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Fintan O’Toole: Everything about Israel is political, even Eurovision

Israel has used the song contest to present itself as a normal European society

In 1973, two interesting things happened to Israel, one momentous, the other apparently trivial. The momentous one was that, in October, a coalition of forces led by Egypt and Syria invaded the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, initiating what is known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War and in its Arab neighbours as the Ramadan War. The trivial one had happened six months earlier in the relative dullness of Luxembourg: Israel became the first non-European country to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The question, as Israel controversially hosts next week’s Eurovision, is whether these events are in some sense related. Does the Eurovision float above the fractured politics of the Middle East? Or, as those who have called for a boycott of this year’s contest insist, does this festival of camp confer political legitimacy on the repressive policies of a rogue state?

Ireland is one of the countries in which the call for a boycott of the event from the Palestinian-led BDS – boycott, divestment, sanctions – movement has been most strongly echoed. The former Eurovision presenters Carrie Crowley and Doireann Ní Bhriain, the former winner Charlie McGettigan and prominent musicians like Christy Moore, Mary Black, Paul Brady and Honor Heffernan have supported it. The Musicians' Union of Ireland and Equity Ireland have thrown their weight behind it.

Dana International, the transgender performer who won the Eurovision in 1998, and Netta Barzilai, who won last year, project an image of freedom and tolerance

Ranged against them are not just those who support Israeli generally but, more prominently, those who insist that the Eurovision is just a bit of escapist fun that should not be dragged into politics. "This is a festival of light," according to Netta Barzilai, who won the contest for Israel last year. "For people to boycott light is spreading darkness."


Whatever else can be said about this question, the idea that politics has nothing to do with it cannot withstand much scrutiny. The right to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest is contingent on membership of the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU is an international political organisation. Its members, drawn from 56 countries, are almost all state broadcasting companies. Its Israeli member, Kan, is an arm of the state in the same way that its Irish members, RTÉ and TG4, are arms of the Irish State. Its activities, even at their most frivolous, are innately political. Next week, as well as the Eurovision, it will be broadcasting from Brussels the official debates between the candidates for the presidency of the European Commission.

When Israel joined the Eurovision in 1973, it was making a statement about its place in the world: that it is in effect a European country. How this statement is understood is itself, of course, highly political.

For those sympathetic to Israel, it is a way of saying that Israel, unlike its immediate neighbours, is a part of the culture of the Enlightenment, an open, liberal, progressive democracy. For those neighbours, it is a way of saying that Israel is an invasive force in their region, the successor to the Crusader states that represented the archetypal alien incursions into the Islamic world.

Neither of these statements is true in any simple sense, but both of them carry a political weight that is all the heavier because other EBU members in the region – Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, the Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia – do not take part in the Eurovision precisely because Israel does.

And by accident or design, Israel has in fact been very successful in using the Eurovision to present itself as an enlightened, open European society. Dana International, the transgender performer who won the contest in 1998, and Barzilai, who won last year, project an image of freedom and tolerance summed up in a Daily Telegraph headline: "Netta's gloriously silly Eurovision win is a triumph for progressive, gay-friendly Israel". The implied contrast with Israel's Muslim neighbours is all the more effective because it is largely true: there are strong homophobic forces in Israel, but it is undoubtedly much more "gay friendly" than most of the Arab and Islamic world.

Israel has set up expectations of a fun-filled, freewheeling open society that it cannot fulfil when it is in a state of war with the Palestinians with whom it shares a space

But if the Eurovision helps to define Israel as part of Europe, it inevitably raises the question of how Europe feels about this. In 1973, Israeli participation in the contest was broadly not controversial. The Holocaust had ended less than 30 years previously and Israel was still widely seen in Europe as the plucky underdog defending itself against a renewed existential threat. It is worth recalling, moreover, that the Eurovision has twice been staged not just in Israel but in the contested city of Jerusalem, in 1979 and 1999, without a major European campaign for a boycott.

This makes it all the more striking that the EBU overruled the intentions of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to make Jerusalem again the host city this year. It did so because of a growing wariness of Netanyahu’s intentions and an implicit acceptance that nothing to do with Israel can now be nonpolitical, even the Eurovision.

In a sense, Israel is in this regard a victim of its own success. The more cleverly it has used the Eurovision to suggest that it is a normal European country, the more it has drawn attention to all the ways in which it isn’t. It has set up expectations of a fun-filled, freewheeling open society that it cannot fulfil when it is in a state of war with the Palestinians with whom it shares a space that is decidedly not European.

Israelis and their friends in the diaspora tend to complain that human-rights abuses by Israel receive far more criticism than those by Arab and Muslim regimes. There is a lot of justice in these complaints, but one of the reasons for the disparity is precisely that so many Europeans do see Israel as part of their own hinterland and therefore expect it to behave like a European democracy. The Eurovision has been a small but significant part of that.

The Eurovision in Tel Aviv is deeply problematic for Europe and even more unsettling for Israel, as it raises the issues of where it belongs and what standards it should be judged by

The calls for a boycott of the Eurovision in Tel Aviv have been entirely predicated on a direct comparison of Israel now to South Africa in the 1980s. As the BDS campaign puts it: “Holding Eurovision 2019 in Israel whitewashes apartheid”. The attempted boycott was, it declared, “inspired by conscientious artists who shunned Sun City in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s”.

But such parallels can never be exact – the political, historic, cultural and social context of Israel is highly specific, and the Eurovision is not a racially exclusive tourist resort. It is a strange and fluid construct meant to enact in its own camp way some idea of Europeanness.

Doing that in Israel is deeply problematic for Europe. But it is even more unsettling for Israel, because it raises the questions of where it belongs and what standards it should be judged by. Aesthetically those standards may be pretty low, but in terms of political image-making Israel has paradoxically raised the bar rather high – perhaps too high for its own comfort.