From Brexit to BDS: Tel Aviv 2019 Is the Most Divisive Eurovision Ever

Eurovision was born as a political initiative, but this year's competition is the most politically fraught ever

Ukrainian singer Anna Korsun, known by the stage name MARUV.
Inna Sokolovska/Reuters

A month and a half before the festivities in Tel Aviv, one can state that this is one of the most political Eurovision Song Contests ever. Singer Maruv and “Siren Song,” which was chosen to represent Ukraine in the competition, paid the price of the tense presidential elections in that country, which took place on Sunday. The tough nationalist position of Ukraine national television, which backed a series of demands and conditions set by President Petro Poroshenko that the singer found impossible to meet, forced her to drop out.

This was yet another stage in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which was moved from the battlefield to the Eurovision stage. It was a flashing red light for those who ask why it’s so important to keep politicians away from public broadcasting. In 2009, Georgia was also forced to withdraw from the contest because its song was interpreted as mocking President Vladimir Putin a year after Russia had invaded the country.

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Italy's Mahmood. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini tried to get him replaced and pushed to get Italy to withdraw from the competition.
A screenshot from YouTube

Political struggles connected to the contest are Israel’s lot as well. Externally, boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activists are threatening to disrupt the events, while domestically the poor relations between Kan, the public broadcasting corporation, and the government, which is refusing to provide funding for the event, is casting a pall. The bad blood continued with the state claiming that Kan refused to allow “postcards” of the delegations to be photographed beyond the Green Line, other than at the Western Wall. Kan denies this, of course. The state’s readiness to only partially finance the security expenses associated with the competition hasn’t done the relationship any good. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party ends up forming the next government after Israel's April 9 election, one can assume that the tensions with Kan will continue after the Eurovision as well.

Last week it was announced that Kan had agreed to a demand by France and the European Broadcasting Union to broadcast the comic miniseries “Douze Points” – in which ISIS recruits the French Eurovision contestant to commit a terror attack – only after the competition. Singer Bilal Hassani, a gay Muslim and France’s contestant, was pretty amused by the tumult, but French television wasn’t. Its executives understood the potential volatility of a series that makes fun of Muslims and could spark the type of demonstrations Paris has had enough of.

In Italy, immigration and Muslim issues also caused tension. Alessandro Mahmood, an Egyptian-born rapper, made a lot of people angry when he won the San Remo Music Festival to become Italy’s contestant. The voters at home gave him only third place, but the liberal judges sent him to Tel Aviv. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini tried to get him replaced and pushed to get Italy to withdraw from the competition. He said the protests against the song, “Soldi,” and the singer “will be heard in Rome and Tel Aviv.”

Italian Interior Minister and Vice Premier Matteo Salvini.
Alessandra Tarantino,AP

Mahmood’s case recalls that of singer Gigliola Cinquetti, whose song “Si” came in second in 1974, after Abba’s “Waterloo.” At that time Catholic Italy was holding a referendum on the question of whether to legalize divorce. “Si” (“Yes”) was interpreted as propaganda in favor of legalization, and as a result of pressure from the Vatican, Italy did not broadcast the Eurovision final, even though it participated. Canceling the broadcast violated Eurovision regulations, and it was only because Italy was one of the EBU’s founding countries that it wasn’t penalized. The referendum, by the way, endorsed divorce.

The status of the five founding countries, which also help finance the competition, is a political issue in and of itself. After all, Britain, Spain, France, Italy and Germany haven’t been doing too well in the contest in recent years, but who would dare challenge their status? Spain, for example, hasn’t won in 50 years, and its two consecutive (and only) wins in 1968 and 1969 were fraught with scandal.

In 1968, a charming Catalan song about the love of music, called “La, La, La,” was chosen for the contest. In Madrid they ordered the songwriter, Joan Manuel Serrat, to “toss the Catalan” and write a Spanish version. Serrat, one of Spain’s greatest artists, whose songs are known in Israel thanks to David Broza’s album “The Woman With Me,” refused. Franco’s dictatorial Spain didn’t hesitate; his song was basically taken from him. He was replaced as the singer, the song’s arrangers were declared the writers, and it was they who took the stage in London when the song won. Because of all this, the original version of the song is considered one of the symbols of Catalonia’s struggle for independence from Spain.

A year later, Spain was forced to suspend its military regime for a few weeks to allow the competition to take place in Madrid, but then it became embroiled in yet another dispute that threatened the existence of the competition. That night, no less than four countries – Britain, France, the Netherlands and Spain – tied for first place. To this day it is not clear how that happened, but there was no rule at the time to cover such a result. In response, several countries called to cancel the competition, and only a great deal of persuasion and a change in the voting method saved Eurovision. (When Israel hosted the competition in 1999, the producers practiced scenarios of how to handle a situation in which there was no clear winner.) To date, no one has come up with a voting system that everyone is satisfied with; in recent years it was changed again, with the judges voting in advance and the audience only during the final itself.

Since the beginning of the competition, the argument over whether to sing in the country’s national language or in English is revived annually and carries with it a political and national burden. In relatively young countries, for which preserving national identity in the European fabric is a big deal, language is important. That’s why competitors from the Balkan countries tend to sing in their mother tongue, although there, too, the argument about the language of the song ensues every year.

Activists hold placards calling for the boycott of Eurovision in Israel, in the town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
AFP

The truth must be stated: Eurovision was born as a political initiative of Western European countries seeking to strengthen the friendship among them during the Cold War years. Situating Eurovision headquarters in Geneva and holding the first contest in neutral Switzerland didn’t change anything. The Communist bloc started its own international song competition to promote the brotherhood of socialist nations, which took place annually in the resort town of Sopot, Poland. Israeli Esther Ofarim is the only singer to participate in both contests, coming in second in Sopot in 1962 with the song “Stav,” and in the 1963 Eurovision contest (representing Switzerland). Her Israeli passport proved to be an advantage.

This year, Britain is in a problematic position. After years of poor performance in the competition, the U.K. representatives are convinced that Europe is entirely against it, whether because of Brexit or not. On the humorous BBC program “How to Win the Eurovision,” one presenter wonders out loud why the country that gave the world public television, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John needs validation from Slovakia and Slovenia.

The mutual support of neighboring countries still exists, notwithstanding wins of recent years by Israel and Portugal, which have no voting blocs. On the other hand, the victories of Dana International and Austrian Conchita Wurst, for example, were a clear political and social statement by an international community that rallied around them against those still stuck in homophobic darkness.

In any case, no chances were taken with the divisions for the semifinals in Tel Aviv. The Scandinavian countries were separated, as were the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Someone actually forgot to separate Greece and Cyprus, which regularly vote for each other. That’s how it is when Turkey isn’t involved.