Why This Year's Eurovision Song Contest Is So Controversial

Israel is set to host the song contest against a backdrop of protests, boycotts and political propaganda.

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09 May 2019, 11:40am

Photos: Chris Bethell

Almost a year ago today, Noel Curran – the Director General of the European Broadcasting Union, the organisation that produces the Eurovision Song Contest – stood in a courtyard backstage at the Altice Arena in Lisbon and explained to me why he thought the competition was so important. "Just watch on Saturday night – have a look at how the performers interact with each other," he said. "When a song does well, turn around and see what the competitors in the green room are doing. The fact that countries which are literally at war will be singing in the same audience with delegations in the same room is a statement in and of itself."

His message was simple: Eurovision unites Europe through music. And given how divided the world can often feel, togetherness and solidarity is just as important today as it was back when the competition started in 1956. Mind you, whichever country takes the crown next Saturday night, it looks unlikely that this year's Eurovision will achieve that lofty goal – if anything, quite the opposite. Not only is it not actually being held in Europe this year, but it's happening in Israel, already making it one of the most divisive cultural events of the year.

It's the Eurovision way that whoever comes top hosts the following year. So from the moment it was announced at the 2018 event that Israel had pulled in the highest number of points with "Toy" – a kitsch, infectious and frankly really fucking mad chicken-themed song – it was obvious that this year's contest was going to be controversial.

To some, hosting in Israel is more than a continuation of tradition – according to 100+ celebrity signatories to an open letter, including Stephen Fry, Sharon Osbourne, Kiss' Gene Simmons and Peter Gabriel, it's an opportunity for the unifying power of Eurovision to build bridges. Others see it differently.

"In May, the BBC intends to screen Eurovision 2019 from Israel," wrote another bunch of artists, including actor Maxine Peake, Vivienne Westwood and the band Wolf Alice in a very different open letter. "Eurovision may be light entertainment, but it is not exempt from human rights considerations – and we cannot ignore Israel's systematic violation of Palestinian human rights," they wrote, arguing that state broadcasters have a commitment to protecting freedom of expression, and as such demanded the 2019 event be relocated to a country where "crimes against that freedom are not being committed".


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Public pressure has forced some compromises, most notably in Eurovision being moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. But it's clear that Israel's most vocal critics would object to it hosting the event anywhere within its borders, arguing that it puts a glossy front on a state that regularly breaches UN conventions in its occupation of Palestinian territories, and whose heavy-handed response to protests which started on the Gaza border last year left over 9,000 injured and 183 dead.

While only 50 kilometres separate Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, when it comes to optics, the difference is huge. Few people who recognise the Israeli state would dispute Tel Aviv is part of Israel, but the question of who owns Jerusalem is a little more contested – both Palestinians and Israelis claim it as their capital.

This is why most UN member states have their embassies in Tel Aviv, and why Trump's decision last year to move the US embassy to Jerusalem was met with so much anger, and protests that left 59 Palestinians shot dead. It's why Netanyahu – whose right-wing government isn’t known for being conciliatory towards Palestinians – was so keen to hold Eurovision in Jerusalem; it would have been another signal to the world that Jerusalem belongs to Israel.

But last June, Bibi and his ministers agreed in the end to not interfere, and to let Tel Aviv see all the action. The coastal city is Israel's LGBT capital, the heart of Israel's music and nightlife scene – not the centre of one of the world's most complex international disputes. It playing host is a much easier case to make.

Traditionally, supporting Palestinians by boycotting Israeli goods, products and services has had a limited impact on the Israeli economy – although, internationally, it's a popular measure to take. But cultural boycotts have caused particular concern to Israeli officials. When big artists announce gigs in the Holy Land, there are often calls for them to cancel their shows, or else be accused of "art-washing". Lana Del Ray pulled out of a slot at a Tel Aviv festival last year; Lorde did the same. Many musicians continue to play Tel Aviv, but the impact of each major artist refusing to play is much greater than an ordinary person deciding to no longer buy Israeli oranges. Israel's hosting of Eurovision is a huge loss for boycotters, as is the fact Madonna is set to play at Saturday night's final in spite of efforts to convince her to back out. However, there are reports from Israeli media that suggest her song choices might be politically inappropriate, and that she has filmed a political advertisement that could “lead to controversy”.

Despite all this, in Tel Aviv the cogs of the Eurovision machine have turned into action. The annual red carpet event (it’ll be orange this year) that kicks off the festivities will take place on Sunday the 12th of May at Habima Square; the rehearsals for the qualifying heats have started, and fans will soon touch down at Ben Gurion Airport for their annual pilgrimage to the campiest competition in the world. On Saturday night, 200 million people across the world will tune in.

All this will happen against an unsure political backdrop. On Tuesday, it was reported that any activist who Israeli authorities believe will "disturb" Eurovision will be refused entry at the border. "We don't want to prohibit the entry to the state of Israel for people. But on the other hand, if we know for certain that we will be facing people who are anti-Israel activists and whose sole purpose is to disturb the event, then we will use the legal instruments that we have regarding the entry to Israel,'" said a foreign ministry spokesman, Emmanuel Nahshon. Make of this what you will, but given that, in 2018, Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of 20 specific NGOs whose officials would be banned from entering the country – including the BDS national committee – what might count as "making a disturbance" remains unclear.

While no act has pulled out of the event due to its location, Iceland's "anti-capitalist bondage art performers" Hatari have already pissed some right-wingers off by saying at a press conference they wanted to see "an end to the occupation". A little later they spoke of visiting Hebron – a Palestinian city – in an interview and talked openly about "the apartheid" they witnessed. "We can make awareness [sic] of the situation here with our message and agenda setting powers," one band member said. And of course there are bound to be attempts at other protests on or off the stage. Last year, a stage invader grabbed SuRie, the British contestant's mic midway through her set.

All of this makes up just one part of Eurovision's political story. Britain's slow and messy attempt to leave the European Union will no doubt once again be a talking point during the shows, as will the fact that Ukraine’s offering withdrew in February after ongoing tension with Russia left her feeling like a "political tool". Add to this the increasingly volatile state of Israeli politics – this week, tanks and aircrafts have struck 350 targets in Gaza, leaving 25 dead, while more than 700 rockets and projectiles were fired into Israel and ultra-religious politicians have paused coalition talks because they’re pissed that rehearsals are taking place on the Sabbath – and you're left wondering what will take centre stage at Eurovision 2019: the show or the politics?

@MikeSegalov