Usually, when Israelis of all political stripes are huddled in their homes after midnight glued to the television, clutching each other in nervous anticipation, it isn’t for a good reason.
But on Saturday night, the tense excitement didn’t stem from fear of incoming missiles or a devastating terrorist attack - it was all positive energy, as the country united in their fervent hope that a spunky 25-year-old singer named Netta Barzilai would triumph in the Eurovision Song Contest with “Toy,” her catchy anthem of empowerment punctuated by chicken-clucking and traditional Middle Eastern whoops of celebration.
When Barzilai won, celebrations erupted on the streets of Tel Aviv, with crowds pouring into Rabin Square, usually the site of protests, diving into fountains in front of city hall, and overflowing into the surrounding streets, blocking traffic. It was a moment of pure joy - and welcome distraction from this week’s politically charged triple-header that may bring tensions and violence - Jerusalem Day, the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and Nakba Day.
Barzilai’s victory had something for everyone. For flag-waving right-leaning patriots who see themselves as gladiators battling Israel’s haters, it was a reason to gloat over what was framed as a major victory over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
BDS activists and organizations - which work to dissuade international artists from playing in Israel and boycott Israelis performing abroad - had been active across social media platforms in the runup to the Eurovision with efforts to convince the voting countries not to support Barzilai in protest of the occupation and Israel’s alleged violations of human rights.
In pro-Israel Twitter parlance, Barzilai’s victory - and their defeat - was a major #BDSFail. To make it sweeter, it came on the heels of Israel’s hosting of the Giro D’Italia bicycle race which featured participants from around the world, including teams representing Gulf States.
No sooner had Barzilai exclaimed “I love my country!” upon winning, than Israeli politicians were eager to get a piece of glory: Culture Minister Miri Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were on the line with televised post-victory phone calls - in particular, Netanyahu’s taste for the Eurovision spotlight didn’t go unnoticed on social media.
The next morning, Netanyahu greeted the cameras as he entered a meeting with Barzilai-esque chicken gestures, a move that some quipped on Twitter should be called “NETTA-nyahu”
For free-spirited, left-wing Tel Aviv, Barzilai’s win scored points for a message of inclusion and diversity - as the singer put it - “choosing different and accepting differences between us” that resonates at a time where religion and state are often at odds, particularly when it comes to tolerance of the LGBT community - the undisputed Eurovision fan base. It struck a blow against what the “Toy” song lyrics call “modern-day preachers.”
While the outside world will view the location of next year’s contest in Jerusalem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, domestically, it has a deep cultural resonance.
The annual Gay Pride parade, an accepted and mainstream part of Tel Aviv life, is still a controversial powder keg in religious Jerusalem. Twenty years ago, when Dana International won Eurovision with the song “Diva” at a time when transgender identity was rarely discussed, let alone embraced, the fact that she brought the international spotlight to Jerusalem was a major victory. While jealous, Tel Avivians are smiling in anticipation of staid Jerusalem hosting the rambunctious crowd that will gather for the event next year.
To be sure, many Israelis on the left committed to Palestinian human rights had mixed feelings about the message of normalization that Barzilai’s victory was sending, even as they were thrilled that it had happened.
For women - and not only in Israel - it felt like a feminist triumph. Barzilai’s song, while not exactly a nuanced manifesto, was certainly an anthem of empowerment. Smiling as a self-confident “beautiful creature,” the singer declares to a “stupid boy” that she is not a silent disposable plaything: instead, “the Barbie’s got something to say.”
It is a message, Barzilai has stressed in nearly every interview, that has been inspired by the #MeToo movement.
In her post-victory press conference, she stated this explicitly, saying that "it's an empowerment song for everybody, for everybody who's been struggling being themselves - struggling with their bosses, with the government, with someone stepping on them.” The song’s signature clucking, she said, is meant to communicate that bullies are really chicken-hearted cowards.
Also of significance, Barzilai has emerged as a different kind of “Wonder Woman” - sending a message to young girls that they don’t have to look like Bar Refaeli or Gal Gadot in order to dream of being an international star. The singer has spoken candidly of being rejected by brides from playing at their weddings for being too fat, and encouraged to drape herself in black clothing and belt ballads because she didn’t fit the physical stereotype of a pop star.
"I've been told so many times that I'm not pretty enough, that I'm not smart enough, that I'm not skinny enough to do what I want to do," she said.
If there were any losers, it would be those who enjoy grumbling year after year that Israel can’t possibly win because anti-Semitism is so rife in Europe.
During this year in particular, it would be ridiculous to try to argue that Israel’s Eurovision win is somehow a sign that anti-Semitism in Europe has miraculously disappeared or even that it has been exaggerated. But surely, the continent’s embrace of Barzilai can be interpreted as an encouraging sign that with enough determination and talent, that prejudice and fear can be overcome, and - as Netta says, diversity and differences can be celebrated.
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