“I’ve got a new friend in Damascus,” the Israeli band Ping Pong sang at Eurovision in Sweden in 2000 as they waved a Syrian flag. The song, “Sameach,” was a reference to the talks that were underway at the time between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Syrians. The song drew outrage across the political spectrum. The head of the Broadcasting Authority at the time, Uri Porat, demanded that the band give back the money the authority had invested in it. At the authority’s head offices, the joke making the rounds was that it was a conspiracy to prevent Israel from winning Eurovision and hosting the contest again; hosting the event the year before had dragged the Broadcasting Authority into a fiscal black hole.
But the problem then, as now, is not financial; it’s political. Netanyahu and his spokesmen do not conceal their desire to close the broadcasting corporation. They’re fuming over the trick that forced them to stop it from splitting, and have promised to convene as soon as Eurovision is over.
Netta Barzilai’s Eurovision win last year finally silenced claims of political discrimination made over the years, when Israel scored low in the contest. True, its first two consecutive victories came toward the end of peace negotiations with Egypt that had thrilled the world. But Israel came in first twice and took second place twice in years when its standing, certainly in Europe, was less than stellar.
But politics doesn’t stop with the winning song. The question of funding and the demand that “Eurovision be held in Jerusalem or not at all,” were the main problems that threatened the competition in Israel. But among the demands in the document from the European Broadcasting Union was that Israel would not prevent the entry of any person during the competition – meaning boycott, divestment and sanctions activists who are still trying to prevent the competition from taking place in Israel, or at least to disrupt it.
What happened on Saturday in Iceland shuffled the deck again. Members of the band Hatari, which won the pre-Eurovision competition in Reykjavik, said Iceland shouldn't be taking part in the contest in Israel – but since it is participating, the band is coming with the declared intention to protest Israeli policy. In short, a sure recipe for a mess. They have also challenged Netanyahu to a match of traditional Icelandic trouser-grip wrestling on the day after the finals, which suggests that this is some kind of PR prank. Nevertheless, the urgent trip by Eurovision producer Jon Ola Sand to Iceland says this is far from a laughing matter.
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Hatari’s song is called “Hate will prevail," and here are some of the lyrics: Hate will prevail / Europe will crumble / A web of lies / Will arise from the ashes / United as one.” We can’t take a chance with a bunch of post-punks threatening to bring an entire army of BDS activists.
The latest story with Hatari heightens the sense that we are headed for the most politicized Eurovision contest yet. Ukraine pulled out of the contest last week on the backdrop of its war with Russia; the singer chosen to represent Ukraine was forced to withdraw after her patriotism was apparently put into question over plans to perform in Russia.
By the way, because of the identification of the LGBT community with the competition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to pull Turkey out once and for all after Conchita Wurst won in 2014. And in Italy and France riots have broken out in recent weeks. In Italy, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini sought to disqualify the Italian-Egyptian singer Mahmoud who incorporated Arabic words into his song. The French Muslim singer Bilal Hassani, France’s surprise Eurovision pick, also got caught up in controversy over France’s demand that Israel's public broadcaster not air a comedy series at the heart of which is a French Muslim singer at Eurovision who is an ISIS operative.
Politics have been part and parcel of Eurovision since its inception in 1956 as a musical project by Western European countries during the Cold War. The Communist bloc organized a counter-competition that was regularly held in Sopot, Poland, which once even hosted Israeli singers. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1990, all of the Eastern European countries streamed to Eurovision. The West won here as well, and thus regional voting was born, in which blocs of countries vote for each other.
In an era of political extremism and attempts to harness culture and entertainment to it, it’s a pity that we don’t learn from the Balkan example. Anyone who sees the former Yugoslavian countries at Eurovision can’t believe that in the 1990s there was a terrible war there that included genocide. When the muses sing, the canons fall silent. At least there.