Arts and Culture | Israel

How Israel overcame politics in winning the Eurovision song contest

Winner of the eurovision 2018 song contest Netta Barzilai preforms at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on May 14, 2018. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** úøáåú äåôòä úì àáéá äàéøååéæéåï ðèò

(JTA) — Hours before the Eurovision song contest’s kickoff, Rafi Kishon posted on Facebook a sobering message and a picture of himself wearing a head of lettuce for a hat.

Israel’s entrant, he said, didn’t stand a chance of winning in anti-Semitic, anti-Israel Europe.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” the Israeli veterinarian wrote in Hebrew on Saturday. Netta Barzilai’s “excellent” song could not win Eurovision “because Europe is imbued with bicolored anti-Semitism: The classic Christian anti-Semitism of Holocaust’s perpetrators and Muslim anti-Semitism that’s striking root” there, he wrote, vowing to eat his own “hat” if he’s proven wrong.

Kishon, a political hawk and the son of the late humorist Ephraim Kishon, failed to predict the future: Barzilai’s unconventional song “Toy” in fact did win the contest, earning the fourth-highest score in the pan-European song competition’s 63-year history. But his prediction nonetheless illustrated how many Israelis apparently overestimate the politicization of Eurovision, the prevalence of anti-Israel sentiment in European societies — or both.

Like the “American Idol”-style song competitions that it resembles, this annual pageant of novelty pop songs, outlandish costumes and sugar-coated nationalism is judged by in-house juries from each participating country and by viewers watching at home.

At this year’s contest, Israel would have come in third Saturday if it were up solely to the official juries of the 43 countries that participated. But the juries, which gave Israel 212 points, determine only 50 percent of the scores. Callers gave Israel another 317 points to bring their total to 529 — nearly 100 points more than the next closest contestant, Cyprus.

A breakdown of voting for Israel both by juries and viewers belies any assumption of politicization or anti-Semitic bias.

For example, Israel was the top vote-getter from juries both in France — which many consider emblematic of Europe’s anti-Semitism problem — and the Czech Republic, which is a historic and contemporary bastion of support for Israel and Jews in Europe.

And the countries where callers gave the highest number of perfect scores to Israel included France, Azerbaijan — a Shi’ite Muslim nation — and Spain, where Catholic anti-Semitism for centuries has been rife and has more municipalities boycotting Israel than any other country in Europe.

(It might not have hurt that during the contest’s final, “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot encouraged her nearly 20 million Instagram followers to vote for her fellow Israeli.)

Even though Israel won this year’s contest, the organizers were still accused of politicizing the event after its Portuguese hosts did not mention Jerusalem when asking the Israeli jury to announce their score. Instead of the typical greeting “good evening” followed by the jury’s capital city, the Jerusalem-based Israeli jury received only “Shalom Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to this perceived slight by triumphantly saying after Barzilai’s win: “Those who did not want Jerusalem in the Eurovision got the Eurovision in Jerusalem.” (The winning country gets to host the event the following year.)

But the organizers denied any intentional snub of Jerusalem, which Israel and the United States consider its capital despite the refusal of most of the world’s countries to agree. The hosts also failed to mention Prague, greeting the Czech Republic’s jury with a simple “hi.” They also greeted the Dutch jury with “good evening, Hilversum” – the name of the small city where the Dutch Eurovision studio is located.

Barzilai’s victory was the fourth for Israel, suggesting that catchy pop trumps politics in the four decades Israel has taken part. Barzilai’s eccentric feminist anthem “Toy” — which combines clucking chicken noises over looped vocals and English lyrics — seemed to win out over any qualms about Zionism.

Nevertheless, the contest, which is viewed by 200 million people annually, can’t always avoid politics.

Russia was kicked out of the 2017 competition because its contestant, Yulia Samoylova, had been barred from entering Ukraine for political reasons.

And there’s the chronic issue of bloc voting, in which neighboring, culturally similar or politically sympathetic countries consistently give each other high scores. Greece and Cyprus are notorious for this, with each country giving the other top scores most years.

Terry Wogan, a British juror, in 2008 threatened to resign from the Eurovision, saying it was “no longer a musical contest.”

But these arguably have been minor issues in light of the potential for problems in a contest involving countries with open or dormant disputes such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia and the Baltic countries or Croatia and Serbia.

Despite tensions, the Eurovision contest remains a talent show where the unexpected, the spectacular and the original stand a chance of winning regardless of politics.

Barzilai, a plus-sized 24-year-old, said “Toy” was a celebration of diversity and a protest against the objectification of women and body shaming.

Whether that upbeat, defiant message can keep politics out of next year’s contest in Jerusalem is another story. Two Irish lawmakers in the European Union have already called for a boycott of the contest in Israel, as has Dublin’s mayor, who is a longtime anti-Israel activist.

In Israel, too, some saw a political message in the victory by Barzilai.

“When Israel sends to the world a symbol for being different, tolerance and liberal values, suddenly the world is not against us and we win!” wrote Yariv Oppenheimer, a former leader of the Peace Now left-wing group in Israel. “That’s how it went with Dana,” he noted, citing the 1998 victory in the Eurovision contest by an Israeli transgender woman, Dana International.”

“[S]o it went with Netta and that’s the Israel the world wants to love – as we do, too!” he said.

But to some Eurovision veterans, Barzilai’s victory had little to do with her message and everything to do with the gimmickry and showmanship of a woman clucking like a chicken.

“Israel is the worthy winner if you look at it as a circus, or just craziness,” said Waylon, Holland’s contestant (and perhaps a sore loser: He finished a distant 18th).

This year “a woman who imitated a chicken won,” Waylon told the NOS broadcaster. “A couple of years ago a bearded woman won,” he said referencing the Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst, who won the 2014 contest. “It’s a rarity show and that’s a shame in a song festival.”