Trials and tribulations of Eurovision 2019: What to expect next?

For the next eight months, squabbles over politics, money and religion are bound to plague the upcoming Eurovision. But which arguments should be taken seriously?

Netta Barzilai, Eurovision winner 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netta Barzilai, Eurovision winner 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The date and location are booked. Dozens of countries have already confirmed participation in the 2019 Eurovision. Tourists are beginning to book hotels, and prices are steadily rising.
Will it be smooth sailing ahead for next year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv? On some counts, yes. But the drama and sensationalist headlines that have marked the past four months won’t be going away anytime soon. Here’s a guide on what to expect before next year’s show, and which headlines should be taken more seriously than others.
What will be the root of the arguments? The usual suspects: politics, money and religion.
More than 25 countries have already confirmed their participation in next year’s contest, including a few of the more controversial participants. Ireland and Iceland – which had both made noises about a boycott – have stated they will partake in the Tel Aviv contest. Muslim-majority countries Azerbaijan and Albania have also already confirmed. Countries have only a few more weeks before their participation is set in stone, and all signs indicate that upward of 40 will participate – similar or identical to the number of participants in Lisbon earlier this year.
With eight long months ahead, it’s certain that calls to boycott the competition will continue, much like the letter published in The Guardian earlier this month signed by Roger Waters, Ken Loach, and the other usual suspects. But once the full list of participating countries is published in November, anyone who pulls out will have to pay a financial penalty. And, perhaps more of a deterrent, they’ll lose their chance to win the show, and bring national pride, and the 2020 contest, home to their own countries.
But boycott efforts aren’t the only political concern to look out for. When the European Broadcasting Union announced Tel Aviv as the winning city last week, it was not without a somewhat unusual caveat. Inside the celebratory announcement came a warning from Frank-Dieter Freiling, chairman of the Eurovision reference group.
“We are expecting to receive guarantees from the prime minister this week in regards to security, access for everyone to attend, freedom of expression and ensuring the nonpolitical nature of the contest,” said Freiling. “These guarantees are imperative in order for us to move forward with the planning of the event and to uphold the Eurovision Song Contest values of diversity and inclusivity.”
More pressing than boycott efforts, the Israeli government’s willingness to play by the Eurovision rules – in particular when it comes to border entry to anti-Israel activists and others – will certainly be a flashpoint in the coming months.
If there’s any topic bound to bring about fights, it’s money. And that’s certainly the case when it comes to the KAN public broadcaster and the State of Israel. Funding for the Eurovision initial €12 million deposit last month came down to the wire, when KAN and the government pointed fingers and traded accusations and claims of responsibility. That crisis was averted when the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation agreed to take out a loan to cover the deposit, and the Finance Ministry agreed to help it repay the loan if it is forfeited.
But that was just the deposit. Funding for the entire competition could cost up to €35m. After the deposit crisis was averted, a KAN spokeswoman said that the Finance Ministry promised to be involved in funding the overall competition. KAN said it would be working with the Treasury to come to a deal on the overall budget and funding sources. But how much is spent, and how much the government will pay above the annual budget of the public broadcaster, are far from settled. And both sides are likely to use the media to make their cases – loudly and publicly.
At the very least, Israel shouldn’t feel too special over this fight. Each year, practically every host country faces internal squabbling over how much the competition costs and who should be footing the bill.
While every Eurovision host country argues about money, Israel is unique in arguing about... Saturday – specifically, how much activity for the competition will occur on Shabbat, and how irate the religious community will become.
Just two days after Netta Barzilai won this year’s competition, haredi Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman wrote a letter to the culture, communications, and tourism ministers begging them “to ensure that this thing won’t harm the holiness of Shabbat, and to prevent – God forbid – the desecration of Shabbat.”
Fast-forward four months, and many see the choice to host the competition in Tel Aviv, and not Jerusalem, as designed to placate the religious lawmakers. And while it may lessen some of the outrage, it won’t necessarily silence it. After all, the ire last month over planned construction for a bridge in Tel Aviv on Saturday succeeded in shelving the project. And ultra-Orthodox lawmakers weren’t happy – albeit after the fact – about the Giro d’Italia bike race that cut through Tel Aviv on a Saturday in May. MK Bezalel Smotrich, of the National Religious Bayit Yehudi, said last week that he wasn’t happy the competition, “with its Shabbat desecration and immorality,” was to take place in Tel Aviv, but at least it wasn’t in Jerusalem.
But in an interview earlier this month, Interior Minister Arye Deri indicated that, while he isn’t pleased at the Shabbat desecration that would occur with the competition, he isn’t likely to fight it. Deri’s statement indicates that the haredi parties are more likely to use their tacit acceptance of the Eurovision as a bargaining chip than to fight it politically. Because, no matter the outrage, there’s no chance that the European Broadcasting Union will make any concessions over the need to hold rehearsals on Saturday ahead of the big finale.
What’s most likely to happen in the months leading up to the competition in May is similar to what happened in 1999, when the competition was hosted in Jerusalem. According to a May 1999 report in The Jerusalem Post, education minister Yitzhak Levy, Jerusalem deputy mayor Haim Miller and Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau condemned the competition and its Shabbat desecration. The haredi parties also weren’t particularly happy with the prominence of Dana International, the transgender singer who won the 1998 show, bringing the contest back to Jerusalem. A report in The Guardian at the time said Miller threatened that the haredi community would boycott the International Convention Center – where the competition was hosted – if it went ahead with rehearsals on Shabbat.
If you haven’t already guessed, the 1999 Eurovision (a significantly smaller affair than the one planned for 2019) went ahead as the EBU intended, and the haredi boycott of the International Convention Center didn’t last very long at all. Many things have changed since 1999, but this one is likely to remain the same.