Eurovision 2022: Ukraine likely to overshadow Israel this year

We will know soon enough how well Michael Ben David has been able to focus on the music and overcome the backstage drama.

 Israel's Eurovision 2022 delegation is seen at Ben-Gurion Airport heading for Turin, Italy. (photo credit: KAN 11)
Israel's Eurovision 2022 delegation is seen at Ben-Gurion Airport heading for Turin, Italy.
(photo credit: KAN 11)

The Eurovision Song Contest 2022 gets under way on May 10 in Turin, with a finale on the evening of May 14, and the good news is that Israel’s Michael Ben David will be there, in spite of much drama that has taken place since his song “I.M,” was chosen as Israel’s entry in February.

There was actually some question as to whether Israel would be participating at all up until a few days ago.

First, just weeks after he won Israel’s The X Factor Eurovision qualifying contest in early February, sources close to Ben David told Ynet and other news outlets that he was thinking of dropping out because KAN, the government broadcaster, was not providing him with the professional support he needed, and he expressed “dissatisfaction with the professional conduct” of the network, saying he would drop out if he felt that he could not represent Israel “with dignity.”

Sources familiar with the situation said that this was a ploy to get KAN to pay for a professional manager and other support that he felt was necessary to insure he would give a good performance.

This crisis passed, but then, in April, KAN tweeted, “As of now, due to the Foreign Ministry strike that affects the security protocols, the Israeli delegation will not attend the Eurovision in Turin.”

 THE FOUR X-Factor for Eurovision finalists (from left): Michael Ben David, Sapir Saban, Inbal Bibi and Eli Huli. (credit: OHAD KAB) THE FOUR X-Factor for Eurovision finalists (from left): Michael Ben David, Sapir Saban, Inbal Bibi and Eli Huli. (credit: OHAD KAB)

In a theatrical touch, the network posted an Instagram story showing Ben David singing, “Sometimes life gets you down.”

Once again, seasoned Eurovision watchers said there was no danger that Ben David would not perform in Turin, and that the tweet was KAN’s way of making sure the government would pay for his security detail, even if the money would not come out of the Foreign Ministry budget as is customary.

Channel 12 News reported on April 28 that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) had figured out a way to provide adequate security, and that Israel’s Eurovision entourage would arrive in Turin in two groups, one with Ben David on May 1, and the second with all the rest on May 8.

So Ben David will indeed be performing his song, a catchy, danceable self-acceptance anthem, accompanied by backup dancers.

Ben David, who is of Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian descent, has said that the lyrics of the song mean a great deal to him personally, since he was bullied every day in high school because he is gay. He has also spoken about his struggle to make a living during the pandemic and how he took a job in the produce department of a supermarket to make ends meet as he participated in the The X Factor and, after he won, as he rehearsed for Eurovision.

Israelis always have high hopes for their Eurovision contestants, and the song contest holds a special place in Israeli pop culture.

Eurovision is an international song contest that has been running since 1956 and was meant to bring countries together in peaceful and enjoyable competition following World War II.

It is known for its glitzy, over-the-top costumes and staging and has long been popular with the LGBT community around the world.

There were no comparable competitions in the Middle East, and Israel began taking part in Eurovision in 1973. It took home the top prize in 1978 and 1979, with wins for Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta with the song “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” and for Milk and Honey with “Hallelujah,” respectively, and then again in 1998 with trans singer Dana International’s “Diva.”

While for decades the top prize eluded Israel, Israelis continued to be devoted Eurovision fans and to cheer on Israeli contestants. Finally, in 2018, Netta Barzilai became Israel’s fourth Eurovision winner with her rousing rendition of “Toy,” a self-empowerment anthem.

The last Eurovision contest was held in Tel Aviv in 2019 because it is held in the home country of the previous year’s winner. In 2020, the contest was postponed, and when it was held in Rotterdam in 2021, Israel’s candidate was Eden Alene, the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to represent Israel. In spite of hitting the highest note ever reached in Eurovision finals, the B6 whistle, she finished 17th. The 2021 contest was held during last year’s war with Gaza, and there was speculation that criticism of Israel’s handling of the war may have affected her score.

This year’s dramas involving Ben David’s participation have been eclipsed by the ongoing tragedy of the Russian attack on Ukraine, and many Eurovision watchers feel that worldwide sympathy for the besieged nation will propel Ukraine into winning the fans’ televote and possibly even winning the judges’ votes and taking the top prize in the contest.

Ukraine has previously won the song contest twice before, in 2004 and 2016, and it is the only Eastern European country to have won twice. It first began competing in the song contest in 2003, and has been one of the more popular countries for years. Since the semifinal round was introduced 18 years ago, Ukraine is the only country outside of the so-called Big Five – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – to have qualified for the final of every contest in which it participated (in 2015 and 2019 the country did not take part).

So it would seem likely that, given Ukraine’s generally good showing in Eurovision, it is one of the contenders this year.

Russia will not be participating. The European Broadcasting Union announced in a statement in early March that no Russian act would be allowed to take part this year.

The statement read, in part: “The decision reflects concern that, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s contest would bring the competition into disrepute. Before making this decision, the EBU took time to consult widely among its membership.”

LAUREN AGAM, a writer for wiwibloggs.com and euromix.co.il, said she thinks that Ukraine could win it all and that Israel will not finish very high in the rankings this year.

“My most confident prediction is that the battle for the win will come down to Ukraine versus Sweden. Ukraine will almost definitely win the televote, while Sweden will most likely win the jury vote. It’ll be decided by who gets more points in the other half of the voting. Right now I’m leaning towards Ukraine.”

The Swedish song, “Hold Me Closer” by Cornelia Jakobs is a ballad, filled with longing for a lover who is about to leave. The Ukrainian entry is by the Kalush Orchestra, which visited Israel earlier this spring to perform. Kalush members wears traditional Ukrainian folk outfits to perform their song “Stefania,” a rap ode to a beloved mother.

Israel will face a rocky road this year, and Agam feels there is a real chance that “I.M” may not be one of the 10 songs in the semifinal held on May 12 to qualify for the final.

“Israel currently stands in the betting odds at 15th out of 18 to qualify from its semi, and only 10 qualify, which does not look great for Michael Ben David.... The song has a great televote appeal, and it appears to be very divisive, which (with the current voting system) is likely to get it a decent jury placing as well.

“Israel is by no means a safe non-qualifier, and I can’t rule out Israel making it out of the semis a seventh consecutive time. It can only help that allies Azerbaijan, Finland, Malta, Germany and the UK are all voting in this semifinal – last year Israel was not as lucky.”

There are many factors that affect how a song does at Eurovision, she noted: “I think Israel’s odds of qualification [for the final] are really 50/50. It will be really detrimental to ‘I.M’ that it was drawn to perform second, since songs that perform second are usually forgotten by the last song of the night and tend not to do well. But it does have a big audience it appeals to.”

Agam noted that “I.M” is part of a trend of songs about self-love and empowerment at Eurovision in recent years.

The song is in English. When Eurovision began, most countries sang in their own languages. Over the years, songs in English began to dominate because they were seen as more likely to find commercial success. But now the pendulum is swinging back.

“There’s also many [songs in] different languages – by the 10th song of the first semifinal we will have already heard nine different languages – a few years ago, that would’ve been inconceivable – and many genres, pop, rock, rap, R & B, indie, avant-garde – I have to imagine it’s inspired by last year’s top five being 80% non-English songs, and all in very different genres.”

We will know soon enough how well Michael Ben David has been able to focus on the music and overcome the backstage drama. May the best song win.