Inside Tel Aviv and the Most Political Eurovision in History
Israel wants the competition to be a celebration of its values, while protesters are trying to stop the government from hijacking the narrative.
I think I'd forgotten just how much Tel Aviv feels like paradise. The sun-drenched beaches that look out over the Mediterranean Sea, the deep-stuffed pitta breads brimming with crisp, fresh falafel. It's hot, but there's a breeze; beautiful people glide around on electric scooters and sit drinking and smoking in street-side bars and go dancing late into the night.
And on this Monday evening, the city feels even more seductive than usual. Up in the wealthy Ramat Gan district, a well-dressed crowd have gathered at the British Ambassador's official residence. Performances from local drag queens and the UK's Eurovision contestant, Michael Rice, keep the guests entertained, while fish and chips and "keep calm and carry on" cards are handed round. It's unapologetically camp – hardly a surprise given how popular Eurovision is within the gay community.
Down on the seafront, the Eurovillage is open for business – a vast, enclosed free-to-enter festival with food stalls, bars, funfair rides, installations and activities, plus a huge stage looking out over those who've gathered to dance in the crowd. There's a heavy security presence, but it's unobtrusive; tens of thousands of locals and visitors are going wild.
It's not surprising, then, that a group of five unassuming young people huddled on a patch of sandy grass just outside the perimeter fencing have gone unnoticed. There's little to suggest they're up to anything out of the norm. Still, I've been told to meet them here. I walk up to them and ask if any of of them are called Ronja. When one nods, I take a seat while she explains what's about to happen.
"We are planning on showing a video in the middle of the concert," she says, speaking quietly, in case anyone overhears. "It's a message from Palestinians to Eurovision, and we'll be holding a banner that says 'Free the Gaza ghetto' as well."
Ronja is 24 and lives in Switzerland. Despite a pledge by the Israeli government to keep out those travelling to the country with the specific intention of disrupting and protesting the Eurovision Song Contest, Ronja is one of a small but determined number of international activists who've travelled here regardless to take their stand.
"The important thing here is to protest against culture-washing and show that Israel uses music and LGBTQ rights as a way to distract from the military occupation," she tells me. "We're here to divert attention away from organised events."
As someone with Jewish heritage and a Jewish family, she feels a connection to the country and what's happening here. She explains that she feels uncomfortable partying in Tel Aviv while people in Gaza are under siege and Palestinians in the West Bank are living under occupation. As far as Ronja sees it, the whole thing just feels hypocritical.
Moments later, Ronja and her group are on the move. I follow behind from a distance, as they pass through the security guards and into the festival site without a second glance. It's about 9:20PM and the place is packed, despite it only being Monday, five days before Saturday night's main event.
A famous Israeli musician is on stage jumping around to an awful remix of Queen's "I Want To Break Free" – a fitting soundtrack as the activists unfurl their banner and project their film onto the white screen behind the sound truck. It doesn't take long for the revellers to notice. A few stares, a few pictures and then, within a matter of minutes, an outraged Israeli has grabbed the banner and one of the campaigners.
"Go to Gaza if you like it so much," he yells in Hebrew, visibly angry. "Arab lover," he spits.
Looking around the festivities, it's not obvious at first why an event like Eurovision in Tel Aviv is being targeted. It's just a singing competition after all, and a beach party is hardly the violent frontier of an occupation. Plus it's Pride night here at the Eurovillage. Outside of official city Pride parades, I've never seen so many same-sex couples unashamedly displaying affection in a public space. It's the most liberal thing I've seen in all my visits here. For an outsider like me, it doesn't feel in conflict with the conflict.
However, according to the many activists across the world who've signed petitions and taken to social media to express their discontent, while demanding musicians and fans alike boycott Tel Aviv 2019, activities like this represent something a whole lot more sinister. The city might feel like paradise, they say, but it comes at a price.
It's late on Tuesday afternoon and a crowd of a few hundred are at Habima Square, home to a number of Israel's major cultural institutions. The largest banner and a portable PA system belongs to the Israeli communist party. "The government of war is killing protesters," comes a cry in Hebrew, followed by applause. "Democracy isn't built on the bodies of unarmed protesters."
Across the street, a right-wing politician is screaming obscenities at the demonstrators, surrounded by armed police officers who ask me not to engage him. A young guy in a "Make American Great Again" cap makes a grab for one of the Palestinian flags, before being quickly escorted away by the cops. The vast majority of locals passing by simply ignore what's happening.
While Palestine solidarity marches across Europe often attract huge crowds, the numbers here in Tel Aviv really aren't that impressive. I'd been expecting a bigger turnout, especially given the build-up, the significance of the week and the number of international media outlets that have shown up.
"Firstly, today's protest isn't just about Eurovision," says 27-year-old Shahaf Weisbei, who is one of the organisers of the week of actions. "But it also just doesn't feel urgent to a lot of people here. For people living in Tel Aviv and wealthy Israel, they don't feel the consequences of the occupation on a daily basis."
Tel Aviv might feel like a liberal metropolis, she argues, but that doesn't mean much if you don't fit, or aren't welcome, within its bubble.
Soon, the march gets moving. Roller-bladed police stop the traffic as the group slowly makes its way along the middle of the road to a rally in the park. "Being leftist in Israel has become like a curse word," Shahaf goes on, as another young Israeli shouts abuse at the group while live-streaming. "It's something you don't want your colleagues to know about, your family to know about. It's scary to go to the streets."
While not explicitly an anti-Eurovision protest, plenty of signs are specifically about the event. They attract the attention of four guys looking over the street from their rental apartment, both Irish and Pride flags tied to the balcony waving in the wind. One phrase that has been used time and again in relation to Israel and Eurovision is "pinkwashing", the notion that Israel drapes a rainbow flag over its otherwise poor human rights record in a cynical act of distraction.
That's one perspective, but surely the fact that LGBTQ+ people aren't marginalised in Israel is a good thing? Dressed in a pink cap and T-shirt, 30-year-old Jewish Israeli Si Berrebi tells me she isn't so convinced.
"Making out the Israeli government is good for LGBT people is actually misleading on two fronts. It's not as if the Israeli government is actually in any way good for the LGBTQ community," Si argues, pointing to the fact that same-sex couples can't adopt or marry, and the rampant discrimination trans people face. "There’s also, of course, the violation of human rights in the West Bank and Gaza – that's in fact the opposite of anything you can call progressive. Queer people coming here this week need to know that."
At a quiet cafe called Albi, Israeli-American journalist Edo Konrad is sitting in front of his laptop. He works for +972, an Israeli left-wing digital magazine that centres stories about the occupation and human rights in Israel and Palestine. He's explaining the concept of Hasbara to me: "Government sponsored PR and propaganda."
It's no secret that hosting Eurovision is a prime opportunity for any country to sell the wonders of what sits inside its borders, both to the cultish followers and the "fuck it, why not?" tourists who attend each year, as well as the 200 million people who'll sit down to watch the final from the comfort of their homes across the continent and beyond.
I explain to Edo that, having spent the morning in the Israeli-occupied city of Hebron, all this propaganda around Eurovision has started to make me feel uneasy.
"That's exactly the point," he says. "For the last decade-and-a-half, Israel has been actively trying to rebrand itself and open itself up to the world to tourism and the economy, and to show a different face of Israel. Israel has always had Hasbara, but especially as international criticism of its human rights violations in the occupied territories has grown, Israel has tried to find different ways to present itself as a democracy that respects the rule of law and human rights."
Edo says this is why there are those who are taking specific issue with Israel's hosting of Eurovision. In the wake of an assault on Gaza last week which left 25 dead, and reports that the attacks were stopped because the authorities were concerned that too many eyes would be on them, this particular PR flex appears more sinister than usual.
"The war that almost happened was essentially the Eurovision War," he adds. "It could have lasted longer, but the need for good PR – the need to portray it as an oasis of fun and part of the enlightened brotherhood of nations – was so much stronger than anything else."
That's not to say there aren't people in the government who support LGBTQ rights, people who want Tel Aviv to be an open city. It's not all a PR plot, but seeing how important the PR effort is – to the extent that it changes military policy – means you really need to be cognisant of what it means to have this paradise feeling."
Conversation turns to the topic of LGBT rights and their intersection with Eurovision. "I speak as an Israeli – I understand why Palestinians and BDS supporters very easily dismiss how lovely Tel Aviv is as pink washing and culture washing. For me, everyone should ideally be able to enjoy the arts and those freedoms, whether they are Israeli or Palestinian," says Edo.
And that's important to remember: in the past few days I've asked Israelis both young and old about the competition; some didn't care and many were excited. But bring up politics and they mostly shrugged or asked me why that was relevant. "Eurovision is just fun," one young local said with a smile, "why would you make it about politics?"
The Tel Aviv Expo Centre is quiet on Wednesday morning. Volunteers are dotted around the compound to offer advice and directions, a few bloggers are waiting at the "delegation drop off" in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the acts arriving for the day’s semi-final dress rehearsal. Sitting at one of the many desks is Jean Philip De Tender, the Media Director at the EBU – the organisation that runs Eurovision.
"Eurovision showcases our values: reaching out to everybody, not excluding anyone," he says. "It's about diversity – respecting all aspects of life."
With that in mind, I ask what he's made of the calls for boycotts and the controversies that have surrounded this year's edition. Did organisers ever consider bowing to public pressure? "We need to remain apolitical," he replies. "It's a simple formula... when you win, you host the following year. Israel won last year, so Israel hosts it. We will do the same next year."
Jean does recognise that the event can have a political impact, but the responsibility of the EBU, he adds before heading off, is to set up a great event. "It's the responsibility of journalists to report what is happening, and there are more than a thousand here."
Boycotters and anti-occupation activists have had some success. Israeli PM Netanyahu was desperate to hold the event in Jerusalem to help legitimise the city in the world's eyes as Israel's capital, but was unsuccessful. The Tel Aviv Hotel Association said the contest has attracted far fewer foreign visitors than expected. There are further protests and direct actions planned in the lead up to Saturday, and who knows whether any act might decide to make a political statement on the final's stage.
As I head back out into the Tel Aviv sun, passing a field of empty deck chairs, I think back to my conversation earlier this week with Edo Konrad. "Ultimately, the goal of the radical left here, and Palestinians, is to have people boycott Eurovision," he'd said. "Not just guests here, but parties around the world and the artists performing."
The way he saw it, there had been no major cancellations; so far, everything has gone really well.
"A few protesters are not going to disturb Israel," Edo said. "On the contrary, the small protests that the left might organise will be allowed, and the government can show how they welcome protests, even though when police want to brutally put down protests they can – in the West Bank, but with Israelis as well. It really looks like the Israeli government has scored big."