What is Eurovision and why is it so important this year?

- by Alexander Jones - 

On May 12, 2018, Israel's Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision Song Conquest with her song 'Toy'. Tradition holds that the winning country will host the competition the following year, so 2019's edition will take place next week in Tel Aviv. Non-Europeans are usually puzzled by what the contest is all about, and this year it takes on a political tone which makes things even more complicated, so we felt it was well worth exploring Eurovision more deeply in this week's blog.

Eurovision 2018 winner: Israel's Netta Barzilai
Since 1956, countries from a very generously defined Europe (as well as Israel, Azerbaijan won in 2011, Morocco has competed in the past, and most surprisingly, Australia was invited to join in 2015!) each submit one song which is performed and voted on during the week in semi finals, before the final on Saturday night, which this year will see 26 countries compete. The songs and artists are totally new every year and a mixture of fans and a professional jury from each country vote for their favourite act. The maximum point allocation is 12 and results are read in English and French, which  is why you might hear an Israeli say, "douze points!" if something is really good!

Even winning Eurovision songs are not usually 'good' in a musical sense, but are instead over the top, extremely camp, and often have very little to do with the country they are representing. The most famous Eurovision success story came in 1974 when a Swedish band turned a French military defeat in Belgium a hundred and fifty years earlier into a love song - sung in English! Abba became famous with spandex, glitter and lyrics like,  "My my / At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / Oh yeah / And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way / The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself". Most Eurovision acts are one hit wonders (if that!) although some more memorable artists from the past include Celine Dion representing Switzerland, the bearded, drag queen from Austrian Conchita Wurst or transgender Israeli Dana International.

Bigger European countries tend to not take Eurovision very seriously at all, but in smaller places - and certainly in Israel, where it is one of the few international events they regularly participate in which everyone else competing has full diplomatic relations with Israel - it is closely watched and has an important place in national pride.

Immediately after winning last year's contest, Netta Barzilai declared, "Next time in Jerusalem!", echoing both a well-known Jewish prayer but also drawing attention to Jerusalem's disputed status as capital of Israel. This was echoed soon after by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Culture Minister Miri Regev initially insisted that “if [Eurovision] can’t be in Jerusalem – we shouldn’t host it”. This was predictably just the beginning of a political storm surrounding almost every aspect of Israel's hosting of Eurovision. Following simultaneous protests from an unusual coalition of the conservative religious community in the Holy City, international left-wing activists, and those in charge of marketing Tel Aviv as the 'Gay Capital of the Middle East', the decision was eventually made to instead allow the liberal, coastal city to host the event after all.

Protests have taken place in several European countries
Calls from many Europeans to their respective broadcasters to boycott the contest did not dissipate with the move to Tel Aviv, however. In Ireland, Sweden and Australia political parties got behind the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to encourage a boycott of the event. Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters says, “until Palestinians can enjoy freedom, justice and equal rights, there should be no business-as-usual with the state that is denying them their basic rights”. BDS organisers themselves highlight Netanyahu's love for Barzilai as an Israeli cultural ambassador and say,

"Israel is shamelessly using Eurovision as part of its official Brand Israel strategy, which presents  'Israel’s prettier face' to whitewash and distract attention from its war crimes against Palestinians. Israel massacred 62 Palestinians in Gaza, including six children just two days after its 2018 Eurovision win. That same evening, Netta Barzilai performed a celebratory concert in Tel Aviv, hosted by the mayor, and said, “We have a reason to be happy.”"

In Spain, France, Germany and Denmark protesters disrupted selection events to varying degrees. Iceland's entry promises to protest the Occupation on stage, and despite regulations prohibiting political acts, says theirs will feature a Palestinian flag. Petitions were sent to the EBC from Malta, Sweden and the UK all calling for a boycott, but in the UK at least 100 celebrities signed a counter-petition saying that a cultural boycott is not the answer. Many have independently called BDS anti-Semitic and officially the petition states,

"We, the undersigned, believe that music is our shared language, one that transcends boundaries and brings people together under a common bond... We believe the cultural boycott movement is an affront to both Palestinians and Israelis who are working to advance peace through compromise, exchange, and mutual recognition. While we all may have differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the best path to peace, we all agree that a cultural boycott is not the answer."

It is undeniable that the Israeli government is using hosting Eurovision for propaganda purposes, just as it is undeniable that four Israelis and more than 20 Palestinians died in two days of conflict in and around Gaza last week. Israel's media campaign recognises the need to address this and has been quite sophisticated in targeting the fairly well-informed, young, European market expected to visit this week. Ads vary from simply marketing Israel's weather, tasty food, and good looking young people, to a controversial, tongue-in-cheek, 4-minute music video which brazenly acknowledges stereotypes of Israel - both good and bad. It has been called anti-Semitic and misogynistic but also, in its own way, draws attention to key issues like racism, socio-economic inequality and environmental degradation.

Update: Despite inflated initial predictions that saw hoteliers dramatically raise their prices, finally fewer than 10000 people are thought to have visited for Eurovision. But with a TV audience of over 200 million people, there was still more attention on our region than usual. It was a great opportunity to bring some of the key human rights issues in Israel-Palestine to the spotlight and we encourage any Eurovision fans to join us on a tour to explore something more meaningful after the festivities. Although some attention was given to human rights issues, we were disappointed they did not receive more publicity. Although it is difficult to be too optimistic, the attention that comes with hosting events like Eurovision will always create at least the possibility to build a more just future for everyone in the Middle East. It is our duty to take it.

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