Think you know all about Israel and the Eurovision Song Contest?
Test yourself with these five questions.
In honor of this week’s Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, here are five quick questions to check your knowledge of Israel and the Eurovision.
1. Which education minister threatened to resign over the choice of Israel’s song for the competition?
2. Which was Israel’s first Eurovision winning song: “Hallelujah” or “A-Ba-Ni-Bi”?
3. Who were the Israeli entrants who waved a Syrian flag while performing?
4. Why is Israel the only country not to have defended its title following its victory the previous year?
5. Which Israeli Eurovision winner was accused of “sending darkness to the world” by a cabinet minister?
How did you do? With the exception of question No. 2, the answers to these questions provide an interesting snapshot of Israel over the years.
1. Back in 1987, then-education minister Yitzhak Navon threatened to resign if the satiric Lazy Bums duo (comedians Natan Datner and Avi Kushnir) were chosen to represent Israel with their song “The Lazy Bum’s Song.” The duo went ahead and polled a respectable 73 points for a comedy song, coming in eighth.
Not surprisingly, Navon never went ahead with his threat to quit, but the sheer fact he made it showed just how lacking in humor the political elite were in those days. Today’s politicians might also suffer from the same pomposity and self-regard, but now they know better than to publicly reveal it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even went as far, once, to appear on Lior Schleien’s satirical show State of the Nation.
3. The Syrian flag-waving episode came in 2000, the year that began with formal, US-sponsored Israel-Syria peace negotiations between then-prime minister Ehud Barak and the Syrian foreign minister of the time, Farouk al-Sharaa, at Shepherdstown, Virginia. It now seems incredible that Israel and Syria were once close to reaching a deal, but for a considerable period – even up to 2011 and Netanyahu’s own contacts with the Syrians – Jerusalem and Damascus were poring over maps and discussing where the border between the two countries would run.
And the song? That was PingPong’s “Sameah
,” whose lyrics referenced a friend from Damascus dating an Israeli girl. During the band’s rehearsal and video clip for the song, they waved a Syrian flag. For this, they were rapped on the knuckles by the Israel Broadcasting Authority and strictly told not to repeat it during the live show in Stockholm. Needless to say, PingPong ignored the IBA’s edict, but this didn’t help their song’s performance: they came in 22nd out of 24.
4. Some things never change, one of them being a lack of budget for the IBA (now the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, branded as KAN). After Israel won the Eurovision for a second consecutive year in 1979, it declined to host the 1980 finals – as is the winner’s right – due to the cost involved. As a result, the 1980 contest was held in The Hague and the date chosen clashed with Remembrance Day, so not only did Israel not host the event, it also chose not to participate.
Should Israel win again this year, it’s highly unlikely KAN will have the funds to host the competition for a second consecutive year, given the reports that Netanyahu is determined to slash its budget by two-thirds. The current Eurovision has already been marked by spats between the government and KAN, after the government refused to provide it with extra cash to meet the €12 million ($14 million) security guarantee to host the contest.
5. Although incredibly popular – around 1,500 journalists have registered to cover this year’s event, far more than those who followed Barack Obama’s 2013 presidential visit to Israel or who accompanied Pope Francis on his 2014 pilgrimage to the Holy Land – the Eurovision is not known for its cutting-edge ambitions. After all, aside from ABBA, how many other great musicians have been associated with the contest?
And yet, every now and again, the Eurovision provides a stage to highlight a societal discussion, which is where Israel’s Dana International and her 1998 triumph with “Diva” bounce in. Years before the word “transgender” became a general talking point, Sharon Cohen (Dana’s real name) flamboyantly brought the issue to the forefront.
Of course, not everyone in the country was delighted with the choice of Dana International as Israel’s representative to the wider world. Cabinet minister Rabbi Shlomo Benizri had this to say: “I feel shamed because during all the generations, the Jewish people sent light to the world, and now we send darkness to the world, even if we won.”
A decade later, Benizri began a four-year jail sentence after being convicted of bribery, while Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities.
So, on that note, enjoy the finals on Saturday night.
Oh, and Israel’s first Eurovision winner? “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” with Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta. Not the greatest of lyrics ever written but a classic Eurovision song.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.
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