Hosting Eurovision Doesn't Make Israel Part of Europe

Eurovision is escapism for Israelis who still, 71 years on, can’t get used to the idea of living in the Middle East. And for Europeans, it's increasingly an escape from their own continent's ethno-nationalist crises

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Last year's winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, Netta Barzilai of Israel, performs during the first semi-final of 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, Israel May 14, 2019
Last year's winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, Netta Barzilai of Israel, performs during the first semi-final of 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, Israel May 14, 2019Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The first time I heard of the Eurovision was at school. I was nine, and I arrived in class one morning to find everyone else talking of how Israel had almost won it the previous night. My painfully non-Israeli parents were not aware, of course, of the national importance of the song competition and didn’t know that watching it was a national ritual.

When I asked my friends what Israel was doing participating in a European song contest, no-one understood my question. I was, apparently, the only atlas-loving geek in my class who knew at that age that Israel wasn’t even in Europe. 

>> How Eurovision Became a Strategic Asset for Israel

I won’t bore you with the historic details about why Israel is a member of the European Broadcasting Union and how it first competed in the Eurovision in 1973, a contest which it has since won four times. I still find the idea rather outlandish.

But then Israel isn’t the only technically non-European member of the EBU and you could argue that thanks to its isolation from most of its neighbors, and the fact that the Europeans do indeed owe us, the least they can do is let us in to their competitions.

In the absence of functioning ties with most of the Arab nations, I don’t have a problem with Israeli athletes and teams competing in European tournaments. As a season-ticket holder, I’ll go and watch my beloved Hapoel Jerusalem play in the European Basketball Champions League.

But sport is more culture-blind than music (as it is, most of the players for Israeli clubs are Americans who didn’t get chosen in the NBA draft), which, in theory, is somewhat more anchored in language, meaning and tradition.

And I don’t really object to the Eurovision itself, as a concept, even though that particular brand of performance art - I’m not quite sure if "music" encapsulates it - isn’t necessarily my taste.

Of course, you don’t have to be European to perform and compete in the Eurovision: Azerbaijan and Australia are there as well. Morocco took part once as well. Good look to them.

My problem is that after 71 years of existence on the eastern reaches of Asia, Israelis still can’t get used to the idea of living in the Middle East.

Israel isn’t a European country. Not by geography, not by demographics and not by history. Most Israelis are not of European descent (that’s true both of the majority of Israeli Jews and, of course, of Israeli citizens overall).

Participant Leonora of Denmark performs during a dress rehearsal ahead of the second semi-final of 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, Israel May 15, 2019Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

And for those of whose ancestors did live in Europe for centuries – most of us got the clear message that Europe didn’t want us there, certainly not as living Jews. And yes, you can argue that the Middle East doesn’t want us either, but surely the point of it all has been that we’re planning on staying here, whether they want us or not.

Outside of Eurovision week, Israelis are not massive consumers of contemporary European pop culture. What we have here which isn’t home-grown, or brought by Jewish immigrants from every corner of the glove, is largely Americanized.

I’m a proud member of Israel's Ashkenazi minority, but nothing in my Jewish Eastern European heritage resembles Eurovision. There’s not a Eurosceptic bone in my body, and as readers of this column will already know, my atheistic prayers are fully focused on the country of my birth awakening from the self-induced nightmare of Brexit.

Much of the "political" coverage of the Eurovision was over the miserable boycott attempts of anti-Israel social media activists to punish it for taking place in Israel. This only served to underline the fundamental flaw in the boycott strategy (as opposed to its moral flaw).

Any attempts to boycott a Eurovision contest from taking place in any of the member-countries of the European Broadcasting Union would have failed, because the entire aim of the contest is to project a de-politicized, non-ideological and uncontroversial image of uncomplicated entertainment.

Anyone who thinks the Eurovision could be transformed in to a platform for political protest has simply never watched the broadcast or listened to any of its songs.

Protesters calling for an end to Israel's policy towards Gaza and a boycott of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest as the first semi final of the contest begins in Tel Aviv, Israel May 14, 2019Credit: \ Corinna Kern/ REUTERS

Its organizers will never allow anything to jeopardize its nature or to hijack its platform. Not that past entrants haven't tried - from commemorating the Armenian genocide to protesting Russia’s expansionism. But the EBU won’t let any politics contaminate their popular brand.

Just like the attempts of the BDS "movement" to get people around the world to boycott Israeli goods is an abject failure, not for any ideological arguments for or against, because no one is about to stop using their smartphone, so with Eurovision. It’s hundreds of millions fans across the world will watch the final on Saturday night because they simply don’t care where it is being staged.

Israel hosting the Eurovision doesn’t say anything about the Israel-Palestine conflict. It won’t help make Israel’s case to the world, or push the Palestinian struggle any further down from the already low place it occupies on the global agenda. Just as the Eurovision in Baku in 2012, despite the Aliyev regime wasting an estimated $350 million on a purpose-built indoor arena, did nothing to alter the image of the kleptocracy on the Caspian. It doesn’t matter.

You probably don’t remember where the Eurovision was last year (don’t google, it was Lisbon), and besides the participants, few will remember in a couple of weeks that it was in Tel Aviv this year. It’s a gauzy artificial product with no nutritional values. Cultural fast-food which you can consume and digest in any city, not only in Europe, but anywhere in the world.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Eurovision. Bad music and ultra-exaggerated performances have their place. It’s funny, irony-free camp. But there’s nothing European about it. Certainly nothing which relates to today’s Europe, except perhaps for the spiteful tactical voting stage, which is fun in its own way.

Kate Miller-Heidke of Australia performs during the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest semi-final in Tel Aviv, Israel. May 14, 2019Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

But Eurovision’s "vision" of a friendly, inclusive, multi-colored continent is an illusion. That’s not what Europe currently looks like.

Not on its eastern borders, with Putin’s Russia trying to reassert its hegemony. Not in Hungary or Poland, where Christian ethnonationalism is resurgent, or Italy where neofascism is making a comeback. Not in Germany, Austria, Spain and France, where far-right parties are making gains. I can go on. Did I mention Brexit already?

Eurovision was originally launched in the 1950s to create a sense of new European solidarity in the continent that had been devastated by war. As such, it successfully reflected the new commitment to peace and prosperity.

Nowadays, it’s no longer Europe bravely trying to overcome the differences of the past, but as the extravaganza gets wilder every year, it’s escapism - and not in a good way.

It’s Europe evading all the ways that religion, nationalism and immigration are once again tearing it apart. It’s a mirage, a Europe avoiding its predicaments with nonsensical songs and shiny outfits.

And for Israel it’s an illusion that it can escape the Middle East for a non-existent vision of Europe. Because no matter how many Eurovisions we host, we'll never be part of Europe.

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