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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
A year after one of its worst-ever showings, Israel will try to redeem itself at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest with a performance by veteran pop band Tea Packs. Known for hits including "Lama Halacht Mimeni" (Why Did You Leave Me?) and "Tahana Yeshena" (The Old Station), the band was chosen by a panel headed by songwriter and broadcaster Yoav Ginai, who wrote the lyrics to Israel's winning 1998 Eurovision submission, Dana International's "Diva."
The decision, announced Sunday afternoon by the Israel Broadcasting Authority, marks the first time Israel's Eurovision contestant was chosen by committee rather than by TV viewers, who in past years have voted for performers including Sarit Hadad and Shlomo Artzi to represent the country at the annual contest. The new format comes after several years of financial difficulties for the IBA, which nearly cancelled Israel's televised Eurovision preliminaries last year because of the program's cost.
But making even more news than the change in selection procedure were statements made after the decision by committee member Anastasia Michaeli, a host on Israel's main Russian-language channel. Apparently in reference to Liel, a Jewish pop singer who had been considered for this year's Eurovision spot, Michaeli told the YNet Web site that the country shouldn't be represented by a singer who "looks Arab," later adding that "I'm for equality and personally am not racist."
The TV host went on to say she would have been pleased by a Eurovision performance from Hahush Hashishi (The Sixth Sense), a threesome of singers whose families recently immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.
The comments generated a quick and angry reaction from one of Michaeli's fellow committee members, singer and former Eurovision performer Yardena Arazi.
In response to Michaeli's remarks, Arazi noted that Israel's three Eurovision victors - Yizhar Cohen, Gali Atari and Dana International - all hail from a Mizrahi background, and that the singers themselves had darker complexions than many of their Ashkenazi counterparts.
While unexpected, Michaeli's comments also reflected the type of nationalist and ethnic divisions that continue to emerge, many Eurovision fans say, in the results of each year's song contest. Countries with historically tense relationships rarely vote for one another, with Greece and Turkey, among others, frequently snubbing each other in the voting. Lebanon chose to sit out the 2005 contest rather than broadcast Israel's performance as required by Eurovision rules, and a long-standing Israeli joke suggests that the country only has a chance of winning the contest if its representative comes from a Yemenite background.
Some fans have also joked in the past that German first-place votes for Israel constitute a misguided form of Holocaust reparations.
With their mix of Mizrahi and Western pop influences, members of the Tea Packs are themselves familiar with some of the ethnic tensions that have divided Israel's Jews in the past. The group's lead singer, Kobi Oz, hails from the Mizrahi-majority border community of Sderot, and is known for mixing in Moroccan and other sounds from the Arab world in much of his band's music. The singer spent part of last summer filming a reality TV series in the Muslim-majority Israeli city of Barta'a, continuing the shoot even after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hizbullah.
Political issues aside, the Tea Packs face a difficult road at this year's Eurovision contest, set for early May in Helsinki. Because of Israel's poor performance in 2006 - when the country placed 23rd out of 24 finalists - the band will have to fight just to get into the final.
Known for amusing lyrics and gently danceable beats, the Tea Packs scored one of last year's bigger hits with "Perach Hashchunot" (Flower from the 'hood), a duet performed with comedian and actress Alma Zak. With a wide following and plenty of critical praise for its previous efforts, the band will be under pressure to outdo Israel's most successful recent performance, pop singer Shiri Maimon's surprise fourth-place finish at the 2005 song contest.
Though the Israeli public wasn't able to participate in the selection of its latest Eurovision representative, local pop music fans won't be entirely deprived of voting rights in the lead-up to the popular song contest. Members of the Tea Packs will perform four songs in a special Channel 1 broadcast next month, with Israeli viewers invited to vote for their favorite song via telephone voting and text messages.
The Tea Packs song ultimately chosen for the contest is likely to be more traditionally Israeli than last year's submission, an R & B number that proved entirely out of place at a contest won by Finnish heavy metal band Lordi.
If the Tea Packs do succeed at this year's contest, its members may find themselves with greater opportunities to perform their music abroad. Previous Israeli singers including Rita and Ofra Haza developed a loyal European fan base after their success at Eurovision.
The contest has also played an important role in the rise of a number of major international performers, among them ABBA, Celine Dion and Olivia Newton-John.