Israel’s Eurovision entry barely made a dent on the scoreboard, but there’s no doubt that the Jewish state was the real winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2019.
Israel was hosting the competition for the fourth time in history but for the first time in 20 years – and in an era where Eurovision is simulcast on YouTube and more and more countries have joined the contest; an age of instant responses and scrutiny via social media with a global viewing audience that has swelled to 200 million people.
Eurovision is always loud, often garish, and I admit to watching some of the songs with the “mute” button pressed. But to be the host is a big deal, and for Israel more than most. It also requires a lot – and Israel more than delivered.
When Netta Barzilai triumphantly lifted the trophy last year, questions and concerns loomed: Which city would host? Would the contest be derailed – or even canceled – by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement? Could Israel do it and not go bankrupt in the process, or would the whole thing be a disaster?
Israel can feel vindicated on every level.
Tel Aviv was the natural home for camp, party-loving Eurovision, with no disrespect to any other city including the capital.
Jerusalemites have also hosted Eurovision celebrations, and the tourism influx was a boon to Jerusalem as it was to Tel Aviv and elsewhere, with thousands of visitors converging on the Jewish state. In 2018, tourism was at an all-time high, with 4.1 million people coming to Israel, up 14% from the previous year. With the Eurovision boost, 2019 could surpass even that.
And to answer the question of whether geographically small Israel could host a major event, the largest music competition in the world, the answer this week is a resounding yes. Israel’s national public broadcaster, KAN, put on a slick, polished, dynamic production. The stage looked every bit as fabulous as previous venues. Outside the concert hall, Tel Aviv’s Eurovision Village was jam-packed all week and the positivity of the event resounded.
Israel’s win was a slam-dunk defeat for the discriminatory BDS activists. It was a bad week for BDS bogeyman Roger Waters, who has sullied Pink Floyd’s reputation by being mired in antisemitic scandals, including flying a pig with a Star of David over his concerts. He put out a video pleading with artists to pull out. They didn’t, and his raving-mad rant made him look more desperate than he usually does. BDS online videos aiming at promoting a boycott looked pathetic, and a real effort to derail the contest was thwarted at every level, thanks to organizations like StandWithUs and many partner organizations and bodies.
When anti-IDF group Breaking the Silence tried to sap the upbeat Eurovision atmosphere by putting up a billboard in Tel Aviv advertising its politicized anti-Israel tours, StandWithUs responded with a huge vertical billboard towering over the city’s Ayalon Highway and launched a series of counter-tours showcasing the Israeli need for security and the very real coexistence that takes place every day in Israel.
Meanwhile, the music played on. The Eurovision semifinals brought the Shalva Band – made up of musicians and singers with special needs – to public attention. Fresh from performing at the national ceremony on Independence Day, Shalva took the Eurovision semifinal stage by storm, performing “A Million Dreams” using braille and sign language. True to its Hebrew name – Shalva – its performance brought inner peace to all who watched, and also brought tears to the eyes of the audience and viewers alike – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Indeed, for viewers with disabilities – cognitive disabilities, hearing impairment, vision loss – Israel produced the most accessible Eurovision that has ever been broadcast. This was the result of an innovative “Hackathon” that took place prior to the competition, bringing Israeli brainpower to create an impressive, inclusive result.
We witnessed name checks for the upbeat “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” the winning song in the 1978 Eurovision by Israel’s Izhar Cohen, and a medley of the 1979 classic Israeli anthem “Hallelujah” performed by assorted Eurovision all-stars from various countries.
Israel’s humanity was on display. Viewers in their millions got a taste of what the Israeli people are like and – in the hosts, hailing from different backgrounds, Arab and Jewish, straight and gay – a taste of Israeli diversity, too. The truth shone through that in Israel, quiet coexistence happens every day.
Amid the Eurovision celebration of diversity, I hope it’s not lost on millions of viewers that, while in Israel people have the freedom to love who they want and be who they are, just miles away LGBTQ people are persecuted and killed in other Middle Eastern countries. Maybe Israel’s hosting of the competition showed viewers that we need not accept that reality.
Eurovision even got biblical, as diverse performers sang together under a gleaming Star of David in a beautiful arrangement led by Idan Raichel on stage, with the stunning Chagall stained glass windows projected behind them.
The event also showcased Israel’s growing international star power. Madonna showed up for Israel, backed up by rapper-of-the-moment Quavo. Jean-Paul Gaultier and Will Ferrell were in attendance. Israeli stars Bar Refaeli and Gal Gadot shone, and presenters Assi Azar, Lucy Ayoub and Erez Tal – well-known to Israelis but less so to internationals – more than held their own.
There was a flash of politics – but in an uncontroversial way. When Madonna’s dancers flaunted the European Broadcasting Union’s rules and wore an Israeli and Palestinian flag as they walked arm in arm, the Israeli audience didn’t recoil – they applauded. This showed up the sullen, leather-clad anarchist Icelandic band, whose own flag-waving just looked like the stunt that it was. (The band had previously challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a bout of traditional pants-pulling Icelandic wrestling – he did not respond to the offer.)
As the voting concluded, representatives of countries around the world were wishing their Israeli hosts “Shalom” – and so much Hebrew spoken on an international stage as big as this gave Israelis watching at home a sense of giddy excitement. Israeli singer Kobi Marimi didn’t come close to taking the competition, but tearing up at the end of his performance on a historic night in Israel earned him a place in the hearts of Israelis and people of goodwill who were watching. His emotions were emblematic of how Israelis are bursting with pride about this event.
Israel is a tiny, plucky (and yes, Netta, clucky) country. Surrounded by mostly hostile neighbors, Israelis love to succeed, to give to the world, to be appreciated and to project that love back. That was the Israel that Eurovision viewers saw. The bar for Israel’s hosting was set extraordinarily high – and, undoubtedly, Israel emerged a winner.
The author is the executive director of StandWithUs – Israel.