Michael Ben-David winning Israel’s Eurovision contest divides fans

Ben-David won with his song, “I.M.,” a catchy, danceable self-acceptance anthem, that he performed accompanied by backup dancers. 

 MICHAEL BEN-DAVID (left) and Eli Huli during the voting Saturday night. (photo credit: RESHET)
MICHAEL BEN-DAVID (left) and Eli Huli during the voting Saturday night.
(photo credit: RESHET)

It was the best of songs, it was the worst of songs, it was the best crop of singers, it was the worst – social media lit up following Michael Ben-David’s win on The X Factor for Eurovision final on Saturday night, but passionate fans of the international song contest could not agree. 

Ben-David won with his song, “I.M.,” a catchy, danceable self-acceptance anthem, that he performed accompanied by backup dancers. 

Although he was the winner, there was no clear favorite among the four finalists, whose songs were winnowed down from eight to four in an event on Thursday night. 

On Saturday’s broadcast on Reshet 13, the four finalists went through several rounds. Ben-David faced off against Inbal Bibi, performing the Hebrew song, “Two Crazy People,” while Bibi sang ABBA’s “Winner Takes It All.” Ben-David won handily. Eli Huli performed a slow rendition of the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You,” while Sapir Saban sang Zohar Argov’s “Badad” (Alone). Huli was the clear winner here. 

Bibi and Saban faced off against each other for the third-place spot, with Bibi winning, while Ben-David and Huli performed their Eurovision songs. 

 Michael Ben David (credit: Ohad Ka/Reshet) Michael Ben David (credit: Ohad Ka/Reshet)

The final selection was made by tallying votes from a panel of Israeli entertainers – Margalit Tzan’ani, Miri Mesika, Aviv Geffen and Ran Danker, as well as the 2018 Eurovision winner, Netta Barzilai – along with a board of music professionals and votes from viewers. Huli would have won if it were only the judges and the board voting, but the audience’s votes put Ben-David over the top.

All agreed that the finalists, most of whom already have successful recording careers, were talented and it was difficult to choose among them. Geffen, who was firmly in Huli’s camp, chose Bibi over Ben-David, saying that while Ben-David was polished and a good singer, “He’s like one of them,” meaning that he could pass for European. 

Ben-David is of Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian descent, while Geffen apparently felt that Bibi would be a more recognizably “Israeli” contestant.

On Twitter, Eurovision websites and Facebook sites, some grumbled that the process was flawed and that audiences have been in the habit of picking lackluster songs since Barzilai won with her in-your-face rendition of “Toy.” 

Many preferred Huli, who writes his own songs, and Bibi, who won some over with her theatricality. But all agreed that Ben-David had talent, while some questioned the merit of his song choice “I.M.” 

Robert, who posted a comment on Wiwibloggs, a popular Eurovision website, spoke for many when he wrote, “Good singer, great attitude, mediocre song, catchy yet recognizable beat, bottom line qualifier placing around 20th place in the final.” 

But the song has some fans, while Ben-David has many. Yoav Ginai, a television presenter who wrote the lyrics to “Diva,” the song by transgender vocal artist Dana International, which won Eurovision in 1998, and a longtime Eurovision whisperer, said, “It’s a good choice.” 

However, he would not speculate on how he thought it would do in Eurovision. “It’s difficult to know. You have to hear all the rest.”

ANOTHER Wiwibloggs commentator, Nitzan, wrote, “Great choice Israel! For me Eli had the best song but Michael had the total package and was in his ‘element.’ I knew this song would be polarizing and attract lots of criticism, especially from Eurofans – but remember Netta, polarizing can be good. There IS a crowd for this and Michael will get votes, I’m sure of it... 

“As a Eurofan I didn’t like the song at first (yes, it’s somewhat cliché, nothing we haven’t heard before) but I got to like it and to love Michael’s genuine and charming character. He was born for this. This is Eurovision ready... The Israeli public chose Michael. Good luck to Michael and Israel!”

But some felt that this song, which even those who thought it deserved to win admitted was not original or groundbreaking, would not serve Israel well at Eurovision. A number of Facebook posters compared it to Eden Alene’s 2021 song, “Set Me Free,” which showed off the Israeli representative’s five-octave range, but did not showcase her sweetness or stage presence, and brought her only to a 17th place finish. 

Some groused that it showed that audiences should not have so much input into choosing the winner and asked that the voting process be revamped. 

Ben-David was joyful about his win, but maintained the down-to-earth quality that has won him many fans. He has spoken in interviews about his tough road to Eurovision, working in a grocery store during the pandemic and being photographed for the final putting out red peppers in the produce department.

Speaking on Reshet 13 on Sunday morning, he said that he had gone home after his win and washed the dishes, then cleaned his whole apartment. 

Watching a clip of the moment in which he learned he had won, he said he wondered, “What was I thinking to myself? I went to the audition, I thought this won’t work, I won’t pass. And I got to this and it’s a crazy privilege.” 

As he has done in the past, he spoke about being bullied for having a high voice and for being gay every day while he was growing up, and called his win, in a contest in which his voice was celebrated, “A tikkun,” the Hebrew word for a corrective experience. 

He also expressed happiness that, as an openly gay Israeli, he would represent that community in Turin in May. In an interview with Kan 11, he said, “People voted for me and that means they accept me for who I am. This isn’t only for me. This is for so many people who feel worthless and useless.”

Eurovision is an arena in which Israel often shines. Israel won the top prize in 1978 and 1979, with wins for Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta, with the song “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” and Milk and Honey, with “Hallelujah,” respectively, and then again in 1998 with Dana International’s “Diva.” 

Israel did not win again until 2018, with Netta Barzilai’s rousing rendition of “Toy,” a self-empowerment anthem, but Israeli songs have often done well even when they didn’t win the top prize. Due to Barzilai’s win, Israel hosted the song contest in Tel Aviv in 2019.