Hardly anybody in America cares about the annual Eurovision Song Contest, and that’s just as it should be, given that on the whole, it’s almost as horrible a viewing experience these days as the Oscars or Emmys. But in Europe, Eurovision is as big as ever – almost as big a draw as the Super Bowl in the U.S., if you can imagine a Super Bowl that no straight man would ever be caught dead watching, but that is a magnet for gays, teenage girls, gays, a scattering of the senile and feebleminded who happened to have left their TVs tuned to the wrong channel, and gays.
First held in 1956, Eurovision is broadcast every year from the homeland of the winner of the previous year’s contest. This year, the winner was an Israeli chanteuse named Netta, whose song was not appreciably better or worse than most of its competitors – which is to say that, for anyone with the slightest hint of musical taste, it was sheer dreck. But that’s not what matters. On a continent with precious few cultural institutions to hold it together, or to provide a pretense of unity, Eurovision is, to coin a phrase, a bridge-builder.
For many, alas, Israel, this time around, has proven to be a bridge too far.
Israel has won Eurovision exactly three times before. The first time was in 1978; in 1979, accordingly, the competition was held in Jerusalem. Yes, Jerusalem, the city that European authorities today refuse to acknowledge as a part of Israel. Remarkably, Israel won Eurovision again in 1979, but wasn’t able to serve as host in 1980 because the date conflicted with a national holiday. Israel had to wait until 1998 for its third victory. Its representative that year was an M-to-F transgender artist named Dana International, who sang a tune called “Diva.” In 1999, thanks to him/her, the contest again took place in Jerusalem.
There was, it should be said, some controversy in the run-up to the 1999 broadcast. The reason? Some orthodox Israeli Jews who hadn’t liked the idea of their country being represented by an M-to-F transgender artist in the previous year’s competition also opposed the idea of permitting the 1999 show to be aired on that artist’s account from their religion’s holiest city. But complain though they did, their opposition didn’t keep the show from going on.
This year, too, there’s controversy. Not because of orthodox Jews, but because of fanatical Jew-haters – namely, members of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which in recent years has unfortunately succeeded in bullying a number of top-flight showbiz figures into canceling engagements in Israel. In Norway, the campaign against a Eurovision broadcast from Israel has been spearheaded by the Norwegian Palestine Committee. Icelanders have also been active opponents of an Israeli Eurovision: it didn’t take long, after Netta won this year’s contest, for about 17,000 Icelanders – 5 percent of the population – to sign a petition calling for an Israeli boycott. The movement also gained a lot of traction in Ireland, where a number of cultural bigwigs went on record in June as demanding that Eurovision reject Israel as a venue.
In that same month, BDS leaders boasted that they’d managed to get Israel to agree to hold the show in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. According to the pro-Palestinian site Electronic Intifada, Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev had insisted at first “that Eurovision be held in Jerusalem or not at all,” but had eventually backed down. This claim was contradicted by a statement, earlier this month, that Eurovision officials were still evaluating bids by both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On September 12, it was announced that Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Eilat had all presented impressive bids to host Eurovision 2019, but that the Eurovision poobahs had settled on Tel Aviv.
As it happens, five days earlier, on September 7, the Guardian had published a letter signed by dozens of “artists from Europe and beyond” who declared their support for “the heartfelt appeal from Palestinian artists to boycott the Eurovision Song Contest 2019 hosted by Israel” and insisted that “[u]ntil Palestinians can enjoy freedom, justice and equal rights, there should be no business-as-usual with the state that is denying them their basic rights,” and that therefore, “the European Broadcasting Union…should cancel Israel’s hosting of the contest altogether and move it to another country with a better human rights record.”
The names of the signatories, who identified themselves variously as “singer,” “producer,” “actor,” “director,” “cartoonist,” “street artist,” and so on, and who hailed not just from a range of European countries but also from the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and (yes) Israel, were mostly unfamiliar to me, although a few of them – almost all Brits – were quite famous: 78-year-old Oscar-winning actress Julie Christie, playwright Caryl Churchill (whose 2009 drama Seven Jewish Children was chided by The Sunday Times for its “ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness” toward Israel), musician Brian Eno (who has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing”), movie director Mike Leigh (a longtime Israel boycotter), movie director Ken Loach (who once said that “nothing has been a greater instigator of antisemitism than the self-proclaimed Jewish state itself”), and Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters (perhaps the most aggressive and obnoxious of all BDSers, who earlier this year declared that Israel is anti-Semitic).
The only American name I recognized was that of Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, that perennial favorite of Palestinian first-nighters. Notably, there were six Israeli signatories; after determining that none of them even had Wikipedia pages, I lost interest in trying to figure out who they were. At the Norwegian website document.no, Henrik Sundt helpfully pointed out that there hadn’t been the remotest hint of this kind of international protest when Eurovision was held in Russia (2009) or Azerbaijan (2012), both of which, needless to say, rate far below Israel when it comes to any objective “human rights record” (to borrow a term from the Guardian letter).
In any event, as of September 9, “at least 17 countries have already confirmed their participation in the Eurovision contest in Israel next year – including the Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.” Fine. Eurovision fans will doubtless have a whale of a time in Tel Aviv. Still, it’s interesting to note that while the Trump administration had the nerve to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Eurovision authorities didn’t even have the guts to schedule next year’s Eurovision in the same city in which it had already been held not once but twice – before, that is, the poison of the BDS movement came along.