Can Hovi Star Pull Israel Out of Its Eurovision Rut?

After enjoying early success at the international song contest, Israel hasn't won since 1998. Some blame politics; others blame the songs. Can this year's contestant overcome both?

Hovi Star, flanked by 'Rising Star' hosts Rotem Sela and Assi Azar, is announced the winner of the show and Israel's delegate to the Eurovision Song Contest, March 3, 2016.
Ortal Dahan

Reality television wasn't kind to Hovi Star when he first graced the stage in 2009. The singer, who was 22 at the time, drowned in kitschy gimmicks, and the amount of superfluous vocal trills he added would make Mariah Carey sound plain. But the viewers of "A Star is Born," the Israeli version of "American Idol," loved him enough to keep him on the show until he reached 10th place. Then they voted him out.

Seven years later, the singer returned to the reality television school of hard knocks with one goal in mind: to represent Israel in the international song contest Eurovision. Now free of gimmicks and brandishing a cleaner and more controlled voice, he tried out for "Rising Star," which serves today as Israel's pre-Eurovision competition.

"I'm not interested in winning a f***ing car," he declared at the outset. "I am interested in representing Israel at Eurovision. I need to do that. That's why I'm here." And that's precisely what he did. Hovi Star (whose real name is Hovev Sekuletz) proceeded to knock out contestant after contestant until viewers at home voted him the victor.

Will the people's choice for Eurovision continue his winning streak and take Israel to international glory? Some are skeptical, not because Hovi Star doesn't have what it takes to be, well, a star, but because Israel seems to be stuck in a Eurovision rut. It has failed to qualify for the finals five times in the past decade and hasn't won the competition since 1998.

Hovi Star performing at a children's music festival in December 2009.
David Bachar

Eurovision, one of the longest-running television shows in the world, was launched in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union. Participating countries perform an original song and a winner is selected by a combination of votes by audience members and judges. Most performances are forgettable, but the competition is credited with launching the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion, and, in Israel, musical powerhouses Rita, Shlomo Artzi and Sarit Hadad. 

Israel, an EBU member, joined the competition in 1973 and enjoyed great success in its early years, winning back-to-back titles in 1978 and 1979. The respective songs – "A-Ba-Ni-Bi" and "Hallelujah" – became hits in Israel and widely known in Jewish Diaspora communities. After these triumphs, however, it took two decades to win again, when Dana International, a transgender woman, took first place in 1998, with "Diva."

Hovi Star performs his song 'Made of Stars' on talent show 'Rising Star.'

The reasons for the drought are complicated and unclear. Some blame anti-Semitism and hostility toward Israel among voting states over its conflict with the Palestinians.

"I witness remarks on online Eurovision forums calling to boycott Israel and urging viewers, 'Don't vote for Israel,'" long-time fan Oded Avraham tells Haaretz. While it may not be the only reason Israel has ranked poorly in recent years, he says, it certainly has an impact on how viewers vote.

"This is precisely what makes the difference between ranking fourth, like Shiri Maimon did with her phenomenal performance in 2005, and ranking higher," says Avraham. "It may not impact the panel of professional voters, but the anti-Israel comments posted to Eurovision pages on Facebook and Twitter impact the young viewers, who are very active on social media."

Israel is not the only country to suffer from political biases. The contest has been marred by criticism over countries forming voting alliances. Whether this was due to political interests or similar tastes in music is subject to debate.

The controversy reached fever pitch in 2008 when Britain's Terry Wogan, who had been a popular commentator of Eurovision since the 1970s and who recently died, resigned over what he called "national prejudices" that had turned the contest into a debacle. The following year, Eurovision changed its voting system in an effort to combat voting blocs, reducing the weight of home audiences' votes to 50 percent, and awarding panels of professional judges the other half.

It's only natural that countries who share borders or cultures will vote for one another, says Yoav Ginai, head of Israel's delegation to Eurovision and the songwriter behind "Diva." 

Given that Israel doesn't belong to a bloc, the points might work against us, he says, "but I believe that with a good song and the right buzz, Israel can rank relatively highly, and possibly even win." Ginai notes that there are other, more established countries, like Portugal, that have not managed to match Israel's accomplishments at the contest.

There are also those who say Israel's failures in recent years have less do to with politics and more to do with substandard songs and equally-as-weak performers. "The songs have been completely forgettable," says music critic Avi Pitchon, who has followed Eurovision for decades.

Avraham agrees that Israel has sent weak performances to the contest in recent years, although last year's song, "Golden Boy," was an exception. "The song was Middle Eastern, but it was very poppy, very cool, very hip, and a diverse audience could connect to it. [Israel] had been lacking this kind of a song for a number of years," he says.

Until last year, a panel of industry professionals appointed by the Israel Broadcasting Authority selected the country's representative to Eurovision. But after a series of poor results for Israel, the IBA decided to change course, allowing producers Keshet and Teddy Productions to turn "Rising Star" into a televised pre-Eurovision competition.

Nadav Guedj's "Golden Boy," Israel's entry for the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest.

This was a smart move, says Avraham. Keshet's and Teddy's "professional and modern production skills significantly improved the quality of the performance Israel sent to Eurovision that year. More than singing a nice song, [Guedj's performance] was eye candy. If you have the right song, the right staging and the right costume – it will work," he says.

The proof was in the pudding. Guedj not only broke a four-year drought in which no Israelis even qualified for the final, but he also ranked ninth – a respectable showing.

Israeli fans are doubtful that even a blockbuster performance by Hovi Star will be enough to win the contest, but they seem to have come to terms with this foregone conclusion. What's important for them is that the young, passionate performer represents their country with pride, and at least makes it into the finals when he descends on Stockholm this week.