Cocktails, Hors D’oeuvres and Rockets: The Politics of Eurovision

The Gaza missiles ahead of the Tel Aviv event are 'unprecedented,' experts say, but politics has always been a part of the song contest – from Holocaust survivors in Germany to anti-Putin protests by Ukraine

Demonstrators boycott Eurovision Song Contest and call for Denmark to withdraw from the contest hosted in Israel this year, in Herning, Denmark, February 23, 2019.
\ RITZAU SCANPIX/ REUTERS

The 2019 Eurovision Song Contest started with a bang – literally. The very moment competitors took the stage in Tel Aviv to rehearse Saturday morning, rockets rained down on southern Israel, sending thousands to bomb shelters.

Driving home the message that the timing was no coincidence, Islamic Jihad, the organization launching those rockets, issued a statement declaring its intention to “prevent the enemy from succeeding in establishing any festival aimed at harming the Palestinian narrative.” The militant group was referring to the mammoth event scheduled for May 14 to 18 at the Expo Tel Aviv convention center.

It was the first time that the 63-year-old competition has risked coming under fire – again, literally. Over the nerve-racking weekend, Israel and Hamas exchanged fire that cost 23 lives and considerable damage, while Eurovision’s organizers strove to create a Tel Aviv bubble for the performers. They did their best to downplay events in the south and pray that the rocket fire wouldn’t reach central Israel, as has happened in the past.

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

Over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at a Monday night reception, the Eurovision participants recounted how, as rehearsals proceeded through the two-day conflict in the south, the hosts did everything possible to encourage the stars to focus on the music.

“They tried hard to protect us,” said a member of Iceland’s delegation. “But they couldn’t really protect us from the news.”

Such events “are unprecedented in the history of Eurovision,” says Dean Vuletic, a historian at the University of Vienna, the author of the 2018 book “Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest.” As he put it, “Eurovision has never been held so close to a war zone before and been so susceptible to attack.”

The tension about the security situation is new even when considering that Israel has hosted the event twice since it became part of the competition in 1973, Vuletic notes. Those were periods of relative calm. The first time, 1979, immediately followed the peace treaty with Egypt. And in 1999 it came the same decade as the Oslo Accords and more than a year before the second intifada. The only time the security alert was sounded was when the previous year’s winner, Dana International, tripped on her stilettos and fell down the stairs.

War of course runs contrary to the spirit of Eurovision. The contest was born in 1956 as an effort by the European Broadcasting Union to bring unity to the Continent and help overcome the devastation of World War II. Over the decades, it has become a glitzy spectacle with a message of acceptance, embraced in particular by the LGBT community.

Dana International celebrates her Eurovision victory in 1998. Chicken wings courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier.
Louisa Buller / AP

'Artwashing'

Still, “it has always been political, ever since its inception,” Vuletic says, noting that in the first contest in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland, the West German entry was performed not only by a Jew, but by a Holocaust survivor.

From the moment the Eurovision crown was passed to Israel a year ago, when Netta Barzilai’s “Toy” triumphed in Portugal, the Middle East conflict and plans for this year’s contest were inextricably intertwined.

Activists from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, including celebrities like Roger Waters, have lobbied for artists and tourists to boycott the event, making public statements and circulating petitions. They’ve charged that the contest is “artwashing” oppressive Israeli policies. Celebrities have pushed back with counterpetitions.

Last week, Barzilai took it upon herself to spread the message that, in her view, advocating a boycott of Eurovision to protest Israeli policies amounted to the “bullying” of artists.

Netta Barzilai after her Eurovision victory, Lisbon, May 12, 2018.
Pedro Nunes / Reuters

“Being on the same stage, no matter what your religion or ethnicity or color, from all these countries, from all these cultures, this is a festival of light,” she said. “For people to boycott light is spreading darkness. It’s the exact opposite thing.”

Until last weekend, the organizers’ biggest worry was the possibility of a disruption by supporters of the Palestinian cause during the live broadcast – either by activists in the audience or an onstage demonstration by performers themselves. Unlike rocket attacks, this is something the organizers have faced in the past.

While the European Broadcast Union responsible for Eurovision can’t control Hamas or the Israeli army, it does what it can to minimize political disruption by the participants. It says that threatening an onstage political statement will result in an expulsion from the competition.

That hasn’t stopped at least one artist – a performer from Iceland, Hatari – from speaking out. After resisting pressure to boycott Eurovision, he has said in interviews that he’s using his participation as a platform to denounce Israel. He notes what he has called the “absurdity” of holding an event aimed at highlighting unity in a country that is “scarred by disunity,” mentioning a Sunday tour of Hebron where “the segregation” and “the apartheid is so clear.”

The closest Eurovision ever came to the current situation was the 2012 event in Baku, Azerbaijan, according to Vuletic, when that country’s navy patrolled the Caspian Sea to protect the venue for the contest. That year, he said, there were Islamist terror threats during the competition and arrests were made.

There were also concerns by the participating countries about a perceived endorsement of the Azerbaijani government, notorious for control of all forms of political expression, including the media. The concerns were allayed by hopes that Eurovision would act as a tool to open the country to increased freedoms.

“But in fact,” Vuletic notes, “after the contest was over, the situation worsened. As in most cases, Eurovision tended to reflect the current political realities, not changing them.”

Ukrainian politics

The troubled relationship between Russia and its neighbors has been a recurring theme of Eurovision political controversies that focus not on the host country but on individual performers. This year, Maruv, the Ukrainian national contest winner, was disqualified by her country’s broadcaster after her “allegiance” to Ukraine was questioned.

The Culture Ministry declared that only “patriots who are aware of their responsibility” should be allowed to perform, demanding that Maruv sign an agreement committing to canceling concerts in Russia. In this way, she would represent Ukraine as a proper “ambassador.” In 2017, Ukraine barred Russia’s Eurovision contestant, Yulia Samoylova, from entering the country on the grounds that she had previously performed in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Ukraine's Jamala smiles after winning the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest final at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, Sunday, May 15, 2016.
Maja Suslin,AP

In 2016, Ukrainian singer Jamala won the international competition – and sparked controversy – with the song “1944” that protested deportations by the Soviet Union under Stalin.

It wasn’t the first time politics made it into the contest through the songs. Even though the most famous Eurovision tunes are notorious for their carefree ABBA-style lyrics, there have always been attempts to settle historical scores onstage. Until 2000, this was done fairly freely – there were no limitations on political lyrics. For example, in 1976, Greece’s entry protested Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus. In response to complaints, the governing European Broadcasting Union said it wouldn’t police the content of songs.

Things changed dramatically in 2000 with a clause in Eurovision’s rules stating that no lyrics could “bring the contest into disrepute” – possibly because, by the new century, the contest had become highly commercialized. With corporate sponsors helping underwrite the massive productions that became far too costly for public broadcasters to fund alone, there was a fear that overtly political content would threaten those partnerships.

In 2006, there was a much more explicit ban on political songs, which was given a wide interpretation in 2009 when Georgia was disqualified for its cleverly titled entry “Put In Disco.” The song’s chorus, “We don’t wanna put in,” sounded suspiciously like “We don’t want Putin,” in a contest set to be held in Moscow, just a year after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Other protest songs have made it through since the ban. Armenia has twice – in 2010 and 2015 – used its Eurovision entries to challenge denial of the Armenian genocide during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

Perhaps the most-discussed nexus of global politics and Eurovision concerns the voting. Over the years, voting patterns have clearly shown that it’s not just talent and originality that gets high votes, it’s often political sympathy.

This year, a fan website examined which countries – and groups of countries – have favored their political allies and states with whom they share geographic, ethnic or linguistic connections when handing out points.

The analysis found that Romania and Moldova received “maximum points” votes from each other more often than any other two countries. Other friendly pairs are Belarus and Russia, Cyprus and Greece, and Portugal and Spain. The “blocs” of country that are traditionally generous with one another are familiar to longtime Eurovision viewers – the Nordic countries, the former Soviet republics, the ex-Yugoslav countries Montenegro and Serbia, and French-speaking countries.

These alliances have lessened over the years due to changes in the voting procedure, most recently including public televoting as well as a professional jury.

The fact that Israel isn’t part of an alliance or bloc makes its four Eurovision wins impressive – particularly in the recent case of Barzilai’s “Toy.” But this time around, no number of points will satisfy the hosts as much as a smooth competition.

Having the song with the highest score means little for Israel this time. If the world remembers Eurovision 2019 solely for its songs and performances, not for a military or political disruption, it will be a solid win.