The 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, held at Expo Tel Aviv, seemed intent on presenting Israel as miraculously untouched by political tensions.
On Saturday night, after much heated preparation and two semifinals, the Eurovision Song Contest took place, in Tel Aviv. Israel had been participating in the competition, held by the European Broadcasting Union, since 1973, and last year it won, when Netta Barzilai took home the prize, for her vigorously performed anthem of female empowerment, “Toy.” The country that wins one year hosts the next, so, for the past twelve months, Israel has been steeling itself to show the world that it is capable of mounting a spectacle to rival—and, god willing, best—that of any European nation. Though many of its denizens are of European descent, Israel, of course, is not in Europe. (Only a smattering of non-European countries, among them Australia and Morocco, have participated in Eurovision over the years.) And, as my colleague Bernard Avishai has noted, appearing adept and cosmopolitan to the denizens of that continent is a perennial element of Israel’s Eurovision endeavor. “How we’ve always wished to belong to Europe, and only a slight distance has been separating us from that enlightened league of nations,” the satirical playwright Hanoch Levin once wrote, bitingly, of this particular Israeli fixation. So tenuous is the country’s grasp on its European toehold, he continued, that “even a single belch could determine our collapse into the maw of the Ottoman Empire . . . our final descent into the fetid mire of Asia.”
This sense of national abasement, however, is often paired with a kind of “We’ll show them!” boosterism. This is likely the case among other small provinces that feel at a remove, but it also has to do with the traumatic circumstances of Israel’s establishment, in the wake of the Holocaust, and with its enduring self-perception, whether justifiable or not, as a country in constant mortal danger. Jewish people, I was taught growing up in Israel, have been rising in the face of adversity since their enslavement in ancient Egypt. An oft-quoted passage from the Book of Exodus notes, “But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.”
When I watched Eurovision throughout my childhood, it was clear to me that the country’s performance on the show was tied to its sense of national dignity. Low point counts from fellow competing countries were often imputed, half-jokingly and half-earnestly, to anti-Semitism. These days, Israel’s sense of the importance of Eurovision continues; occasionally it has seemed almost as serious as matters of national security. In early May, Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, and a conservative who is close to Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted, “Right after our holidays and Eurovision, Israel must evict Hamas from Gaza.” On Friday, after the second semifinal, the singer Dana International, a trans woman who, in 1998, was the third Israeli to win, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, “Tomorrow night we’ll hear the familiar words, ‘Good evening, Europe,’ but this time it’ll be from here, from Tel Aviv. My city.” She used the Biblical phrase “a light unto the nations” to describe Israel’s effort in the competition.
The months leading up to the contest were politically fraught, even for Israel. Netanyahu proposed laws that, if passed, would weaken Israel’s Supreme Court and potentially let him off the hook regarding the multiple indictments against him. Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers engaged in three days of fighting in Gaza, which resulted in more than twenty Palestinian casualties and four Israeli ones. Palestinians in the West Bank continued to live heavily circumscribed lives under Israeli military rule. Gaza has remained under effective siege due to a harsh Israeli blockade, and a million of its residents are reportedly facing the threat of hunger after the Trump Administration cut American funding to the U.N.’s refugee-aid organization. Pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement activists threatened to stage protests at Eurovision and called for contest participants to shun the proceedings. None did, but Expo Tel Aviv, the site where Eurovision took place, was cordoned off heavily to ward off potential protests and to protect people, as is par for the course in Israel, from the threat of terror attacks.
But the competition seemed intent on presenting Israel as miraculously untouched by political tensions. The theme was “Dare to Dream,” and the songs, delivered by representatives from twenty-six countries, appeared primarily to dare to dream of a world fuelled by vaguely positive catchall terms—sincerity, empowerment, perseverance. Almost all the songs were performed in English. “Let’s just be honest tonight,” a blond singer from Cyprus crooned; “When they try to hold me down inside a box, I’ll find my way out,” a second blonde, who represented Malta, sang; “Just to remind you, I don’t give up—I’ll always try,” yet another blonde, competing for Belarus, reminded us. Watching the numbingly long four-hour-and-eleven-minute broadcast, my husband remarked that the music could have easily been the soundtrack for a shopping spree at a midtown H&M. When I was growing up, in the eighties and nineties, some of the songs still hued to their countries’ respective musical traditions; since then a smooth pop uniformity has become the norm. If I had to say which musician most of the participants seemed to want to emulate, I’d name Meghan Trainor. Each song was prefaced by a digital “postcard” shot in a variety of sites in Israel—the Tower of David, in Jerusalem; the Sea of Galilee; the desert resort town of Eilat—at which contestants frolicked alongside local dancers. The sites had never looked better, though, to my eye, they had the uncanny-valley look of having been fixed in post-production—made cleaner and more pleasingly symmetrical. (For her part, the right-wing culture minister, Miri Regev, complained on Sunday that none of the segments were filmed in the West Bank.)
During the ceremony, I occasionally tensed up, concerned, in spite of myself, that some snafu would embarrass the local production. But I need not have worried. The event translated seamlessly into a win for the Israeli P.R. effort (or hasbara, as it is known in Hebrew). The four hosts—including the supermodel and presenter Bar Refaeli, whose long-term relationship, in the mid-two-thousands, with Leonardo DiCaprio was a source of endless excitement in Israel—didn’t falter. The timing was airtight. The stagecraft, with its multiple multimedia screens, was flawless. Madonna sang her thirty-year-old hit “Like a Prayer,” and, with the rapper Quavo, débuted her new single, “Future.” The performance was off key, as many noted, but that didn’t totally matter. What mattered was that Madonna had come to Israel. The Israeli actress Gal Gadot, of “Wonder Woman,” starred in a short, humorous tourism video for Tel Aviv, in which she bantered good-naturedly with a presumptuous cab driver. (“So, would you have a baby with someone who’s not your husband; say, a cabbie?”) As the video ended, the host Assi Azar warmly thanked Gadot for agreeing to participate in the proceedings. “We are proud of your success,” he said.
Several protesters had called on Madonna to boycott the event, but the singer said that she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights, wherever in the world they may be.” During the finale of her performance, two of her dancers wore Israeli and Palestinian flags pinned to their backs. The Icelandic group Hatari—whose members were dressed in S & M-style harnesses, lace-and-leather separates, and thick-soled platform boots—flashed scarves bearing a print of the Palestinian flag. The band was booed by the crowd, and its scarves were taken away by security, though what was perhaps most surprising, in the end, was how little political discord made it onto the screen. Still, the gestures, tame as they were, angered Regev, who criticized the proceedings on Sunday. “Politics and a cultural event should not be mixed,” she said.