The long read: the politics of Eurovision 2019

This year's Eurovision was filled with political controversy over the failed boycott, held due to the competition being hosted in Israel.

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For the third time in its history, the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Israel on Saturday 18th of May. This was the first time, however, that the contest took place in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem, as Israeli officials had wished. Fearing that holding Eurovision in Jerusalem – a disputed territory with Palestine – would be in transgression of the contest’s ethos of apoliticism, the Eurovision Broadcasting Union (EBU) insisted – after much contention – that the contest be held in the undisputed city of Tel Aviv instead.

This was the first in a long list of conflicts between the EBU and the Israeli government and forms part of a wider controversy surrounding Israel’s hosting of the contest at all. In line with the rules of the contest, Israel, as last year’s winner, had the right to host this year’s edition – but activists from the pro-Palestine group Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) have argued that Israel should never have been allowed to host or even enter the competition in the first place.

The BDS movement has existed in official form since 2005 in response to a call from Palestinian NGOs to boycott Israeli products and cultural events until the end of what it describes as its “occupation” of Palestinian territory, likening the treatment of Palestinians in Israel to South African apartheid. The purpose of this article is not to come to a conclusion on the BDS movement and Israel-Palestine conflict as a whole, but rather to explore the arguments for and against boycotting Eurovision 2019 and the reasons for the overall failure of BDS’s boycott attempts. Tensions between the two countries, already high, have flared even further over the past few months, with Tel Aviv being the target of rocket strikes from Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insinuating that Arabs in Israel were second-class citizens, and children from both countries being killed in crossfire.

None of this was mentioned during the live broadcasts of the Eurovision Song Contest, which markets itself a pan-European cultural celebration – strictly apolitical, of course. The contest is a golden opportunity for host countries to boost their tourism industries, but also to promote and construct their national culture in the public imagination and to suppress criticism of their policies. Had Israel been allowed to host the contest in Jerusalem as officials originally wished, it would have formed part of a wider campaign in Israel to have Jerusalem recognized as the country’s official capital (and therefore to undermine the Palestinian claim to the city).

Slots in both the semi-finals and the final were put aside to include interval acts ostensibly representative of Israeli culture (Madonna’s shaky performance notwithstanding). For example, the inclusion of the Shalva Band, whose members are all disabled, as an interval act in the second semi-final suggests that Israel celebrates and is inclusive towards its disabled citizens. In reality, the country’s disability pension is less than half the minimum wage and the government has faced protests from a group calling themselves the Disabled Panthers – but viewers at home are highly unlikely to have been aware of this.

The contest’s frequent past associations with camp and the LGBT community additionally provided ample opportunity for countries to partake in a process known as ‘pinkwashing’, in which LGBT rights are foregrounded in order to mask the lack of human rights for other groups. This is not exclusive to Eurovision – part of Israel’s national branding has for a long time been its status as a kind of outpost of LGBT rights and tolerance surrounded by an otherwise hostile Middle East. The Eurovision Song Contest being hosted in Israel allows LGBT fans to actively participate in this process of ‘pinkwashing’ – as long as the contest remains a source of camp, LGBT-friendly entertainment, the uncomfortable realities behind the scenes can be safely ignored.

Even countries that are actively hostile to the LGBT community have been able to exploit its support for Eurovision. Hours before millions of viewers watched the final of the 2009 contest in Moscow, Russian police violently broke up the Moscow Pride parade. The hypocrisy of European audiences engaging in a fun cultural celebration while the war continues in the Gaza strip a few miles along the coast is one of the main arguments deployed by BDS in favour of a boycott of the contest. During the contest itself, gay host Assi Azar made multiple references to the acceptance of Israeli society of his sexuality, and transgender 1998 winner Dana International sang a cover of ‘Just the Way You Are’ accompanied with a kiss cam that included gay couples kissing.

BDS has fallen at every hurdle. Israel successfully hosted the contest, and though full viewing figures are yet to be released, in the UK viewing figures averaged 7 million, a small increase on the 6.9 million who tuned in in 2018. No nation decided to boycott the contest. Of the 43 countries who participated in Eurovision last year, 41 returned. The two withdrawing, Bulgaria and Ukraine, did so for unrelated reasons.

A petition to boycott the 2019 contest gained traction in Iceland, but the country’s broadcaster, RUV, ultimately announced its participation any way, and found enough acts willing to participate to hold a national final. Every country managed to find singers willing to perform in Tel Aviv, despite pressure from BDS. Pink Floyd founder and BDS activist Roger Waters went as far as addressing a personal letter to Conan Osiris, Portugal’s participant, urging him to withdraw. Osiris acknowledged receipt of the letter, but never directly responded.

What doomed BDS’s campaign against Eurovision from the start is the fact that according to the rules and ethos of the competition, Eurovision is officially strictly apolitical. It has its roots in the aftermath of the Second World War and was originally conceived as a means of bringing a divided continent together through the medium of light entertainment. To this end, the politicisation of the contest was strictly prohibited – the only thing that mattered was the enjoyment of music.

Whether a nation-based song contest can ever be apolitical is another matter – but the de jure apoliticism of the contest hamstrings any attempt at anything other than neutrality. The EBU would never revoke a country’s right to host because of its government’s actions. Every broadcaster must pay a fee to participate in the contest, under the assumption that should they win they gain the right to host the contest the following year. Were the EBU to revoke K AN’s (the Israeli broadcaster) right to host the 2019 contest, K AN would have grounds for a costly legal case against them. The BBC, meanwhile, could never have boycotted Eurovision 2019 because it is a state broadcaster and is therefore obliged to remain impartial. The same principle applies to most of the other participating broadcasters across Europe.

The contest is of course political. The very concept of a contest in which representatives of states compete against each other is already inherently political as it implies the recognition and existence of all states which participate – leading to problems for partially unrecognised states like Kosovo. Eurovision Asia, an event originally planned for 2018 by the EBU, was ultimately shelved because too many Asian states were diplomatically incompatible with one another to form a large enough cohort of participants.

Were Israel to be prevented from hosting the contest, it would not only be seen as the EBU ‘siding’ with Palestine, but also as the EBU denigrating Israel and its citizens. In a contest like Eurovision, which for one night a year delineates ‘European culture’, the importance of Jewish representation is obvious.

The continued participation of Israel in the contest ensures that that representation – and the inclusion of Jewish people in a cultural construction of ‘Europe’ – is guaranteed every year. Until 2015, all Israeli entries had to include Hebrew lyrics, and even after that songs like perpetual 2015 favourite ‘Golden Boy’ have mixed Mizrahi instrumentation and melodies with Western pop.

There have of course been several non-Israeli Jewish Eurovision contestants, but there are few of them, and their Jewishness is often entirely unnoticeable – often intentionally. Ukraine’s 2006 contestant Tina Karol – real name Tetyana Liberman – adopted her stage name specifically because she believed that her Jewish surname ‘held [her] back ’, while Can Bonomo, Turkey’s Sephardi 2012 contestant, faced anti-semitic abuse from the country’s right-wing press. Ideally, even a Eurovision without Israel would still contain a healthy amount of Jewish representation – but the fractured nature of the contest’s organisation and the discrimination that many Jewish artists face in their home countries make this unlikely.

The counterpoint to this is the question of who actually gets to be represented, as Jewish people are not the only citizens of Israel – around 25% of its population are from other religions, who are rarely represented in Israeli Eurovision entries. While numerous commentators have questioned whether the inclusion of Israel and Australia is indicative of the contest constructing European culture as explicitly white, the reality is slightly more complicated. Israel’s eligibility to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest does not stem from a selective ‘Europeanness’ conferred to them by the EBU – rather it is one of a number of Middle Eastern and North African states who lie within the European Broadcasting Area and are thus eligible to participate. The issue is that most of its eligible neighbour states – and the eligible states in North Africa – do not recognize Israel.

The Palestinian national broadcaster, PBC, faces even more obstacles – as it is not a member of the United Nations, it is ineligible to be a full member of the EBU and is therefore unable to participate in Eurovision. Any Palestinian representation in the Eurovision is therefore, paradoxically, only possible through Israel.

In the history of Israel’s 40 year participation at the Eurovision Song Contest, it has been represented by a Palestinian performer once – in 2009. The song in question was a duet with an Israeli Jewish singer titled ‘There Must Be Another Way’ – a ballad with a not-so-subtly masked plea for peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Though BDS supporters have argued that artists performing in Israel is tantamount to condoning the country’s policies, the Icelandic act – self-described ‘anti-capitalist BDSM techno band’ Hatari – decided to use its participation in the contest as a way of raising awareness about the Palestinian conflict. They criticized the Israeli government, stated that they were prepared for the EBU to disqualify them, and even challenged Netanyahu to a traditional Icelandic trouser wrestle. The band’s entry – Hatri mun Sigra, or ‘Hatred Will Prevail’ in English – imagines a nihilistic, dystopian future in which far-right populism succeeds. The song ultimately came in 10th place, Iceland’s best result in a decade. When their televoting score was announced, the band members unveiled scarves with the Palestinian flag on for the TV cameras to capture, prompting a roar of outrage from the audience.

Hatari’s outspokenness, however, may come at a price – at the time of writing the EBU was discussing the potential punishment, which could include fining RUV or even banning them from the contest. They also risked getting into legal trouble – after it was discovered that they had been among the signatories of the boycott petition to the Icelandic broadcaster, Israeli civil rights organization Shurat HaDin suggested that they had a case to bar the group from entering Israel. Publicly calling for a boycott of Israel violates the Entry into Israel Law, thus opening the door for the government to deny the band a visa. Though the band managed to enter Israel without issues, the very fact that a group can form a legal case against a participating Eurovision artist for their political views – which are not particularly radical – is worrying in itself.

BDS’s ultimate failure stems from their delay in organising a boycott attempt, waiting until every broadcaster had already confirmed participation before beginning to lobby them. By the time that a group of 50 British artists had signed a letter calling the contest to be moved in January, it was already far too late to do so. The only route left for BDS activists was the general public. But there is nothing that a boycott of viewers could have achieved other than reduced viewing figures. In previous contests that have been subject to boycott attempts – Russia 2009 and Azerbaijan 2012 – very little happened beyond the withdrawal of one or two countries, and the contest returned to business as usual in the following years.

Although a massive reduction in viewing figures would send a message to both the EBU and Israel that Israel’s hosting of the contest was not welcomed, it is unclear what would ever come from this. The EBU could not justifiably expel a country for delivering poor viewing figures, and any reaction to the figures from the Israeli government would be an attempt at rehabilitating Israel’s public image rather than any actual policy change. Israel will most likely participate again next year, and the controversy will be forgotten. If the UK’s viewing figures are anything to go by, this reduction in viewing figures will not happen.

Whilst the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest is now over, Israel’s participation in the contest along with several other countries like Russia and Azerbaijan will continue to be contentious, and we should not assume that the issues of politicization and cultural boycotts will not arise again. Nevertheless, despite the often contradictory nature of Eurovision’s commitment to apoliticism, it is not an ignoble goal. The image of Israel constructed by K AN is not necessarily analogous with the image of Israel that the Israeli government would like to construct, and celebrating Israeli culture is not the same as celebrating Israeli policy. Some viewers may believe that the contest’s unifying power even in the face of divisive politics is exactly what should be celebrated – others may believe that human rights abuses should never be ignored in any context.

The reality is that the case of Eurovision 2019 has demonstrated that without early and consistent coordination, boycott movements are largely ineffectual. The most effective form of protest – regardless of whether or not it was the noblest or actually showed the most solidarity with Palestine – was that espoused by Hatari, who engaged with the contest critically and exposed Eurovision as the inherently political event that it is.