Shefita is in many ways the perfect Israeli choice for the Eurovision Song Contest. She’s a hugely entertaining, talented, utterly original singer with a bitchy comedic persona that embodies the kind of attention-grabbing gimmickry that often spells Eurovision success.
At the same time, the 35-year-old singer is also the worst possible choice imaginable and is viewed by much of the Israeli public as no less than a potential PR nightmare.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is already pressuring acts to forgo the international singing contest in May as it is taking place in Tel Aviv, casting a political shadow on an event the Israeli hosts desperately want to focus instead on fun and entertainment.
Arguably the last thing Israel needs is to be represented in the contest by a politically controversial singer accused of blatant cultural appropriation. Yet the final decision as to whether this might happen will take place on Tuesday evening when one of four finalists will be chosen to represent Israel.
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The woman behind the Shefita controversy is Rotem Shefy, a singer from the northern Israeli city of Karmiel. The daughter of an Ashkenazi father and Yemenite mother, at first her career followed a conventional trajectory. During her army service she performed in the Israel Air Force Ensemble, then she trained at the prestigious Rimon School of Music just north of Tel Aviv. Her early performances on the coffeehouse circuit, both during and after her studies, were as a jazz and folk vocalist.
She was a relative unknown until six years ago, when she went viral on YouTube appearing as an alter ego she developed called Shefita. This flamboyant character is a supremely confident and highly mannered Arab chanteuse, who pairs sequined finery worthy of an Egyptian or Lebanese diva with glittering jewelry, cat-eye glasses and a walking stick. She speaks in a hodgepodge of English and Hebrew, with an absurdly thick Arab accent.
Her musical gimmick is to take U.S. and British hits – everything from The Beatles to alternative rock – and “Middle Easternize” them with arrangements involving electric guitars, an Oud and her impressive, quavering vocals, covering songs as diverse as Nirvana’s “Lithium” and Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.”
Her cover of Aerosmith’s “Pink” was the official video for Tel Aviv Pride in 2016.
From her very first hit – a 2013 cover of Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” accompanied by a crowdfunded video in which Shefita rides around the streets of Jaffa on a horse-drawn cart – the schtick has drawn fire. Shefita/Shefy has been slammed by critics within Israel for unacceptable cultural appropriation of Arab culture.
Her defenders say that Israeli Jews – particularly those like Shefy, with family roots in Yemen – need not apologize for claiming Middle Eastern musical traditions as their own, and that her style is a perfectly legitimate reflection of the complex mix of local and international influences in Israeli culture.
In 2013, Tablet journalist Liel Leibovitz eloquently defended Shefy’s honor, writing: “Anyone arguing that Shefy’s song is an attempt to purloin Arabic musical traditions is missing the point. Shefy isn’t merely trying to sound like a Lebanese chanteuse, say, or an Egyptian rock star. She is a young Israeli artist applying the all-too-familiar sounds of the Middle East to one of the biggest hits by one of the most revered British bands of the century. Seen from a strictly academic perspective, one can talk about such a melding of influences as a postmodern pastiche. Seen from the streets of southern Tel Aviv, one realizes it is much, much more than that: What Shefy has created is one of the more mature examples of Israeli music in years, a work that is simultaneously particular and universal in refusing to choose between Radiohead and the oud, between dreams of London and days in Tel Aviv.”
Back then, the singer’s career was a low-key domestic dispute. But the Eurovision has heightened the stakes, amplifying the debate to a much higher level than when she made her debut. Or the second time she drew attention, when she was hired to do commercials for – of all things – hummus.
Last week, as the final show approached, the Hebrew website Walla asked seven Israeli-Arab musicians their opinions of Shefita – and none were positive. One singer-songwriter, Jowan Safadi, pointed to Shefita’s appropriation as a sign that “there is no such thing as an authentic Israeli culture,” only a weak “colonial” replica of Middle Eastern culture.
“Because Israeli culture, food and clothing do not have much to market abroad,” he contended, ”the Jews take the kaffiyeh, the hummus and the shawarma, and claim that it is Israeli.”
Another singer, Amal Murkus, said Shefita’s popularity highlights the fact that Israel is “racist,” and “not only toward Palestinians but toward all the weaker classes and to anyone who is different.”
Shefy did little to help her defense with her response to the criticism. She was quoted in Walla as saying that “Arab musicians should say ‘Thank you’ for what Shefita has done for Arab music” in Israel, and that she “has done a lot more for Arab music” than those who criticized her.
"Whether or not they consider the act racist, the facts on the ground speak for themselves – people today are much more open to Arabic music. It’s not because of them, it's because of me. The fact is that a lot of people are connecting to my music, and not because I’m forcing them to.”
She recommended that her critics “go get a sense of humor. It wouldn’t hurt them.”
The only judgment that matters to Shefy is that of the Israeli voters on Tuesday night.
Three very different contenders are competing against her. The front-runner in the online polls is a singer called Kobi Marimi, whose overbite and operatic voice have drawn comparisons to Freddie Mercury.
The best-known contender is Maya Bouskilla, 41, a popular singer with a big voice who is hoping to ride Eurovision to a comeback and realize a long-standing dream. She has previously attempted to represent Israel in the contest, coming close but never quite making it.
The choice most likely to confound Israel's critics is Ketreyah, a 22-year-old member of Dimona’s Hebrew Israelite community – African-Americans who moved to Israel in the belief they are descendants of the original Israelites.
Some Israelis are mourning the fact that the act they feel could have best served their country’s image was forced to withdraw from the competition: The Shalva Band – an inspirational group of special needs musicians – had been leading the pack, but Eurovision’s strict regulations meant that in order to compete the religiously observant band members would have had to perform on Shabbat.
They ended up withdrawing after a consolation prize was negotiated – they were invited to perform as a noncompetitive act in one of the semifinals (on the Tuesday or Thursday before the Saturday final). As a result, they relinquished their spot in the final four. And that, ironically, is the spot Shefita, with her sequins, cane, accent and attitude, was able to score.