Thousands of anti-Israel protesters march in Malmo ahead of Eurovision semifinal

Smaller group of mostly local Jews gather nearby with Israeli, Swedish flags to voice support ahead of Eden Golan’s performance; Greta Thunberg joins pro-Palestinian rally

Protesters attend an anti-Israel rally ahead of the second semi-final at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Protesters attend an anti-Israel rally ahead of the second semi-final at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Thousands of people gathered in Malmo, Sweden on Thursday evening to protest against Israel’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, hours before Eden Golan was set to appear on stage in the second semifinal, while a much smaller group of mostly local Jews counterprotested nearby.

The anti-Israel protesters amassed in the historic Stortorget square near Malmo’s 16th-century town hall, and began marching toward a park about an hour away by foot.

Protesters waved Palestinian flags and set off colored smoke flares, amid chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and “Israel is a terror state.” Police estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 people took part. Among those in the crowd was Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The event marked the first of two large rallies against Israel organized by Stop Israel, a loosely built network of about 60 political groups on the far left, including the Left Party, which holds seats in the Swedish Parliament, as well as Fridays for Future, the Swedish climate movement spearheaded by Thunberg.

“Young people are leading the way and showing the world how we should react to this,” Thunberg, 21, said, wrapped in a keffiyeh, the traditional scarf that has become a symbol of support for Palestinians.

Both Stop Israel and Fridays for Future declined interview requests from The Times of Israel.

People protest at an anti-Israel rally ahead of the second semifinal at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

On its website, Stop Israel published a number of anti-Israel slogans officially allowed at Thursday’s rally, including “From the river to the sea,” as well as calls for revolution, intifada and the Palestinians’ right to evict Jews from the Holy Land.

A slogan not permitted by the organizers, but heard at one segment of the march, was “Khaybar, Khaybar, ya yahud!” a saying popularized during the First Intifada referencing a centuries-old Muslim conquest of a Jewish area.

A protester stands on an Israeli flag during an anti-Israel demonstration ahead of the second semi-final at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Overshadowed by the much larger anti-Israel rally, a group of mostly local Jews gathered nearby to show support for Israel ahead of the semifinal. In a small square in the city center, surrounded entirely by heavily armed police, about 150 people listened to the song “Hurricane” by Eden Golan — which she was set to perform Thursday evening — while waving Swedish and Israeli flags.

Before the event began, smaller groups of pro-Palestinian protesters attempted to break through the police lines, but were successfully held back by Swedish police, who were reinforced by colleagues from Denmark. Some pro-Israel protesters who had planned to attend were not able to do so due to the security presence, which caused some irritation among participants.

Jews gather in Malmo to show support for Israel ahead of the Eurovision semifinal, May 9, 2024. (Lars Avner Aqurette)

If Golan advances to the grand final, a second mass demonstration against Israel is planned for Saturday evening in the southern Swedish city.

There is high security around the delegations from all the countries, according to Malmo police. “We’re keeping a bit of an extra eye on Israel of course, because of the situation,” Lotta Svensson, a police incident commander, told Reuters on Sunday.

Israel’s government warned its citizens of a “tangible concern” that Israelis could be targeted for attack in Malmo during the contest.

Contest organizers, who try to keep Eurovision a non-political event, have rejected calls to bar Israel over the conduct of its war against Hamas.

But they told Israel to change the lyrics of its entry, originally titled “October Rain” in apparent reference to Hamas’s brutal October 7 massacre in southern Israel that left some 1,200 people dead and 252 kidnapped, and triggered the war in Gaza. The song was renamed “Hurricane” and Golan was allowed to remain in the contest.

Some audience members attending a dress rehearsal on Wednesday could be heard booing during Golan’s performance.

Videos posted to social media showed noisy disapproval as she took to the stage during the rehearsal — to which discounted tickets are sold to the public — as well as when she switched from English to Hebrew during “Hurricane.” The singer was also met with applause from many in the crowd.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message wishing Golan good luck ahead of her performance on Thursday.

“You’re competing not just at the Eurovision in a proud and very impressive manner, but you are competing successfully in the face of an ugly wave of antisemitism — and you are standing up to it and representing the State of Israel with huge honor,” Netanyahu said in a video message.

“When they ‘boo’ you, we are shouting ‘hooray’ for you,” he added.

Israel’s contestant Eden Golan performs the song ‘Hurricane’ during the dress rehearsal for the second semifinal at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden, May 8, 2024. (Martin Meissner/AP)

Golan says she hopes her performance will help to unite people.

“It’s a super important moment for us, especially this year,” she told Reuters in an interview this week. “I feel honored to have the opportunity to be the voice of my country.”

The Eurovision is usually watched by more than 150 million people around the world, and is often referred to as music’s biggest stage. The competition is hugely popular in Israel, which has won it four times, most recently in 2018. Bookmakers rank this year’s entry in the top 10.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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