in a row.
Roni, 11, said everyone was talking about Netta in school, and that she and her friends did learn an important message from the song.
“We learned that girls aren’t toys, they’re just as strong as the boys are,” she said. “We also talked about how they bullied her for being different when she was a kid and how we shouldn’t bully people for being different.” Roni added that her Tel Aviv school played the song to mark the start of classes, rather than the regular school bell.
Yosi Swed and Neta Keret spent hours making a chicken hat emblazoned with the word “TOY,” complete with feathers and bright colors in honor of the victory concert. Swed was on a flight from Bangkok during the Eurovision so he missed watching the competition live, though he said the flight attendant made an announcement to the entire plane listing the final results, prompting cheers.
He said that it was important to come out and celebrate even when the national focus had shifted to other news, and despite the high death toll earlier in the day in the Gaza clashes. “We are a country that always has a reason to be stressed, but we are a country that knows how to celebrate,” said Swed.
He said he was heartened that international viewers overwhelmingly chose Barzilai, who handily won the popular vote.
“People need to judge Israel as a whole country, not only by the security and political situation, but as a place with so much culture and creative individuals,” he said. “We are not perfect, but there are good people here.”
Swed said he was disappointed that the Eurovision will likely be in Jerusalem next year.
“It needs to be in Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv is the symbol of acceptance and tolerance, Jerusalem is the symbol of the government and intolerance,” he said. “[Eurovision] shouldn’t be about our politicians.”
Swed noted that the communities Barzilai celebrates – people with differences, including many members of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community who identify with her song – don’t feel welcome in Jerusalem. “I mean, I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing this hat in the street in Jerusalem,” he said, gesturing to the chicken perched atop his head.
Ehud Ahadan, 72, said he stayed up until 4 a.m. the night of the Eurovision competition, even though he wasn’t surprised that Barzilai won. “All the betting was in her favor, there were 25 million views on YouTube,” he said. “And it’s not just any song, it’s such an awesome song.”