Eurovision ruse

The just concluded Eurovision song contest rarely passes off without some kind of controversy. This year the issue was the location of the event itself: Tel Aviv. While Israel was trying to show off its sunny Mediterranean beaches, it was also using Eurovision as a cover as it strives to escape from its responsibility for the tragedy called the occupation. All the singing and dancing at Eurovision could not hide this ugly reality.

Although Israel is not in Europe, it hosted Eurovision for two reasons. Last year the contest was won by an Israeli singer and because the winning nation gets to host the following year’s contest, this year Eurovision set up shop in Tel Aviv. Secondly, Israel qualified for the competition because the Israel Broadcasting Authority is a member of the European Broadcasting Union, which is responsible for the event.

Regardless of the rules, on what basis should a state of this kind be rewarded by the glitz and glamour of the Eurovision song contest? What message does this pretense that Israel is a normal state send when its policies and conduct obviously clash with so many civilized norms that the international community seeks to live by?

The juxtaposition of signs welcoming visitors to the contest, immediately followed by a billboard protesting against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, is glaring. The contrast is all the more jarring when it is realized that “Breaking the Silence,” an organization started by former soldiers which wants to see Israel withdraw from Palestinian territories, paid for the billboard along the highway. The rival messages underline the contrast between the extravaganza of Eurovision, usually a campy and glitzy affair, and the fact that just a short drive away is an ongoing, intractable, conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to explain that the government does not control the Eurovision competition but Israel has poured millions of dollars into the event. And why not? By all accounts, the Eurovision contest has been a blessing for Israel. It is using Eurovision as a way to brand itself as a fun, sunny holiday break for tourists in an attempt to put forward its best face to the world. Forty-one countries were represented, and an estimated 200 million people watched the four-day event, a huge boost for the standing of the host country.

However, just as Israel was keen to take advantage of the world’s spotlight, so too, activists in and outside the country called for the world to pay attention to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which made the choice of Israel as the venue for this glittering occasion wrong. Twenty minutes away from the Eurovision festivities lies the Gaza Strip, a tormented land of siege, poverty and hunger, of Israel’s own making. Nearly two million Palestinians are incarcerated in the open-air prison that is Gaza today for no crime other than that they are not Jews. Small wonder that the cries of the frightened children, the amputees and the wounded of Gaza did not reach the revelers in Tel Aviv.

There is also the coincidence of the timing of Eurovision this week, which is the 71st anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. On May 15, 1948, the state of Israel was established, and with it the catastrophe that has blighted Palestinian lives ever since. Each year, at about this time, Israel celebrates its so-called Independence Day, oblivious to the tragedy its establishment caused for the Palestine people.

Israelis spared no effort to exploit every opportunity afforded by Eurovision to show themselves off as a part of the civilized, Western world. But when protesters defended Israel against a boycott of Eurovision as advocated by Palestinians and their supporters, on the grounds that Eurovision’s “spirit of togetherness” was under attack, one has to ask: What “togetherness” is found under an occupation?