Opinion

Netta’s Eurovision Win Is Also a Challenge

A victory for diversity or for propaganda? Can we look at this subject in a manner a little less polarizing, a way that doesn’t choose only one side in this story?

Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai is greeted at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport on May 14, 2018.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Mainstream local public opinion celebrated Netta Barzilai’s Eurovision win as a national holiday, and perhaps a victory for feminism as well. But among Israel’s critics, at home and abroad, including those who are not necessarily BDS supporters, the event is perceived as one that could drop like a ripe fruit into the hands of the Israeli propaganda machine.

Can we look at this subject in a manner a little less polarizing, a way that doesn’t choose only one side in this story?

Indeed, we can see Barzilai’s win as a feminist victory of a person who does not give in to the body-image culture, as a person whose song “Toy” connects in spirit to the worldwide #MeToo movement.

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The Eurovision Song Contest was always more than just a competition between countries. Especially on questions of sexuality, gender and gender identity, the Eurovision was an arena where the winning contestant represented much more than a specific country. The best example is Israel’s Dana International, whose win in 1998 was a hallmark for transgender recognition; her identity and the “International” in her stage name showed that she represented the LGBT community everywhere.

After her win, when she was asked about the opposition to her of some ultra-Orthodox politicians, she said she represented anyone who wants to be represented by her, and thus deconstructing the idea of representing a certain identity in general and a national identity in particular.

When Conchita Wurst of Austria won the Eurovision in 2014, it was perceived as a victory for recognition of complex gender identities over homophobia, especially coming at that time from Russia. In this sense, Barzilai’s win, which speaks of her difference as a woman who doesn’t fit the reigning body image and who sings about women’s empowerment in the face of male harassment, continues a Eurovision tradition of gender representation to cross borders and having the potential to empower.

But Barzilai, who spoke of her win as one for acceptance of those who are different, still represents a country that does not excel in accepting the other. During the time Barzilai was taking part in Eurovision, Israel continued in its occupation of millions of rights-deprived Palestinians, killing protesters in Gaza and making plans to violate the rights of asylum seekers living in Israel.

Anybody who complains about involving politics here is either innocent or pretending innocence: Barzilai herself told Kan broadcasting that her win would be something positive for Israeli hasbara. In a congratulatory phone call, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even called her Israel’s best ambassador.

The Israeli government coopting Barzilai’s win – coopting the public relations with which she by her own admission might take part in – could serve as gender-washing. Israel is now seen to be sending a feminist message, and as a state that expresses democratic values.

Dana International was coopted for a similar purpose when, 14 years after her victory, the Israeli ambassador to the United States mentioned her Eurovision victory as evidence of Israel’s supposed commitment to LGBT rights – a commitment that Israel’s envoys like to wave around, even if in fact the government has for years opposed any change in legislation on these issues, and progress toward equality comes mainly thanks to the courts.

In this public relations machine, the goal is to normalize Israel and build its image as a country that, while it can be criticized here and there for its treatment of the Palestinians, is part of liberal, democratic Europe. Thus the reality of the occupation and de facto apartheid is blurred. In this context, it should be remembered that Israel’s very participation in Eurovision – even while it is a member of the European Broadcasting Union – is part of its fantasy of being part of Europe and not the Middle East.

And so we may speak of the tension between the two meanings of Barzilai’s win. One is boundary-crossing feminism and the other is national, the latter being the one that will be widely invoked, especially before Eurovision is held next year in Jerusalem, for propaganda purposes.

It’s impossible to ignore these two meanings, and it is a mistake to reduce the win to one of them, but it’s also impossible to separate them: The image that “Toy” has created for us of a country that accepts those who are different is a prominent and necessary one, and it stands against the backdrop of a reality in which Israel’s attitude to “the other” is quite poor.