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Two weeks ago, the organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest, made a startling announcement: The contest rules which have been in place for six decades should apply … unless, of course, a singer from Israel wins the contest …. and then, well, we need to rethink the matter.
Because an Israeli singer, Netta Barzilai, did in fact win the contest in Lisbon in mid-May, the European broadcasters had a dilemma: Follow the contest’s long-standing rules, or develop and apply a new, special set of rules that only apply to Israel.
To understand the controversy, and how it provides a view into the wider public diplomacy challenges that Israel faces each day, some background is needed.
The Eurovision Song Contest, colloquially known as Eurovision, is an international song competition held primarily among the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union.
While it predates American Idol by four and a half decades, American viewers who are unfamiliar with the European contest will instantly understand the format: Each participating country submits an original song to be performed on live television and radio, and permits audience members to cast votes for songs from other countries in order to determine the winner. Over 40 countries are eligible to compete, drawing in 200 million viewers each year, and it is credited with catapulting such artists as Celine Dion and Abba into super-stardom.
Among the bundle of bragging rights that accompany a victory in the balloting, is the privilege to serve as host country for the next year’s contest. Understandably, this is a multi-million Euro prize for the music and tourism industries in the country that is lucky enough to field the winning artist and song.
And while Barzilai took the top honors in this year’s contest, and mindful of the rules, she even reprised the concluding blessing of the Passover Seder during her victory speech — “Next year in Jerusalem!” — contest organizers have publicly declared that Jerusalem might not be the site for the 2019 Contest. They took to social media to warn the millions of Eurovision fans not to “go booking your flights just yet, for official updates on where and when it’ll take place, keep an eye out for announcements on our official channels.”
During the collective head-scratching over the reason for this sudden and unexpected about-face on the regular practices, it was revealed that Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, and perhaps others, might boycott the contest if it was held in Jerusalem. Cyprus Daily reports that news of the snag in Jerusalem’s plans has raised the hopes among Cypriots that they will have the chance to parlay their second-place finish in this year’s contest into hosting the big event themselves next spring. Some Cypriots, fanning the discontent, believe that this year’s runner-up should enjoy the crown.
To my mind, this year’s contest, and the contretemps following Netta Barzilai’s victory, is a useful lens through which to view the broader Mideast conflict; on issues both large and small.
1. Israel is a modern, secular and thoroughly Western country: Netta Barzilai won the final round of balloting with a performance of the song “Toy;” a bouncy, electronic earworm of a tune that blends English lyrics with sprinkles of Japanese and Hebrew slang. In the song, she cries out to an overbearing lover that “I’m not your toy …. You stupid boy….” And, in an unselfconscious reference to her decidedly plus-size features, she declares “Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature…..” If there ever was a balladeer for the #MeToo movement, it is Netta.
2. The controversy over the contest venue is a barometer of the rising strength of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement and anti-Israel political correctness: For Israel’s critics, Netta is nothing short of a war criminal. The more fevered precincts of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement point out that during Barlzilai’s years of compulsory military service she served as a singer in the Navy Band — a troupe that toured Israel entertaining soldiers in combat units. As the critics reason, to joyfully sing to soldiers who later fight to secure Israel’s razor-thin borders, is unpardonable. Moreover, Barzilai’s donning of a corseted kimono for the final round of this year’s Eurovision contest, brands her as a cultural appropriator of the highest order.
It is important to note that Jerusalem has hosted the Eurovision Song Contest twice before — both in 1979 and 1999. Ireland and Sweden sent contestants to Jerusalem for both contests, and Iceland participated in the 1999 contest. Israel had security controls in the West Bank in 1979 and 1999, like today, and both of these contests predated the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. For those reasons, what has changed, or worsened, in Israel, is not altogether clear. A better explanation for the recent changes of heart are shifts in the political climates of Iceland, Ireland, and Sweden.
3. It would be a blow to the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement if the Eurovision contest proceeds as the Israelis hope: Revealing Jerusalem precisely as it is — a gleaming, modern, cosmopolitan, welcoming, pluralistic and diverse capital city — to 200 million television viewers across the globe is an advertisement that Israel’s enemies simply cannot abide. To showcase Jerusalem’s amenities, advances and cultural similarities to the capitals of Europe might be too much for them to bear.
One can only hope that the prayer Netta uttered when she was crowned is both a prophecy and a pledge: Bashana Haba’ah B’yerushalayim (Next Year in Jerusalem!) More than anyone first imagined, Netta’s fans will need those prayers.