Eurovision Chief: Shabbat Cannot Be an Issue for Next Year's Show in Israel

Head of contest's committee says event must be held on Saturday night after Israel's health minister demands it not impinge on the Sabbath

Israel's Netta Barzilai performs on stage a festive welcome concert in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 14, 2018 after winning the Eurovision Song Contest on Sunday in Lisbon, Portugal.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is demanding that next year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which is slated to be held in Jerusalem, not cause any violations of the Sabbath – which would be almost impossible since the contest always takes place on a Saturday night.

Litzman on Monday wrote to Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, asking that the event not impinge on the Sabbath, “as required by law and the status quo.”

In response, the chairman of the European Broadcasting Union committee responsible for Eurovision, Dr. Frank-Dieter Freiling, told Haaretz that the Eurovision contest must be held Saturday night at 10 P.M, which would be only two hours after Shabbat is out in May. The Sabbath, Freiling said, “cannot be really put into consideration with regards to viewers all over Europe."

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In his letter, which was copied to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Arye Dery and Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, Litzman wrote, “In recent days the public has been informed of an international singing event that will apparently be held in Israel in a year (the Hebrew month of Iyar, May 2019), and there are those suggesting that it take place in Jerusalem.

“In the name of hundreds of thousands of citizens, Jews from all populations and sectors, for whom keeping the Sabbath is important to them, I am asking you at this early stage, before any production or other details of the event have been set, to make sure this doesn’t undercut the holiness of the Sabbath and to work in every way to prevent Sabbath desecration, God forbid, as required by law and the status quo,” he wrote.

Freiling, who is also responsible for international relations at the German broadcasting corporation ZDF, said he would bearriving in Israel on Thursday and was aware of the tensions. It will be an interesting challenge, he said, but the EBU’s partner is the local broadcasting corporation, not the government, and there are rules that govern the event no matter which country hosts it. Every step in the process, from the producer to the host city, the arena and the content must be approved by the contest’s board of directors, he said.

This is not the first Eurovision contest Israel has hosted. Before the last time, which was in May 1999, the organizers also faced fierce Haredi opposition.

Then, however, “They waited and caught us pretty much by surprise at the last minute,” said Araleh Goldfinger, one of the producers at the time. “It was a pretty serious crisis. I remember how the Israel Broadcasting Corporation director-general, the late Uri Porat, turned pale and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ He saw this as a national crisis. Somehow, everything worked out.”

The way it worked out was that there were no dress rehearsals at all on either Friday or Saturday. As a result, there was no filmed backup of any part of the contest that could have been used in the event of a technical failure or other problem during the live broadcast. Goldfinger admits that technical preparations for the final itself took place in the hall throughout Shabbat, “even though they asked us not to.”

This time it will be even more difficult because the event now also has two semifinals, he said. “The event is essentially three events, and with regard to the final on Shabbat, there’ll be a problem because there won’t be time for rehearsals. At least one dress rehearsal will have to be Friday night. They could try to have the rehearsal earlier on Friday, but it’s not realistic if the second semifinal ends again so late on Thursday.”

Goldfinger went so far as to declare the event “pikuah nefesh,” a life-and-death matter. If the powers that be are determined to hold the event in Jerusalem, he said, “They shouldn’t wait until the decisive day and then try to resolve it.” He suggested simply holding the dress rehearsal on Saturday anyway. “You have to write a contract and get everyone to sign that this is a life-and-death matter, out of concern for the lives of all Eurovision fans in Israel and the world,” he said.

Regev said she had already been contacted by Litzman’s representatives and said in an interview with Israel Television News, “We of course don’t want to desecrate the Sabbath and we won’t desecrate it.”