Politics (mostly) kept off center stage as Israel hosts Eurovision mega-event
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Politics (mostly) kept off center stage as Israel hosts Eurovision mega-event

As expected, Netherlands wins contest and hometown crooner Kobi Marimi finishes close to last, but fears of pro-Palestinian protests taking over largely fail to materialize

  • Spectators watch the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Spectators watch the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands celebrates winning the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with the song "Arcade" in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. Behind him is 2018's winner, Israeli singer Netta Barzilai. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands celebrates winning the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with the song "Arcade" in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. Behind him is 2018's winner, Israeli singer Netta Barzilai. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Kobi Marimi of Israel performs the song "Home" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Kobi Marimi of Israel performs the song "Home" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Israeli Netta Barzilai, the winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest performs "Nana Banana" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Israeli Netta Barzilai, the winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest performs "Nana Banana" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Kate Miller-Heidke of Australia, center, performs the song "Zero Gravity" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Kate Miller-Heidke of Australia, center, performs the song "Zero Gravity" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • John Lundvik of Sweden performs the song "Too Late For Love" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    John Lundvik of Sweden performs the song "Too Late For Love" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Zena of Belarus performs the song "Like It" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Zena of Belarus performs the song "Like It" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Bilal Hassani of France, right, performs the song "Roi" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Bilal Hassani of France, right, performs the song "Roi" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Luca Hanni of Switzerland performs the song 'She Got Me" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Luca Hanni of Switzerland performs the song 'She Got Me" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • A demonstrator wearing a mask, bearing the likeness of American singer Madonna, during a protest calling for a boycott of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)
    A demonstrator wearing a mask, bearing the likeness of American singer Madonna, during a protest calling for a boycott of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)
  • Miki of Spain performs the song "La Venda" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Miki of Spain performs the song "La Venda" during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • People watch the final of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest at a pub in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (Flash90)
    People watch the final of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest at a pub in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (Flash90)
  • Iceland's Hatari holding up Palestinian flags during Eurovision in Tel Aviv on May 19, 2019. (screen capture: YouTube)
    Iceland's Hatari holding up Palestinian flags during Eurovision in Tel Aviv on May 19, 2019. (screen capture: YouTube)

Tel Aviv hosted the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in decades Saturday, pulling off one of the largest international events the country has ever hosted. The tightly organized production brought worldwide attention to Israel and managed to stay on message despite fears it would become politicized.

A full house of 7,300 people packed into the Expo Tel Aviv convention center to watch 26 acts from across the Continent and elsewhere, with some 70,000 more fans watching at the Eurovision Village across town. An estimated 200 million viewers around the world tuned in for the annual song contest, known for being equal parts kitsch and national patriotism.

The Netherlands’ heavily favored Duncan Laurence won the contest with his soulful ballad “Arcade,” bringing the trophy to the country for the first time since 1975.

Israel’s Kobi Marimi finished in 23rd place, with his melancholy operatic “Home” failing to win over the jurors or voting public, but giving the hometown crowd something to cheer for a year after Netta Barzilai secured Israel’s fourth Eurovision win with the female empowerment pop hit “Toy.”

“This is to dreaming big. This is to music first, always,” Laurence said, as Barzilai handed him the trophy.

Eurovision debuted in the wake of World War II to help heal a divided continent with a display of earnest European unity, but the lead-up to this year’s contest had been fraught with fears that its non-political messaging would be overshadowed by pro-Palestinian protests, including calls for boycotts, worries of war breaking out with Gaza and complaints over high prices for tickets and accommodations keeping tourists away.

In the end, the protests were kept fairly small-scale, and mostly outside of the arena, with most fans ignoring the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s pleadings to avoid the show. Israel managed to keep tensions with Gaza from getting out of hand, less than two weeks after the sides exchanged some of the heaviest fire in years. While high costs did keep many away, organizers estimated some tens of thousands of people still visited Israel for the show, which also gave Israel an opportunity to present itself as a world-class tourist destination to a global audience.

Iceland’s Steam Punk bank Hatari had drawn attention for initially saying it would be “absurd” to participate in Israel because of the country’s policies toward the Palestinians and had vowed to use the Eurovision spotlight to expose the “face of the occupation.” In the end, the band members finished their performance without incident. Members of the band later held up Palestinian banners as their vote total was announced. A video posted by a member of the band showed security trying to confiscate the flags and the European Broadcast Union said the display contradicted its rules and may carry consequences, according to Reuters.

Pop diva Madonna, who was razzed by the public for a performance that saw her both off key and autotuned, was also zinged by the EBU for not steering clear of politics. Two of the singer’s backup dancers appeared onstage with Palestinian and Israeli flags pinned to their backs in a coexistence message at the end of a performance of the song “Future” from her forthcoming album “Madame X.”

The flag-wearing pair were the last two dancers to leave the stage at the end of the song, at which point Madonna and co-performer Quavo dramatically disappeared from the back of the stage as the words “WAKE UP” flashed on screen.

In response, the EBU said that the Israeli and Palestinian flags in Madonna’s performance had not been approved.

Madonna and Quavo sing “Future” at the Eurovision Song Contest as two dancers walk arm-in-arm with Israeli and Palestinian flags on their backs, May 18, 2019 (YouTube screenshot)

“This element of the performance was not cleared with the EBU and the Host Broadcaster, KAN. The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political event and Madonna had been made aware of this,” the EBU said, according to Reuters.

Politics had dogged the contest almost immediately after Barzilai held the trophy aloft in Lisbon on May 13, 2018, and crowed, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

While some government ministers had insisted the contest be held in the conservative Israeli capital, which has hosted it twice before, organizers in the end opted for freewheeling Tel Aviv. While the EBU said the decision was made solely based on Tel Aviv’s bid, there had been concerns that countries could refuse to participate in Jerusalem, or that Israel would use the contest as a tool to sell its hold over the city, part of which is also claimed by the Palestinians.

A demonstrator wearing a mask, bearing the likeness of American singer Madonna, during a protest calling for a boycott of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

Excitement in Tel Aviv for hosting the contest had run high, with a week of events preceding the grand finale and some 500,000 people attending the Eurovison Village, which featured concerts and other entertainment related to the song contest.

The event itself was hosted by a quartet of Israeli celebrities, including top model Bar Refaeli. Israel’s own Wonder Woman Gal Gadot also made a cameo video appearance.

The contest, which was first held in 1957 and which Israel has participated in since 1973, is known for campy and over the top displays. This year, that included a heavy dose of pyrotechnics, an Australian act that featured singer Kate Miller-Heidke and two backup singers swaying dozens of feet over the stage on stilts, and other spectacles, all of which seemed to go off without any major hitches.

Also performing were a slew of former winners and runners up, including Barzilai and 1998 winner Dana International. Gali Atari sang her 1978 winning song “Hallelujah” with several former iconic performers.

Israel has won the Eurovision four times and it has provided the country with some of its cultural touchstones. “Hallelujah” became the country’s unofficial national song after it won the contest for Israel when it hosted the event, and Dana International became a national hero and global transgender icon when she won with “Diva.”

Barzilai became a role model for plus-size women after her win last year. She has been unapologetic about her weight, the loud colors she wears, and the funky chicken moves and sounds that have become her trademark.

To maximize onscreen tension, performers are ranked by a mix of fan votes and professional juries. Spectators could not vote for their own country, but like-minded nations tend to fall into blocs that back their regional favorites, with politics meshing into art.

Netta Barzilai, the winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest performs “Nana Banana” during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Sweden’s soulful “Too Late for Love,” sung by John Lundvik, topped the professional jury vote and seemed to be on its way to carrying forward Sweden’s successful Eurovision track record 45 years after Swedish icons ABBA won with “Waterloo.”

As the reigning champion, Israel swept straight through to the finals — along with the five European countries that most heavily funded the event. The other 20 participants qualified through a pair of semifinal rounds.

Marimi, who became Israel’s entry after winning the “Rising Star” talent show but was seen as having little chance of winning, ended his rendition of “Home” by wiping tears from his eyes, and choked up as he tried to thank the crowd. Speaking to reporters later, he was upbeat despite the poor finish.

“I’m happy, it was really fun for me. I texted my family and told them to go home, that everything is good and they should not be worried,” he said. “We all cried, it was a roller coaster.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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