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The Myth Of An Apolitical Eurovision

Pro-Palestinian protesters opposing Israel's participation in the 68th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) demonstrate in Malmo, Sweden, on May 11, 2024, with a poster saying : NEJ TILL FOLKMORD, Welcome to the Genocide Song Contest
Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

On Saturday, May 11, as tens of thousands of Palestinians fled Israeli bombardment in Gaza's last refuge, the Israeli singer Eden Golan ascended a stage in a glowing metal circle to perform her song "Hurricane" in the final of the Eurovision Song Contest. Inside the arena in Malmo, Sweden, Golan's song was met with resounding boos, which have accompanied her since rehearsals on Wednesday. But this reality was obfuscated to anyone viewing the televised show, which suggested Golan took the stage to only rapturous applause, leading fans and a former contestant to accuse the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) of editing out the boos. Outside the arena, people marched in the streets of Malmo chanting, “Eurovision, you can’t hide, you’re supporting genocide." At the end of the night, rapper and singer Nemo from Switzerland won it all, becoming the contest's first nonbinary winner. A tearful Nemo took the trophy and said, "I hope this contest can live up to its promise and continue to stand for peace and dignity for every person in this world."

The night was a disastrous, shameful, and entirely expected outcome of a competition that has refused to hold Israel to the same standard as its other member nations. The competition's motto is "united by music," and the EBU, a group of public media organizations, sees itself as an "apolitical" entity putting on an "apolitical" event. (Israel, alongside other non-European nations like Australia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, is allowed to participate through membership in the EBU.) But in February 2022, one day after Russia invaded Ukraine, the EBU announced the country was banned from participating in the song contest. “The decision reflects concern that, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute," the statement read. Yet this year, the EBU ignored calls from artists, politicians, and fans to remove Israel from the contest after the IDF launched its ongoing, brutal counterattack on the Gaza Strip following the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7. In the months since, 1,139 Israelis and more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict.

This might seem hypocritical, and it is. But the comms specialists have their own explanation. According to a Eurovision FAQ page created to defend the organization's decision to allow Israel to compete, the EBU clarified that Russia was suspended because of the Russian broadcasters' "persistent breaches of membership obligations and the violation of public service values." The issue, it seems, was never the invasion, could never be the genocide. "When 10,000 civilians are killed in more than two years in Ukraine, Eurovision is political. When 40,000 are killed in Gaza in just 7 months, most of whom women and children, the competition is non-political," wrote Fianna Coleman in a piece for Tribune Mag.

Like anywhere else, being "apolitical" at Eurovision is a political act. In 2019, when Eurovision was held at Tel Aviv, Iceland was fined after their entry, the band Hatari, held up scarves decorated with Palestinian flags as the results were announced. The EBU issued the fine, it said, because Hatari's action violated the competition's rules banning political messages during the competition. The only flags that are allowed at Eurovision are the flags of competing countries, as well as pride flags. So while fans and performers were banned from carrying Palestinian flags, the Israeli flag remained, by Eurovision's rules, perfectly allowed.

The EBU initially banned Eden Golan's original song, then called "October Rain," after determining the lyrics were too political, but it was later approved with revisions and a new title, "Hurricane." During the competition, the EBU cracked down on multiple performers who attempted to show solidarity with Palestine onstage. Bambie Thug, the entrant for Ireland, had originally written “Ceasefire” and “Freedom for Palestine” on their body in the ancient Celtic language Ogham before performing, but the EBU ordered them to remove the messages. (In March, Bambie Thug, along with contestants from Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Lithuania, and Finland, signed a letter calling for an immediate and lasting ceasefire.) Additionally, Eric Saade, a former contestant and one of this year's opening acts, wore a keffiyeh during his performance on Tuesday and was later rebuked by the EBU. "I got that keffiyeh from my dad when I was a little boy, to never forget where the family comes from," Saade later posted to his Instagram story. "I just wanted to be inclusive and wear something that is authentic to me—but the EBU seems to think my ethnicity is controversial." This year, the only neutral thing that happened in Eurovision was that Switzerland won.

The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement called on Eurovision performers, hosts, workers, and fans to boycott the competition until Israel is banned. Some individual queer performers, such as the United Kingdom's Olly Alexander, heard calls from queer artists to boycott. Although none of this year's entrants withdrew from the competition, past performers including Finland's Käärijä and Norway's Alessandra Mele refused to give out their country's points during the final. "There is a genocide going on and I’m asking you all to please open up your eyes, open up your heart," Mele said.

This year's Eurovision was set to be a historic year for the contest—held in Sweden a year after the Swedish singer Loreen became the second performer to win the competition twice, and on the 50th anniversary of ABBA winning with one of the competition's most famous songs, "Waterloo." (On Saturday, Loreen reportedly told producers she would refuse to hand off the trophy, as is required of the prior year's winner, if Israel won.) Instead, this legacy was overshadowed by the protests and the EBU's logical contortions to defend Israel's right to perform in a singing competition while also carrying out a genocidal campaign.

But Eurovision, despite its easy appeal as a sequined, kitschy arena of goofy, upbeat, and even nonsensical songs, has always been a realm for countries to whitewash their reputations. In the 1960s, the fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was rumored to have rigged the contest to improve Spain's image in Western Europe, succeeding when Eurovision crowned its song "La, la, la." In 2012, Azerbaijan hosted the contest despite the country's appalling record of human rights abuses, including interrogating 43 Azerbaijani fans who voted for Armenia, questioning the voters' "ethnic pride." Often affectionately nicknamed the "Gay Olympics," Eurovision is famous for its legions of queer fans and many queer performers, and Israel has often been accused of pinkwashing with its entrants, who work to shift its reputation from a brutal settler state to a bastion of queer-friendly attitudes and policies.

No artist has ever represented Palestine in Eurovision. In 2007, Palestinians campaigned to enter the contest but did not successfully become an active member of the EBU. (The same year, Israel's song "Push the Button" was selected for the contest, despite lyrics that refer to nuclear war.) But artists have tried other routes to entry. In Iceland, singers of any nationality can compete in Eurovision if they sing their song in the first semifinal in Icelandic, according to Al Jazeera. In August, the Palestinian pop singer and songwriter Bashar Murad submitted the song "Wild West," co-written with the band Hatari in a bid to represent Iceland. Murad lost to the Icelandic artist Hera Bjork and her song "Scared of Heights" by just 3,000 votes. "If Palestine was free, I wouldn't need to go to Iceland to compete," Murad told France 24.

In 2019, Palestinian artists and organizations calling for a boycott of Eurovision in Tel Aviv organized "Gazavision"—a local song contest for youth in the Gaza Strip. One of the six finalists, then-26-year-old Ahmed Al-Daoor, was born in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp. Al-Daoor was working as a singer and music teacher until the ongoing genocide made him lose his only source of income.

"We understand that the world is full of challenges, but we hope that you have the capacity to help us during this difficult moment," Al-Daoor wrote in a Gofundme that is currently asking for help for his wife Shahd and their one-year-old daughter Zaina to evacuate the genocide in Gaza. In his Gazavision entry, “Ard Elhayah or “The Land of Life," Al-Daoor sang, "Whenever I pass by / a lover under the sky / ignore tears and listen to my far voice / raising again and singing: / My homeland won't be lost." Unlike the lyrics of a Eurovision-approved song, Al-Daoor's lyrics are beautiful because they are political.

At the end of their Eurovision performances, several artists delivered laconic messages to the audience, so carefully hewn to fit the EBU's rules prohibiting political statements or lyrics that they felt like erasure poems. “United for music for love and peace,” said France's Slimane. “Love will triumph over hate!” announced Bambie Thug. "Peace will prevail," said Portugal's Iolanda. It's astounding how these messages, when delivered in defiance of Eurovision's wishes, take on a subversive tone. Eurovision has become an institution so bent on saying nothing that its silence speaks volumes. It is a place where calling for peace—perhaps the most banally agreeable sentiment of all time—feels dangerous. As the handful of artists wrote in their ceasefire letter, it is a privilege to take part in Eurovision—to represent your country to tens of millions of viewers. It is also a privilege to have a country to represent.

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