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Israel at Eurovision: Not to be “Toyed” With

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Netta Barzilai returning home to Israel after winning the 2018 Eurovision song contest. (Flash90 Photo)

In just a few days, Kobi Marimi will take centre stage at Expo Tel Aviv and try to do what Netta Barzilai did last year with ‘Toy’, win the Eurovision Song Contest. If Kobi pulls it off, it won’t be the first time that Israel has won back-to-back wins. Actually, since Israel started competing in 1973, the country has had a very respectable track record: four wins, two second place showings, one third place and 13 more top-ten performances.

In other words, Israel is not to be Toyed with.

Here is my very selective guide to Israel’s Eurovision wins, its enduring hits – and the story behind one famous flameout.

 

Ey Sham – 4th place (1973)

Ilanit was the first singer to represent Israel at Eurovision when she performed Ey Sham, ‘Somewhere’, and finished a very credible fourth. The competition took place in Luxembourg, and to accommodate the heavy security, all leave was suspended for the country’s police and soldiers. The competition also spawned an interesting rumour that Ilanit had worn a bulletproof vest during her performance, which took place only seven months after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Summer Olympics in Munich.

“It was not true,” said Ilanit. “It was just a story.”

 

A-Ba-Ni-Bi – 1st place (1978)

Who could have expected that a Hebrew language, pseudo-gibberish pop song would score Israel’s first Eurovision win in 1978? Sung by Izhar Cohen and AlphaBeta, A-Ba-Ni-Bi tells how two young people express their love using their own “secret” form of Hebrew. Think Pig Latin for the Holy Tongue.

A-ba-ni-bi o-bo-he-be-v o-bo-ta-ba-ch …

… when decoded, translates into …

… Ani ohev otach (I love you)

The song was written by Ehud Manor, a prolific songwriter whose works include the popular, ‘Bashana Haba’a’.

Israelis were thrilled with their first Eurovision win 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 to show a bunch of daffodils. And then Jordan announced that the Belgian entry was the winner. (Belguim actually finished second.)

 

Hallelujah – 1st place (1979)

With its 1978 win, Israel was invited to host the following year’s competition, which it did from Jerusalem. Israel pulled off a coup by winning before a hometown crowd with the very memorable ‘Hallelujah’ performed by Gila Atari and the band Halav Udvash. As winner, Israel was invited to host again the following year but declined to host – and to participate – because the competition had to be held on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

 

Chai – 2nd place (1983)

Over the next decade or so, Israel didn’t have any wins, but for my money it produced some of its best – and most enduring – Eurovision entries. Avi Toledano’s spirited ‘Hora’ finished 2nd in 1982. That was followed by another 2nd place showing by the incomparable (and much missed) Ofra Haza. ‘Chai’, a song of victory and survival of the Jewish people, has the memorable refrain, “Zeh hashir she saba shar etmol le’aba vehayom ani od chai.” “This is the song that grandfather sang yesterday to father – and today I still live.” That sentiment was echoed in 1991 with Duo Datz’s 3rd place ‘Kan’ which proclaimed that we are ‘Here’ after two thousand years of wandering.

 

Diva – 1st place (1998)

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 made headlines because until Dana had a sex-change operation five years earlier, she had been a man named Yaron Cohen. Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Haim Miller was outraged and pledged that the following year’s Eurovision competition would not take place in Jerusalem. (It did.) On the other hand, when Benjamin Netanyahu was asked if he had a hard time coping with the win, the prime minister responded: “Why? I listened and hummed like the rest of the public.”

‘Diva’ was the last Eurovision winner sung entirely in a language other than English until 2007. Until 1977, the rules required that countries perform in one of its official languages. When that rule was dropped, there was a drift to English among most countries. In Israel’s case, there were a number of years with dual Hebrew/English entries. But since 2015, Israel’s entries have been sung in English only. (And yes, I know that Netta included a single line of Hebrew in ‘Toy’ – Ani lo buba meaning “I’m not a doll” – but c’mon!)

 

Push the Button – failed to qualify (2007)

In 2007, the Israeli group Teapacks (pronounced “Tee-pex”), performed an Israel Eurovision entry unlike any other. Sung in Hebrew, English and French, ‘Push the Button’ was a thinly veiled allusion to 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

Those lyrics didn’t please the European Broadcasting Union which opposes Eurovision entries that carry “political propaganda” and deliberated whether to allow ‘Push the Button’ at the competition. In the end, the song survived the scrutiny and was pronounced “generally appropriate.” After all that controversy, ‘Push the Button’ placed 24th (in a field of 28) in the semi-finals and failed to qualify for the finals.

 

1st place – Toy (2018)

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that no one had seen anyone like Netta Barzilai before her appearance at last year’s competition. For decades, Eurovision had been derided as a platform for campy songs performed by smiling ensembles with big hair. But a talented and sassy singer with the occasional cluck in front of a phalanx of bobbing Japanese maneki-neko cat toys? That was a new one. Netta won the hearts of judges and the voting public. Her official video has racked up over 114 million views (and counting), a Eurovision record.

 

Home – TBA (2019)

Can Kobi Marimi pull off another back-to-back win with ‘Home’?  As a winner of Israel’s HaKokhav HaBa (Rising Star) competition, Kobi Marimi earned the right to represent his country at this year’s Eurovision competition in Tel Aviv. But Kobi is no Netta clone. Where she is flamboyant and outrageous, he harkens back to tradition as he croons in Home:

I feel the sun upon my skin

And I am someone, I am someone

You pulled my heart, I took it in

It made me someone, I am someone

And now I’m done, I’m coming home

 

What are his chances? Let’s just say that if you bet on Kobi and he wins, you are set to make a killing.

We find out Saturday whether Kobi Marimi becomes Israel’s fifth Eurovision champion.

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