Since it first began in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has been responsible for bringing quite a few tunes to the world stage. A few have been memorable, others forgettable, and many, cheesy. Big hair. Big teeth. Spandex. But harmless.
However, when Israel appears on the world stage – even in a bouncy music competition – controversy never seems to be a stranger. Sometimes it’s the world that has a problem with Israel. Or sometimes it’s the Israeli competitors themselves who relish getting something off their chests while appearing on centre stage. As Israel gears to compete in Copenhagen, a look back at Israeli controversy at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Israelis were thrilled with their first Eurovision win with A-Ba-Ni-Bi” in 1978, but the same could not be said about some of their neighbours. When it became apparent that Israel was going to win, Jordan television switched off its live broadcast of the competition. As Wikipedia succinctly puts it, “Jordanian TV finished the show with a photo of a bunch of daffodils on screen, later announcing that the Belgian entry (which finished second) was the winner.”
After its 1979 success, Israel spent a few years out of the winner’s circle – until 1998. That’s when a singer named Dana International scored big with her song Diva. The win was controversial because until a sex-change operation five years earlier, Dana had been a man named Yaron Cohen. When Reuters asked Benjamin Netanyahu if he was having a hard time coping with the win by Ms. International, the prime minister responded: “Why? I listened and hummed like the rest of the public.” Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Haim Miller, on the other hand, was outraged and pledged that the following year’s competition would not take place in Jerusalem. It did.
In 2000, the Israeli pop group PingPong lost its backing from the Israeli Broadcasting Authority when it waved Syrian flags during a rehearsal of Sameyakh (Be Happy) in Jerusalem. That gesture was apparently the band’s bid to promote peace between the countries. PingPong had to pay its own way to compete in Stockholm, where it closed its act by waving Syrian and Israeli flags before millions of viewers. PingPong placed 22nd.
A couple of years later, a boycott was launched to keep Israel out of Eurovision in Talinn, Estonia. The boycott was unsuccessful, but when Israel’s Sarit Hadad performed the song Light a Candle, a Swedish presenter told his viewers, “Many people thought that Israel should not be appearing in the contest due to their treatment of the Palestinians.” After her performance, he added, “Let's see how many points Israel will get from this song. I know they'll get zero from me.” Following the uproar, Sweden’s ambassador to Israel met with Hadad and apologized for the statement.
Although Israel is not a European country, it has participated in the Eurovision competition for decades. Another Middle Eastern country, Lebanon, was set to make its debut in 2005. But those plans went off the rails when Lebanese television decided it could not abide by the Eurovision rules, which state that all entries must be broadcast in full by all member countries. The head of Lebanon’s broadcast authority, Ibrahim Khoury, explained his withdrawal to the Associated Press. “Lebanon is in a state of war with Israel. If the Israeli contestant wins, we would have to show the celebrations. I cannot do this.”
In 2007, the Israeli group Teapacks travelled to Helsinki, hoping to impress international viewers. But their appearance at the semi-final wasn’t a sure thing. Sung in Hebrew, English and French, and mixing folk, rap, rock and chutzpah, Teapacks’ “Push the Button” was a thinly veiled allusion to then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s not so thinly veiled threats against the Jewish state:
“The world is full of terror
If someone makes an error
He’s gonna 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
They’re gonna push the button, push the button
Push the bu- push the bu- push the button”
Note: Please embed “Push the Button” from Youtube here.
Here is the embed code:
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/DyiLSZavS4U" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Those lyrics didn’t please the European Broadcasting Union, which opposes entries that carry “political propaganda.” Teapacks countered that their song “does not refer to countries, continents, names of people, and may, just like any other text, be subjectively interpreted in many different ways and angles.” Eurovision organizers deliberated whether to allow “Push the Button” at the competition. In the end, the song survived the scrutiny and was pronounced “generally appropriate.” “Push the Button” placed 24th at the semi-finals and failed to qualify for the finals.
Mira Awad, an Israeli Arab, and Noa, a Jewish Israeli, represented Israel at the 2009 Eurovision in Moscow singing There Must Be Another Way. Their appearance made waves all over the political spectrum. Awad told The Guardian that Palestinian and Israeli leftists called on her to withdraw. “They said I couldn't represent a country that was killing my own people, that performing would give a green light to the killing of children in Gaza.” On the other hand, she felt pressure from Israeli politicians like Avigdor Lieberman who campaigned on the slogan “no loyalty, no citizenship,” in reference to Israel's Arab population.
“Suddenly, I felt the importance of nailing my existence to the wall in a way no one could question,” Awad said. “I am an Israeli citizen – and I'm here to stay. Eurovision was my way of saying you [Lieberman] are not going to decide who is a citizen of this country.” On the other hand, Israeli President Shimon Peres praised the duo, "for what they are doing for their people and the sake of peace." Noa and Miri Awad finished 16th.
This year, Mei Finegold will perform “Same Heart,” a song of love lost, as Israel’s entry in Copenhagen. Will there be fireworks? Doubtful. But when Israel appears at the Eurovision Song Contest, you just never know.