They've been saying it for years: The Eurovision Song Contest isn’t really about the best pop song – it’s just an international popularity contest. No matter how well-crafted the songs may be or how skilled the performers are when appearing before European audiences hostile to the Jewish state – if not downright anti-Semitic – they don’t stand a chance. It’s all politics.
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That’s what Israeli fans of the annual competition have been grumbling and complaining about, in order to comfort themselves after their repeated poor showings in the past several years, when they’ve failed even to make the finals of the campy, glittery event.
But this year’s finals of the Eurovision event, held in Vienna on Saturday, held a big surprise for the traditional Israeli complainers – one that emerged the day after participants had removed their sequined costumes and stage make-up. The Eurovision’s official website published the full results of the voting in each country, including those of both the professional judges and the home audiences, which had been combined for the final score.
The numbers showed that in the second semifinal round, which took place two days beforehand and in which Israel competed, the Israeli song “Golden Boy” by Nadav Guedj came in second among the viewers and in third place overall. Only the Swedish song, “Heroes,” which eventually won the entire competition, did better.
Israel’s success in the semifinal happened in a year when European public opinion toward the country is perceived by some as having reached new lows. But despite last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the continuing construction of settlements and anti-democratic legislation, Israel seemed to have been viewed as just another Eurovision contender – even one with a pretty good song – at least in the dubious pop-culture arena in which it was competing.
Is it possible that music succeeded in winning hearts, as the theme of this year’s competition –“Building Bridges” – suggested? And is it possible that Eurovision isn’t as generally political and specifically anti-Israel as everybody thinks?
After all, it turns out that most European viewers of the semifinal round, besides those who liked the Swedish song the most, were willing to pick up their cell phones, blow some precious euros, and vote for Israel – a country that isn’t even on the continent the competition is named for. Israel got the highest possible score – 12 points – from both Britain and Italy, countries whose residents are not believed to have a particular affinity for Israel these days, and 10 points (the second-highest score) from countries such as Sweden, Poland and Cyprus.
This was reinforced by Israel’s relative success in the final, in which it came in ninth – seventh, if the preferences of only the home viewers were considered – and well ahead of such traditionally strong Eurovision contenders as France, Germany and Britain.
For even stronger evidence that art (if you can call overwrought pop songs “art”) trumped politics at Eurovision 2015, you don’t have to look further than Russia. Last year, the Tolmachevy Sisters, who represented that country with the song “Shine,” were booed incessantly during their performance, due to the crisis in the Crimean Peninsula and the anti-gay policies of the Russian government. This year, however, singer Polina Gagarina was received warmly by the crowd in the hall and the viewers, and ended up winning second place, despite no substantive change in Russia’s foreign or domestic policies.
Perhaps this is a sign that Europe is learning to accept what it cannot change – strongmen like Putin – and is now willing to make a distinction between unpopular political leaders and their country’s performers.
If so, this seems to validate Israel’s decision this year to send its carefree “Golden Boy” party anthem to Eurovision, after years of trying in vain to find favor with the Europeans with apologetic and hypocritical songs about peace and tolerance, and failed gimmicks like candlelight or a duet between a Jewish and an Arab singer.
After the sweeping victory of the right-wing bloc headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in the recent election, Israel stopped pretending and revealed its true face with its song, declaring: This is what we are. As Guedj sang in the song, “This is how we do it” – and the world had better get used to it.
The big question for 2016 is, if they aren’t able to chalk up the Eurovision results to politics, xenophobia or a dose of presumed anti-Semitism – what possible excuse will next year’s Israeli performers have if they don’t win over the audience?