The Agony and the Ecstasy of Israel’s Eurovision Extravaganza

The kitschy, gay-friendly spectacle gave liberal Israelis a tantalizing glimpse of the country they once cherished — but it could turn out to be their swan song

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Madonna and rapper Quavo perform during the 64th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, Tel Aviv, May 19, 2019.
Madonna and rapper Quavo perform during the 64th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, Tel Aviv, May 19, 2019.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

For Israeli liberals/leftists, moments of patriotic pride and joy are few, far between and getting rarer as time goes by. Israeli liberals may be thriving in their private lives, but on a national level Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent election victory and the right’s escalating assault on democracy and the rule of law have rendered them despondent and virtually inconsolable. Saturday night’s Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv was a glorious exception to the rule.

Most Israelis, including far more content right-wingers, were gratified first and foremost that the song contest, watched by 200 million viewers but perennially derided by critics as a cavalcade of kitsch, went off without a hitch. Experts and aficionados of Eurobvidescribed the Israeli show as the most spectacular in the competition’s 63-year history.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 27

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Israel already had an established tradition of trailblazing some of Eurovision’s landmark technological innovations: In 1973, when it first participated, Israel was the first country to be linked to the annual gala by satellite. Hosting Eurovision for the first time in 1979, it was also the first to link all participating countries by satellite. Saturday night’s pageant nonetheless outdid them all, combining high-tech wizardry, advanced computer imagery and the Israeli penchant for taking risks to produce a near flawless spectacle that riveted the eye far more than the contesting songs captivated the ear.

Most Israelis were also happy that none of the participating countries succumbed to the substantial pressures exerted by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to stay away from Tel Aviv. Despite the government’s intentional efforts to artificially elevate the threat from BDS to existential level, the movement failed to deter even a single country from participating. Forty years ago, when Israel hosted its first Eurovision in the wake of its first victory in the contest a year earlier, Turkey, then-Yugoslavia and a host of Arab countries preferred to stay way.

Less Israelis, perhaps, but presumably a majority nonetheless, were also cheered by the unabashed celebration of sexual diversity, which has become one of the main hallmarks of Eurovision in recent decades — and one of the areas in which Israel has left an indelible mark.

In her 1998 victory, singer Dana International revolutionized attitudes toward transgender people throughout Europe. Last year, boisterous Netta Barzilai gave a clear if quixotic voice to the #MeToo movement. A lesser-known landmark was achieved in 2000 when a member of the PingPong group representing Israel waved a Syrian flag in support of then ongoing peace talks — which seems bizarre today — but, more importantly, when two members of the group registered Eurovision’s first albeit brief kiss between two gay men. Alarmed by their behavior, the Israel Broadcast Authority succumbed to government pressure and disowned PingPong, whose members made their way to host city Stockholm on their own accord.

The 2019 contest fully lived up to Eurovision’s name as the “Gay Olympics” and to Israel’s gay-embracing image. One of four Israeli hosts, Assi Azar, is a prominent gay activist. The lineup of performers included a gay Muslim from Austria as well as the LGBTQ-supporting, BDSM-promoting Icelandic punk rock group Hatari. And the halftime show featured a makeshift panel of former Eurovision winners that included a male crossdresser with a beard, a Russian drag queen and a Swede who once derided gay people and has been repenting ever since, topped off by a performance by the biggest gay icon of them all — Madonna — whose two-song routine was unfortunately marred by the fabled singer’s failed efforts to hit the right key.

As expected, BDS supporters accused Israel of trying to leverage its tolerance of sexual diversity to “pinkwash” the occupation. But in this case at least, they got it all wrong. The extroverted display of sexual tolerance was, in many ways, a cry of protest from the capital of liberal Tel Aviv against a government that is seen as increasingly conservative, theocratic and averse to gay equality. In fact, it was the government’s reservations about the entire Eurovision enterprise that made the contest’s success such a special treat for its critics.

The bittersweet spectacle upset ultra-Orthodox politicians, who had railed against the mass desecration of Shabbat mandated by preparations for the Saturday night event. Moreover, Eurovision was seen by many as an in-your-face outcry against media-obsessed Netanyahu, who has unsuccessfully tried in recent years to shut down contest organizer Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, also known as Kan (“Here” in Hebrew).  

Fearing Netanyahu’s wrath, government ministers parted with tradition and refused to subsidize the song contest, forcing Kan to take out costly loans to the tune of almost 100 million shekels ($28 million), which it cannot afford. Netanyahu’s acolytes — whose prayers for a dismal Kan failure that would advance the premier’s wish to close it down were left unanswered —  are now hoping that the public broadcaster’s potential insolvency will allow Netanyahu to deliver the fatal coup de grace.

Despite widespread condemnation from the right, leftist Israelis could also take comfort in the minor political protests staged by two of Madonna’s dancers, who pasted Israeli and Palestinian flags to their shirts, and by the Icelandic group that waved a Palestinian flag as the votes were being counted. The gestures are not only banned by the rules of the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the competition — they have mostly disappeared from the Israeli public arena as well.

Even the unfortunately dismal showing of the Israeli competitor, Kobi Marimi, failed to mar liberal celebrations. The four-hour extravaganza provided center-left Israelis with a brief but ultimately painful glimpse into the kind of country they also cherish but have started to mourn. It provided a tantalizing moment of liberal openness that belied not only Israel’s reactionary drift but its efforts to paint Europe as inherently hostile as well.

The rare moment of liberal ecstasy, however, was accompanied by an excruciating agony that set in as soon as Eurovision ended, close to 2 A.M. on Sunday morning. A few hours later, in the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu consoled Marimi and congratulated Dutch winner Duncan Laurence but pointedly refrained from praising Kan producers and directors for putting on what was undoubtedly the biggest and most complex public performance in Israeli history.

From there, Netanyahu returned to talks on forming a new governing coalition, in which ultra-Orthodox parties are expected to try to close the loopholes that allowed Israel to stage the contest on the obligatory Saturday night in the first place.

Eurovision 2019 might thus go down in history not only as an unexpected show of defiance by Israel’s dwindling liberal camp, but as an impassioned swan song signaling its imminent demise.

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