Analysis

Missiles? BDS? Iran? Forget About Them. Israel Put Its Best Face Forward in a Eurovision That Succeeded in All Ways but One

Saturday's broadcast showed off Israel’s most flattering side and did its part to counter the images that the world is more used to associating with Israel — war, strife and blood

Fans react as they listen to the 2019 Eurovision song contest final in the fans zone by the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 18, 2019.
REUTERS/ Corinna Kern

>> Netherlands' Duncan Laurence wins Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv

>> Madonna surprises Eurovision with Palestinian flag on dancer's back

In the end, Israel’s 2019 Eurovision Song Contest had everything a host country could hope for: An impressive, memorable and professional production that not only met but exceeded the standards of Eurovisions past; a fun-filled, food-filled “Eurovillage” on the Mediterranean shore; and an appearance by the queen of pop herself — Madonna.

Most importantly, after bated breath and concern, the event and festivities around it were unmarred by terrorist attacks or missile sirens, the fruit of intensive behind-the-scenes efforts by Israeli officials. Even last-minute reports of exchanges of fire in Syria Saturday night didn’t manage to spoil the party. 

If there was any clear failure in the exercise, any reason to give Israel’s Eurovision effort less than a perfect score, it was the fact the vast majority of the spectators in the audience — during the dress rehearsals, semifinals and finals, and at all of the Eurovision-related festivities across Tel Aviv — were Israeli.

The throngs of fans traveling from Europe to cheer on the 41 participating countries who were supposed to crowd the streets of Tel Aviv simply never materialized.

And all evidence pointed to the fact that it was not due to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Roger Waters or any other pro-Palestinian activists. Rather, it was a self-inflicted wound, with a government that did not subsidize massive Eurovision-linked tourism campaigns, subsidize packages or, most important, underwrite the costs of the huge production, resulting in sky-high ticket prices for the show.

“We had more than 20 friends who would have come to Israel for this Eurovision if it weren’t for the ticket prices,” said Michelle Ackerman from Amsterdam, part of a group of friends waiting in line to be part of the audience of 7,500 at Expo Tel Aviv. The friends have traveled to countless contests in various countries over the years. “Would you believe our tickets cost more than our airfare?” she asked.

Waving Dutch flags and dressed in outfits featuring support for their contestant — and eventual winner — Duncan Laurence, the group of visitors from the Netherlands, like the handful of other groups visiting from abroad, were rare enough to be an attraction for the majority of Israeli audience members, who streamed to them in an endless request for selfies alongside foreigners.

Alongside them was a group from Spain. “The Tel Aviv Eurovillage on the beach was great — spacious — and all of the volunteers across the city were so nice and helpful,” said Carlos Madrano from Madrid, who traveled to see the show and for a first-time trip to Israel. “There’s a great culture here and, most importantly, good looking men. But yes, everything is expensive — even the alcohol.”

The Eurovillage — the expansive stage on the beach with a massive stage that hosted music performances and screened the broadcasts live before the crowds, adjacent to Tel Aviv’s annual food festival — was equally dominated by Israelis.  

While Israel’s successful Eurovision may not benefit from word of mouth on the part of thousands of tourists, its story will be told by the 1,200 journalists who attended. Also the colorful vignettes on the broadcast viewed by 200 million people, which showed off Israel’s most flattering side, doing its part to counter the images the world is more accustomed to associating with Israel: war, strife and blood.

Local pride was carefully woven into the show in a way that was clear but understated enough not to alienate the international audience. The final opened with a video featuring 2018 winner Netta Barzilai piloting a plane that circled the country, over fields, excited youth in scout uniforms and the Old City of Jerusalem, telling the control tower, “We have 26 Eurovision finalists on board, heading your way.”

Barzilai then “landed” the massive plane on a stage decked in blue and white, accompanied by dancing flight attendants, and greeted the crowd as the show was opened with a medley of Israel’s greatest Eurovision hits.

Evoking this year’s Eurovision theme “Dare to Dream,” host Erez Tal opened the show by saying that Israel is “a country of people from all over the world who dared to dream and follow that dream to make it come true,” standing alongside supermodel Bar Refaeli, Arab journalist Lucy Ayoub (who greeted the audience in Arabic) and openly gay television host Assi Azar.

After the 26 competitors sang their songs, a performance by the Idan Raichel Project — a multiracial, multicultural “world music” group who performed in Hebrew and Amharic, the only song on the show in Israel's language — gave the international extravaganza a dose of local flavor. 

To top it off, there was a three-minute video love letter to Tel Aviv starring Israel's biggest Hollywood star, Gal Gadot.

In the end, it was an undeniable public relations triumph. Even the Icelandic competitor Hatari, whom organizers feared would make some kind of on-stage protest, merely displayed a Palestinian banner during the voting portion of the contest at the very end. 

The thousands of visitors from overseas who did come, and the millions of viewers, were shown precisely the side of Israel the organizers and government wanted them to see: colorful, diverse, fun-loving. And unlike the satirical and controversial promotional video that made the rounds on social media before the contest, had no mention of occupation or conflict.

All of that could wait until after the lights of the grand final went down.