Israel won the right to host the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest after Netta Barzilai captivated the audience with her quirky track ‘Toy’ last year. Before the show hits our screens from Tel Aviv, here’s an introduction to Israel’s complex relationship with the contest.
Good spot. Israel made its debut in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1973 as the first non-European country to be granted permission to take part. Participation in Eurovision is contingent not on being in Europe but on being a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This means that Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon could take part if they wanted to. Morocco did, in fact, compete in the 1980 contest but finished second-to-last. As an associate member of the EBU, Australia has even taken part since 2015.
For Israeli TV presenter Assi Azar, one of this year’s Eurovision hosts, the show’s openness is what makes it so special. “This is a singing contest: one night of fun and celebration, one night united with no politics and no arguing. Every country [that] wants to should be able to participate in that,” he tells Culture Trip.
Israel has produced four Eurovision winners: Izhar Cohen & the Alphabeta (1978), Gali Atari & Milk and Honey (1979), Dana International (1998) and Netta (2018).
Undoubtedly Israel’s most iconic contestant, Dana International took home the Eurovision trophy for her song ‘Diva’ and was the contest’s first ever trans winner. Having spoken boldly against criticism levelled at her by Israel’s Orthodox Jewish community, the singer is deemed by many to have cemented Eurovision’s reputation as an inclusive space. One future Eurovision star to take inspiration from Dana International was 2018 winner Netta, who enthralled viewers with her quirky track ‘Toy’ and her trademark chicken dance. On stage after her victory was announced, Netta thanked the voters for “celebrating diversity” and “choosing ‘different’”.
“Besides Netta (who is my favourite contestant ever), Dana International was certainly Israel’s best entry,” says Azar. “I was in the army when she won – I was in the closet back then, and it was just so impactful seeing a transgender woman representing Israel. I was hiding, but she was showing who she was.”
In 2009, singers Noa and Mira Awad represented Israel in Moscow with the song ‘There Must Be Another Way’, sung in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Noa, a Jewish Israeli, and Mira, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, were the first Israeli representatives to sing partly in Arabic. While it didn’t specifically refer to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the song conveyed a message of peace and hope, urging listeners to respect the humanity of others.
Speaking to Culture Trip, Noa explains why this entry was so important: “I was thrilled to represent Israel, but it was important for me to represent my country in a very specific way, not by pure entertainment, but by conveying an important message relevant to the complex reality in my country, bringing forth the plight of the Arab minority and our quest, as Jews and Arabs, for a different horizon, a different future for our children. This I chose to say in a simple and direct way, together with my colleague Mira Awad: ‘There must be another way’.”
This year’s Israeli entrant, Kobi Marimi, also shared his enthusiasm about bringing Arabic to the Eurovision stage: “What’s beautiful about this competition is that every year each country gets the chance to show another side of itself through music … Both my parents speak Arabic, and I hope to learn it one day and to create music in Arabic. I definitely think that Arabic has its place when it comes to representing Israel in Eurovision.”
Bonus fact: Noa and Mira’s performance was not the first time Arabic had been heard on the Eurovision stage. Samira Bensaïd performed Morocco’s first and only entry, ‘Bitaqat Hub’ (‘Love Card’), at the 1980 contest.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – a global pro-Palestinian campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel – is urging performers to pull out of this year’s competition. This call has been echoed by well-known figures from the world of entertainment. Among these are the 50 artists who signed an open letter to British newspaper The Guardian calling for the BBC to boycott the contest over violations of Palestinian human rights, including Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and designer Vivienne Westwood. So far no participating nations have pulled out of the contest, though Iceland’s techno-punk band Hatari claim their song for the contest – ‘Hatrið Mun Sigra’, which translates as ‘Hate will prevail’ – is a statement against the Israeli government, though it makes no direct reference to Israel.
Having herself faced calls to boycott the contest when her Eurovision entry ‘There Must Be Another Way’ was announced during Israel’s 2008-09, three-week war in Gaza, Noa understands the difficult decisions faced by those taking part this year.
“It was a very difficult moment … We were highly criticised by almost everyone: How can we sing in a ‘silly’ musical event like Eurovision when people are dying?” she says. “We both decided, bravely I think, that our message must be heard, our banner must wave, the banner of dialogue, of diversity, of peace – especially in times of war!”
In speaking about this year’s contest, Noa strikes an optimistic note: “I am hoping the artists [who] do come speak out in favour of peace, freedom, human rights and equal rights … values we must elevate and celebrate, just as we celebrate ourselves and our music.”
When it comes to Eurovision controversies, Israel is not alone – the song contest is known to get more than a little political. To name just a few instances of scandal in recent years, Armenia pulled out of the 2012 show in Baku amid heightened tensions with Azerbaijan, while Ukraine banned Russia’s contestant Yulia Samoylova from the 2017 contest in Kiev over “illegal” visits to Crimea.
Though Jerusalem has hosted Eurovision twice – in 1979 and 1999 – this year’s contest will take place in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. According to the European Broadcasting Union, the choice to hold the contest in Israel’s cultural and commercial capital was made purely because of Tel Aviv’s “creative and compelling bid”. However, Jerusalem would have been a controversial choice in that rehearsals and the main competition would have overlapped with holy days.
Azar sees Tel Aviv as a much more “Eurovision-friendly” city: “Tel Aviv is more welcoming to the type of tourists who are coming to Eurovision than Jerusalem,” he says. Marimi, too, is excited about the contest travelling to a new city, adding that “maybe if we win this year you will get to know Haifa or Eilat next year”.
The Israeli Broadcasting Authority disowned its 2000 entry, when pop group PingPong waved Syrian flags during a rehearsal of their song ‘Sameach’ (Be Happy) in an alleged symbolic gesture to promote peace. The IBA didn’t quite see it that way and pulled its backing, meaning PingPong had to pay their own way to the contest in Stockholm. The song’s lyrics mention an Israeli girl with a boyfriend in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the music video sees her channel her yearning for him into suggestive acts with cucumbers, outraging the more conservative sectors of Israeli society. While the cucumbers didn’t make an appearance in the final performance, the band continued to proudly wave the flags.
The 64th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest will take place at Expo Tel Aviv, in the 7,300-seat Pavilion 2. The show will consist of two semi-finals on 14 and 16 May, and the Grand Final on 18 May 2019. Along with Azar, the hosts will be Erez Tal, Lucy Ayoub and world-famous supermodel and TV presenter Bar Refaeli.
The interval will see Madonna perform two songs, while former Eurovision acts Dana International, Conchita, Eleni Foureira, Måns Zelmerlöw and Verka Serduchka will make guest appearances. It is also reported that Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot will take part, but in what capacity remains a mystery. Israeli mentalist and entertainer Lior Suchard is also due to amaze the audience with mind reading and telekinesis.
Marimi will represent Israel with the heartfelt ballad ‘Home’. As for who will win, the 27-year-old is spoiled for choice. “There are 41 great songs this year in different languages and across different genres. When it comes to music, it’s almost impossible to choose,” he explains. “It’s like going to a restaurant that serves burgers, pizza, sushi and hummus. How the hell can you choose?”