At first, “Happy” seems standard Eurovision fare, remarkable only for an especially tuneless chorus. The front woman gamely warbles lyrics like “Here comes the Sunday depression/I want, I want a cucumber.” Backing dancers hop aimlessly around: one performer, clad in wrap-around shades, seems to do nothing but pout at the camera.
Then, during the third verse, something happens. Members of the Israeli europop ensemble PingPong pull out flags and wave them around – not just their own Star of David, but the Syrian tricolor as well.
“And now I have a new boyfriend from Damascus,” the front woman sings. Coming just months after peace talks between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000, it sent a bold message to the Israeli government. PingPong was disowned by the Israel Broadcasting Authority and forced to pay for their own travel to the contest in Stockholm.
PingPong may have finished third to last – and been voted among the worst Eurovision entries of all time – but the affair showed how seriously Israel takes its involvement in the self-proclaimed “world’s biggest entertainment show.”
In fact, the annual contest is a microcosm of Israel’s attempts to paint itself as a liberal, outward-looking bastion of European values in the heart of a hostile, backward region.
Though the Israeli authorities cried foul over PingPong’s crude political message, in 2007 they were quite happy for the Teapacks to pass overt comment on relations with Iran.
The message – in English – to Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about his escalating nuclear program is clear: “The world is full of terror/if someone makes an error/he’s going to blow us up to biddy biddy kingdom come/there are some crazy rulers/they hide and try to fool us/with demonic, technologic willingness to harm.”
“Biddy biddy” aside, the lyrics to “Push the Button” could almost have been scripted by a Tel Aviv spokesperson. But it is the second verse, part of which is sung in French, which best sums up Israel’s self-portrayal on the Eurovision stage.
“I don’t wanna die/I wanna see the flowers bloom, don’t want to go kaboom, kaboom/I don’t wanna cry/I wanna have a lot of fun just sitting in the sun,” intones the frontman as his bandmates clown around him. Israel is presented as a wacky, hippy utopia, where the “flowers bloom.” Their Iranian enemies, it is suggested, are trigger-happy nihilists who want to make it all “go kaboom.”
The same goes for entries without overtly political messages. Most obviously, in 1998 transgender woman Dana International won the title and international plaudits for Israel. The performance has been held up ever since as evidence of Israel’s progressive society, a prime example of pinkwashing, whereby Israel uses its supposed LGBTQ+ tolerance to deflect criticism of the occupation.
(Israeli apologists who cite Dana International towards this end seldom mention the protests and death threats she incurred from ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews.)
The singer has since appeared on Israel’s answer to the television show American Idol in a t-shirt branded with the Hebrew abbreviation for the Israeli military, lending her support to the occupying force after it killed 10 activists trying to break the siege on Gaza in the infamous flotilla raid that was condemned as an act of “incredible violence” by the United Nations.
At times, when Israel’s brutal occupation has been at the forefront of public consciousness, the purportedly apolitical music contest has been criticized for allowing the state a platform to push its agenda. During the winter 2008-2009 Israeli offensive on Gaza, Palestinian artists and intellectuals signed an open letter calling on Mira Awad, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, to withdraw from the song contest.
“Israel’s image as a ‘democratic,’ ‘enlightened’ and ‘peace loving’ state is what allows the international community to support it. Your participation in the Eurovision is participation in the Israeli propaganda machine,” the letter states. “Every brick in the wall of this phony image allows the Israeli army to throw 10 more tons of explosives and more phosphorus bombs.”
Israel in Europe
Awad went ahead and performed as part of an “Arab-Jewish duo,” offering vague blandishments about a “dialogue towards peace” and standing alongside her Jewish-Israeli partner to sing “there must be another way” as the dust settled on the bodies of hundreds of Palestinian children in Gaza.
Year after year, Israel makes an appearance at this European pop fest, presenting itself as a modern, tolerant, Europeanized state. But what makes this Middle East country eligible for the contest?
There is a technical answer. Israel is entitled to participate as a member of the European Broadcasting Union, and since it lies within the European Broadcasting Area whose remit extends to parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
This encompasses Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia – and Palestine, of course. But only one of these Arab states ever entered. When Israel missed the contest due to budgeting concerns and the date conflicting with a national holiday back in 1980, Morocco entered a song calling for peace and “a place with no color discrimination,” while Lebanon nearly entered in 2005 only to withdraw when told their broadcasters could not skip the Israeli entry.
So Israel has the same legal right to participate in Eurovision as Syria – but it uses this technicality to integrate itself into European networks of cultural exchange.
Much the same occurs in other cultural arenas, notably on the soccer field, where Israel has long participated in European contests. Its attempts to participate in competitions closer to home ended in farce – in 1958, Israel won the African and Asian World Cup qualifiers without playing a match as virtually all its competitors dropped out in protest.
After 20 years without full membership in any regional soccer organization, Israel acceded to the Union of European Football Associations in 1994. In 2013, it hosted the European under-21s soccer tournament, despite opposition from international soccer stars who claimed that Israel had killed Palestinian civilian soccer players in November 2012.
The deaths occurred a few days before Israel launched the second of three recent major assaults on Gaza. In the midst of the onslaught, Israel seriously damaged two stadiums. These protests won a promise from world soccer leader, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, to rebuild one of the bombed stadiums, but little else.
Attempts to frustrate Israel’s manipulation of the Eurovision platform might not have forced it out of the contest, but reactions show how Tel Aviv values these opportunities to prove Israel’s European credentials.
When Eurovision went to Malmo in Sweden, which has a Muslim population of around 20 percent, protests from pro-Palestine groups prompted the Israeli embassy to warn the city over security, drawing a sharp rebuke form city officials discounting any special security measures for individual contestants.
Most telling was Israel’s response to the Hungarian entry in 2015. The slow-burning peace ballad “Wars for Nothing” offered typically vague, feel-good sentiments, but a caption appearing on the display screens behind the singer ran: “2014 – Gaza – two-thirds of the victims were civilians, including more than 500 children.” The Israeli ambassador stepped in to demand the Hungarians excise the criticism of Operation Protective Edge, and the final performance went ahead without any political reference whatsoever.
Leading activists from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement recognize the importance of cultural representation.
“Israel overtly uses culture as a form of propaganda to whitewash or justify its regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people,” they state in their call for a cultural boycott. Boycotting fizzy drink machine manufacturer SodaStream or water distributed by Eden Springs can have an important economic impact on Israeli businesses, but cultural boycotts apply pressure elsewhere – most importantly, on Israeli citizens with the power to influence their government’s actions.
The Palestinian flag was recently banned from Eurovision on the grounds that the contest is “non-political.” But like all mass culture, Eurovision is part of what philosopher Louis Althusser called the “ideological state apparatus,” aligning the individual in relation to society and conditioning them to its exploitative nature.
A singer draped in Israeli flags crooning before an audience of between 100 to 600 million is a profoundly political act, normalizing and reifying the occupation both at home and abroad.
And as white South Africans were bitterly stung by their exclusion from world sport, so a boycott excluding Israel from European cultural platforms like Eurovision and European soccer competitions would serve as a humiliating and potent wake-up call to ordinary Israeli citizens regarding the actions of their government.
Israel’s insistence that it belongs in Europe and in Eurovision masks a tacit acceptance that it will never belong in the Middle East.
An Israeli entrant on Arab Idol would be as negatively received as the Israeli national team in Asian soccer contests. Two of the American Idol Arab clone’s four winners to date have been Palestinian, and the victory of Gaza’s Mohammed Assaf in 2013 – singing “Raise the Kuffiyeh” – sparked wild celebrations across Palestine and in refugee camps in the diaspora.
In a rare exception, joyous Palestinians were depicted on the Western evening news doing something other than protesting, stone-throwing or dying. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas subsequently offered Assaf an ambassadorial position of “diplomatic standing.”
To the youths dancing, chanting Assaf’s name and waving Palestinian flags in the streets of Gaza City, his victory was evidently political, a reminder to the world that Palestine continues to endure.
Israeli leaders recognize this power as present in all pop culture, even hidden below the tinsel and cheesy synthesizers of Eurovision. They abuse the show’s “non-political” veneer to suggest that political change is illegitimate – or even impossible.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist. He regularly reports for the Independent and writes for VICE, Dazed and activist media, as well as publishing poetry and fiction. Twitter: @hashtagbroom. Website: mattbroomfield.contently.com