Politics takes center stage as Israel hosts Eurovision

Amid the threat of Palestinian rockets, calls to boycott the event, high-priced tickets, and low fan attendance… the show goes on

Kobi Marimi, Israel's contestant, walks on the Orange Carpet, during and opening event of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on May 12, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Kobi Marimi, Israel's contestant, walks on the Orange Carpet, during and opening event of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on May 12, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

As host of this year’s Eurovision, Israel has capitalized on the hugely popular song contest to present itself as a tolerant and cosmopolitan country that is winning increased acceptance on the world stage. But despite Israel’s best branding efforts, the kitschy festival is clouded in political conflict and controversy.

Palestinian terrorists bombarded southern Israel with hundreds of rockets during a bloody round of fighting last week, raising concerns that the contest could be disrupted by violence. The Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel has been urging tourists and artists to stay home. Even an Israeli promotional video for the contest appears to have backfired, drawing accusations of anti-Semitism and misogyny.

“There’s definitely more controversy around Israel’s contest than past ones,” said John Kennedy O’Connor, who wrote the official history of Eurovision.

Eurovision debuted in the wake of World War II to heal a divided continent. Over the years, the earnest show of European unity has mushroomed into a campy, over-the-top spectacle that brings together acts from 41 countries, including those with little or no connection to Europe, such as Turkey and Australia. In the final round, TV viewers choose the winner by casting votes via text messages.

Israel earned the right to host after Israeli singer Netta Barzilai carried off last year’s prize with her spunky pop anthem “Toy.” Perhaps anticipating controversy, organizers decided to hold the contest in Tel Aviv — Israel’s freewheeling cultural capital known for its beaches and gay-friendly lifestyle — instead of contested, conservative Jerusalem.

People gaze at a sculpture in the form of Israeli singer Netta Barzilai, winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, created by Israeli artist Nirit Levav Packer, in Tel Aviv on May 12, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

O’Connor described hosting Eurovision as a “golden opportunity” for a small country like Israel trying to sell itself as a holiday destination.

“Israel can take control of its image and say, ‘Look, we’re bringing nations together and putting on a great show,'” he said.

But almost immediately, the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which promotes boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, began calling on performers to pull out of the contest over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Dozens of European artists, led by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, signed a letter calling for the contest to be moved elsewhere. Demonstrations erupted outside television studios at a number of national finals. Boycott activists stormed the stage during France’s semi-final round. Iceland’s performers have vowed to leverage their platform to show the “face of the occupation.”

Although none of the national broadcasters or performers have quit the competition, the BDS movement has drawn international attention to topics that Israel had hoped to avoid.

Adding to tensions, the contest coincides with the day that Palestinians commemorate as the anniversary of their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

Scores of demonstrations to mark the day of mourning and protest Eurovision are planned throughout the country and in the Palestinian territories. This week, a left-wing Israeli activist group hung a banner on a Tel Aviv highway promoting political tours of the West Bank. Split between a beachfront lifeguard station and an Israeli military watchtower, the billboard reads, “Dare to Dream of Freedom,” a play on this year’s Eurovision motto.

A billboard showing Tel Aviv and part of Israel’s security barrier is seen on a main highway, ahead of the Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 12, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Palestinian factions in Gaza are mobilizing a mass march toward the Israeli border fence on May 15. Last year’s Nakba Day protests in Gaza, following the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, led to the deaths of over 60 Palestinians by Israeli fire. Israel says it is defending its border and accuses Hamas terrorists of using the crowds as cover for attacks.

Whether it was falling rockets, mounting boycott calls, or simply prohibitive ticket and travel costs for some European fans, the Tel Aviv Hotel Association said the contest has attracted far fewer foreign visitors than expected.

The association’s director, Oded Grofman, estimated that hotels would see around 5,000 visitors, well below Eurovision’s forecast of 15,000. Portuguese tourism authorities claimed last year’s songfest in Lisbon drew 90,000 people.

Grofman said the difficulty of travel to Israel, combined with online box office glitches, inflated room rates, and steep ticket prices all helped drive down demand. Although last week’s Gaza fighting resulted only in minor cancellations, he said political volatility may have dissuaded all but the most loyal fans.

“All the time, we get to the same point…where our being a normal country depends on the choices of Hamas,” said Izhar Cohen, who won Israel’s first Eurovision crown in 1978.

Cohen was set to perform alongside other former winners at a prelude concert in central Israel last week, but the event, which hoped to draw thousands of fans, was postponed until June, due to Palestinian rocket fire.

Israel has poured over $5.6 million into Eurovision security, “significantly more” than previous years, according to Sharon Ben-David, the Eurovision spokeswoman for Israel’s public broadcast station. Tens of thousands of police will patrol the contest throughout the week.

Fans attend the opening event of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on May 12, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Neil Farren, a Eurovision commentator live-blogging contest preparations in Tel Aviv, said the visibly heightened security and briefings on air raid sirens and bomb shelters likely rattled some contenders, who have so far remained tight-lipped about the political situation.

During a testy press conference last week, an Israeli moderator cut off a reporter who tried to ask performers about their fears of Palestinian rocket attacks, insisting business would continue as usual.

A promotional musical video released Friday by the contest’s Israeli television hosts tried to tackle the challenges head-on, poking fun at the country’s stereotypes as a land of war and occupation, religious tensions and exorbitant prices.

But critics say the tongue-and-cheek video went too far, promoting anti-Semitic tropes and glossing over the conflict with the Palestinians. At one point, the host refers to the country’s “lovely beaches,” but the English subtitles say “lovely bitches.” It was not immediately clear whether it was an error or an attempt to make fun of his accent.

The songfest has weathered storms of controversy before, said O’Connor, the Eurovision historian.

When Azerbaijan hosted in 2012, mass protests against government repression erupted at the event. Russia faced boycott calls over its anti-gay laws 10 years ago. Northern Ireland hosted at the height of its violent sectarian violence. Former Soviet republics often try to skirt the contest’s ban on politics through veiled jabs at Russia in their tunes.

Despite the shadows hanging over Israel’s festivities, preparations are moving forward, with rival nations rehearsing their pop acts and Madonna confirming her appearance in defiance of BDS pressure.

“This year,” said O’Connor, “it sounds like it will be very Israeli.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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