Face the music

With Israel hosting this year's Eurovision, how can we make everybody's favourite song contest do what's right?

14th May 2019

Those of you who watch Eurovision will know Netta Barzilai deservedly won last year’s contest with her absolutely banging song Toy. Two days later, she returned home to Israel to perform at a celebratory concert in Tel Aviv, announcing to the adoring crowd, “We have a reason to be happy.” That day, Israeli snipers had killed 62 Palestinians, six of whom were children.

As per Eurovision rules, the winner of the competition hosts the next. But should that change in the face of the Israeli government’s apartheid regime, the systematic discrimination against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and the war crimes committed on a regular basis? Many people around the world are supporting a boycott of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, but what has the competition done wrong?

Samir Eskanda, a Palestinian musician and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activist who lives in London, explains to The Overtake that the song contest is being exploited by the Israeli government.

“Almost all Israeli cultural institutions are implicated in Israel’s apartheid regime through active participation in, or silence in the face of systematic oppression… Israel is using Eurovision to whitewash, or artwash, its crimes against Palestinians.” He also suggests artists performing at Eurovision are “being exploited by the Israeli government, whose explicit policy of whitewashing its crimes through cultural means has been made clear”.

Israeli Foreign Minister Nissim Ben-Sheetrit said back in 2005: “[The Israeli government] sees culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.”

Culture or propaganda, Israeli fans at last years Eurovision 📷European Broadcasting Union

The Israeli government exports artists like Netta and exploits competitions like Eurovision to show the world a better side to Israel, and the “artist postcards” — a short VT showing the artist enjoying something that the host country has to offer, common to every modern Eurovision — will certainly portray Israel in a positive light. However, constant news alerts buzz our phones every day, so it seems unlikely that anyone can unwillingly forget about the atrocities happening in Israel and Palestine, Eurovision hosts or not.

Eskanda and BDS believe boycotting the contest will send a message to institutions such as Eurovision that their complicity will not be tolerated. The boycott has gained worldwide support, and alternative competitions have even been set up. A total of 50 prominent British figures including musician Peter Gabriel, actors Miriam Margolyes and Maxine Peake, and designer Vivienne Westwood signed a letter calling for the contest to be relocated.

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, also supports a cultural boycott of Israel and believes by staying silent on the matter, Eurovision is complicit in the government’s artwashing campaign.

Eurovision may be “apolitical”, but Netta will still be used to soften Israel’s image 📷 Wouter van Vliet, EuroVisionary

“This campaign is not about attacking the Eurovision Song Contest — it’s about supporting freedom, justice and equality for all. If Eurovision truly believed in and acted on the principle of respect and equality for all, then organisers would heed the Palestinian people’s call for a cultural boycott of Israel until it upholds international law and human rights. Eurovision has been totally uncritical of Israel’s regime and is allowing Israel to use the song contest as a vehicle for ‘artwashing’ its crimes — this is simply incompatible with supposedly standing up for the rights of oppressed groups.”

Despite Eurovision’s cultural connotations of championing diversity and acceptance, the competition’s “apolitical” stance and silence on such matters has found it in hot water on many occasions. It did not respond to The Overtake’s multiple requests for comment.

Eurovision currently bans any song deemed to have political lyrics and refuses to pass judgement on the politics of any country that hosts the competition. In the past, the competition has banned songs such as Georgia’s 2009 entry We Don’t Wanna Put In, in which “Put In” sounded remarkably like “Putin”. Deemed as a response to the Russo-Georgian armed conflict the year before, Eurovision offered Georgia the chance to change the lyrics or pick a different song, but the country refused.

The organisers take a stand against song content but not against the leadership of the host countries. In terms of self-preservation, Eurovision’s logic of not wanting to offend any governments involved makes sense, but when the roots of LGBT movements are based in protest, this position leaves a lot to be desired.

Even Olympic Games in Nazi Germany in 1936 was not boycotted massively

This year, Icelandic post-punk entry Hatari has said their entry is a protest against the Israeli government, but the chorus of “hate will prevail” isn’t particularly specific and is more than a little underwhelming, too.

This isn’t the first time that Eurovision has come under fire due to its inability to comment on the crimes of its host country. The organisers refused to listen to criticisms of the authoritarian government in Azerbaijan ahead of the 2012 competition.

Rasul Jafarov is an Azerbaijani human rights campaigner who coordinated protests at the time of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

“In our opinion, it’s better to conduct a well-prepared campaign on human rights with concrete objectives, tactics and strategies on the eve of such cultural or sports events than a boycott. We don’t see such willingness in the international community for a long time through history. Even Olympic Games in Nazi Germany in 1936 was not boycotted massively.”

I would prefer to start a campaign demonstrating those human rights abuses that committed by Israel

Only a few countries boycotted the games, and America’s decision to compete led to one of the most powerful protests in history, as black American Jesse Owens won four gold medals and refused to perform the Nazi salute.

Jafarov believes protests are more effective than boycotts and encourages Eurovision viewers to capitalise on the increased media presence in Israel.

He adds: “I would prefer to start a campaign demonstrating those human rights abuses that committed by Israel, in order to name and shame the perpetrators. Taking into consideration that the attention of European media and community will be on Israel around the contest.”

Campaigning and activism can start from signing petitions and posting on social media, holding our own government accountable for selling millions of weapons to Israel, where they are used to kill innocent Palestinians. Jafarov believes doing this will be much more effective than a boycott ever will be.

Eurovision is meant to bridge cultures and foster peace. I think we should let it do its job

Besides, how many people boycotted, or protested against, the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup hosted in Russia, where the Russian government ran concentration camps for LGBT people in Chechnya at the same time as the World Cup? How many of us will boycott the next one in Qatar, where reports suggest hundreds of slaves have died building the necessary stadiums?

But that was different, right? Football was coming home. Given how we’ve performed in previous years, Eurovision will never come home.

It would be hypocritical to watch these events and boycott Eurovision, a competition that celebrates diversity and marginalised groups. Hugo Award-winning novelist and massive Eurovision fan Catherynne M Valente based her 2018 cult hit Space Opera on a giant, universal song contest and thinks Eurovision can be a positive force.

Conchita Wurst is a perfect example of someone who Eurovision can champion 📷 Albin Olsson

“The presence of transgressive artists in conservative countries should be encouraged,” she tells The Overtake. “Eurovision is meant to bridge cultures and foster peace. I think we should let it do its job. It is not impossible that Eurovision is a step along that way, opening a path for the young, progressive, tolerant generations to be seen and heard.”

Rather than boycotting an event that has the potential to do so much good, perhaps our efforts should be focused on maximising the coverage of the event and the scrutiny of the country hosting it.

This year’s competition is sure to be tense, but the performers will put on a show just like any other year, to prove love, acceptance and flamboyance can overcome hate. Guaranteed to be camper than the Met Gala and have more key changes than a Westlife hit, Eurovision is an annual celebration of diversity and tolerance. And we have a unique opportunity to increase awareness of Israel’s crimes by latching onto a hugely popular social media hashtag and reach millions of people across the world.

Whether you decide to boycott Eurovision or not, the show will go on. So make the most of it.

Main image: European Broadcasting Union

14th May 2019