As Eurovision 2024 Nears, Israel Is in the Hot Seat

Controversy over the song the country submitted for this year’s contest is the latest chapter in a long history of political tension behind the event

As Eurovision 2024 Nears, Israel Is in the Hot Seat
In 1998, Dana International, a transgender Yemeni-Israeli woman from Tel Aviv, won the Eurovision contest for Israel with the song “Diva.” (Peter Bischoff/Getty Images)

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Eurovision, the world’s most-watched song contest, will take place this year in Malmo, Sweden, from May 7 to 11. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes and moderates the multinational show, insists it is not a political event.

But a series of controversies in recent years shows otherwise. In 2021, the EBU barred Belarus for submitting songs with lyrics that mocked anti-government protesters and called for “no dissent.” In 2022, Russia was banned following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This year, Israel, represented by 20-year-old singer Eden Golan, is in the hot seat.

The war in Gaza put the EBU in a bind. Artists representing several countries, including Denmark, Finland and Iceland, have been pressuring the union to bar Israel from the contest, as have Belgium’s French and Flemish culture ministers. On March 29, the singers for Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Switzerland and the United Kingdom posted a joint statement on social media in which they said that, while they “firmly believe in the unifying power of music, enabling people to transcend differences and foster meaningful conversations and connections,” they “do not feel comfortable staying silent” on the matter of the war in Gaza. The artists expressed “solidarity with the oppressed” and a “heartfelt wish for peace, an immediate and lasting ceasefire, and the safe return of all hostages,” but stopped short of calling upon the EBU to bar Israel from participating.

Queers for Palestine asked Olly Alexander, the singer representing the U.K. who has said Israel is an apartheid state, to boycott the competition in solidarity with Palestinians, while Ireland has seen popular calls for its representative Bambie Thug, who uses they/them pronouns, to boycott the event. But both Alexander and Thug announced they would participate in the contest, while also asserting their support for Palestine.

Meanwhile, Malmo police are reportedly preparing for unrest, with both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel groups saying they will hold demonstrations during the four-day event. Israeli television news programs have broadcast reports that show their correspondents in Malmo navigating a tense and unwelcoming atmosphere that seems quite threatening. Israeli concerns about international hostility were exacerbated by a video clip, which went viral on Hebrew social media, that showed a man who identified himself as Palestinian shouting profanities at a Channel 12 correspondent, calling him a child killer.

The EBU has declined to bar Israel from participating. A spokesperson for the broadcasting union said that Kan, also known as the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, had met all the requirements for participation in the contest. The spokesperson said that Russia’s public broadcaster had been barred in 2022 for “persistent breaches of membership obligations and the violation of public service values.” At the time, the EBU said that allowing Russia to compete would “bring the contest into disrepute.”

But the EBU did ask the Israeli delegation to change the lyrics of “October Rain,” the song it initially submitted for approval, to eliminate what the broadcasting union perceived as lyrics that could be interpreted as political. The song’s creators, Avi Ohayon and Keren Peles, both well-known songwriters in Israel, thought the homage to the Guns N’ Roses song “November Rain” was a sufficiently subtle reference to the events of Oct. 7. The EBU, however, saw the matter differently — the lyrics were not subtle enough for them.

At first, Kan refused to modify the song lyrics. But when the runner-up song, “Dance Forever,” was disqualified because it referred to the Oct. 7 Nova rave massacre, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog intervened. Stressing the importance of Eurovision to Israel’s international image, he asked Kan to change the lyrics to meet the EBU’s criteria. So the composers changed the title of the song from “October Rain” to “Hurricane” and altered the lyrics so that “writers of history” became “writer of my symphony” and “flowers” was replaced with “powers.” The EBU accepted the modified version with its carefully chosen lyrics and gave the green light to Israel’s participation.

In an interview with Israel Hayom, a popular newspaper with a right-wing editorial position, the songwriter Avi Ohayon explained the changes: “We had the word ‘flowers’ in the first text and had to replace it. Dude, flower is Israeli code.” In Israeli military parlance, “flower” is the code word for a wounded soldier. According to Ohayon, the composers and the producer-in-chief of the Israeli delegation decided to omit any words or phrases that might be perceived as political.

The name Eden Golan sounds as though it was generated by an AI program trained on successful Israeli musical acts; Israel has been represented by singers named Eden at two previous Eurovision contests, while Golan is the surname of one of the country’s most successful male pop artists. But it is the real name of an ambitious, talented 20-year-old who was born in Israel and raised in Moscow, where her father had a business. In 2015, when she was 11 years old, Golan came fifth in the contest to choose Russia’s entry for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest.

Golan and her family returned to Israel in 2022, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In an interview with Mako, an Israeli digital media platform, she said that they had always planned to move back. In December 2023, during her televised audition for the Israeli TV contest series “HaKokhav HaBa” (“Rising Star”), she told the panel of judges, after they remarked on her foreign accent, that she had grown up in Russia but Israel was the only place she felt at home. The judges visibly melted, calling her a “sweetheart” who “warmed their hearts.” She auditioned with a powerful rendition of “Rise Up” (by Andra Day) and went on to win the contest, thus becoming Israel’s representative at the 2024 Eurovision.

“HaKokhav HaBa” was the first entertainment show to resume broadcasting after the Oct. 7 massacres committed by Hamas. Critics said it was too soon to resume normal activity, particularly given that three of the people who auditioned for the show were killed at the Nova music festival, while one contestant, Reserves Capt. Shaul Greenglick, was killed in action in December. But Israel is so invested in and connected to the Eurovision that it equates the country’s continued participation in the international song contest with its recovery from the trauma of Oct. 7. Given the prevailing sense among Israelis that their country is deeply misunderstood and unfairly criticized in the international arena for its military response to Hamas in Gaza, every instance of a jury awarding Israel’s entry “douze points” (12 points, the highest score at Eurovision) will be taken as a personal affirmation. As it is written in the Book of Joshua: “Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?”

In 1973, Israel became the first non-European country to participate in Eurovision. How this happened was a bit of a fluke, but there was context: Israeli singers had represented other countries in previous Eurovisions. In 1963, Carmela Corren represented Austria, singing “Vielleicht Geschieht Ein Wunder” (“Maybe a Miracle Will Happen”), which won seventh place. That same year, Esther Ofarim represented Switzerland with “T’en Vas Pas” (“Don’t Go”), which won second place. In 1972, Germany asked the Israeli pop singer Ilanit (the stage name of Hanna Dresner) to be its representative at Eurovision. At the time, she and then-husband Shlomo Tzach had a successful recording career as the duo Ilan and Ilanit, performing in Europe in Hebrew and German. Tzach discovered that Israel was in fact eligible to compete because the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the precursor to Kan, was a member in good standing of the EBU. By then, it was too late for Israel to apply for the 1972 Eurovision, but its application was accepted for the following year.

In 1973, Ilanit represented Israel for its Eurovision debut, hosted that year in Luxembourg. She won fourth place, one slot below Britain’s Cliff Richard, with a love ballad titled “Ey Sham” (“Somewhere”). The video of the performance, which is on YouTube, shows the blonde, blue-eyed, model-esque Ilanit wearing a striped, caftan-like dress and a silver necklace that looks distinctly Palestinian. Roji Ben Yosef, a Bulgarian-born designer who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel in 1948, designed the dress (Ben Yosef was open about the influence of Palestinian culture and fabrics on her designs).

In another Eurovision history-making moment, the 1973 contest saw two female conductors. Nurit Hirsh composed “Ey Sham” and conducted the orchestral accompaniment, while Sweden’s Monica Dominique composed and conducted “You’re Summer” for the Swedish band Nova, which took fifth place. “Ey Sham” stayed at the top of Israel’s charts for weeks and was later released in an Italian version called “Lei.”

Since 1973, Israel has made the finals on 38 of the 45 occasions it has competed in Eurovision. It has won four times, twice placed second and hosted the contest three times (twice in Jerusalem, once in Tel Aviv). It has never placed last, though it came close a couple of times. Most important for Israel, Eurovision has become a showcase for how it wants to be seen by the world — as a diverse, equitable, liberal and democratic society that Europeans will find relatable.

Five years after its debut with Ilanit, Israel won the Eurovision contest. It was a huge moment for the country. The song that won was the irresistibly up tempo “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” performed by Izhar Cohen, an Israeli of Yemeni heritage, with the band Alphabeta. Over the following two decades, Israel won Eurovision three times; on each occasion, the country was represented by an Israeli of Yemeni heritage.

Since the custom is for the winning country to host the following year, the 1979 Eurovision took place in Jerusalem. Israel’s stodgy state broadcaster had been planning to transition gradually, over several years, from black and white to color, but accelerated the process for the 1979 Eurovision by investing significantly in color cameras for the live broadcast. That year, Israel won with the song “Hallelujah,” performed by Yemeni-Israeli Gali Atari with backup by the group Milk and Honey. “Hallelujah” became a hit in Europe and is still one of Israel’s best-loved songs.

The following two decades saw some near hits, some songs that took second and third places, and some lackluster offerings. Then, in 1998, along came Dana International. Born in 1969 in Tel Aviv to Yemeni-Israeli parents, Dana International is the stage name of the transgender woman Sharon Cohen, a willowy, glamorous performer who looks like a runway model in the shimmering, mermaid-esque evening gowns she wears on stage. The song “Diva” was tailor-made for her: It’s about larger-than-life women, with music composed by Tzvika Pik. Today, Pik is most famous for being Quentin Tarantino’s father-in-law, but in the 1970s and early 1980s he was a massive celebrity in the Israeli pop music scene.

Dana International’s 1998 victory set off an impromptu celebration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Ecstatic 20-somethings of all sexual orientations stripped to their underwear and jumped into the fountain at the top of the square, which happens to be the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated just three years earlier. There, they raised the rainbow flag alongside the blue-and-white Israeli flag and celebrated. In Jerusalem, Israel’s seat of government, the reaction was disapproving — not because government ministers thought the celebrants had desecrated the place where a prime minister was assassinated, but because they thought Dana International desecrated Judaism.

“Choosing Dana International gives me no honor as a Jew,” said Deputy Minister of Health Shlomo Benizri of Shas, the party that represents ultra-Orthodox Jews of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) descent. Benizri added: “The Jewish people always knew how to be a light unto the nations. This time it is darkness unto the nations. Dana is an abomination. There was nothing worse, not even in Sodom.” Benizri added: “He’s not a she, he’s a he . . . If you stick a tail on a man and put whiskers on him, does he become a cat?”

For secular Israelis, Benizri’s remarks about the transgender singer were laughable. Perhaps they felt some schadenfreude when, a decade after his dubious pronouncements about Dana International, Benizri was convicted of taking bribes, breach of trust, conspiracy to commit a crime and obstruction of justice. He served two-and-a-half years in prison.

As for Dana, she was nonplussed by BenIzri’s remarks. “I represent the regular Israelis, all the Arabs, the Christians. Everyone who wants to be represented by me,” she said at the time.

Over the years, Israel has been represented at the Eurovision by singers who were non-Ashkenazi, non-gender-conforming, non-Jewish and, on one occasion, Palestinian. It has become a showcase for the liberal, enlightened side of their society that Israelis want the world to see and it makes them feel good about themselves. For decades, it has also been a powerful social unifier.

When Israel had just one state broadcaster, before cable was introduced in the early 1990s, the entire country gathered around their televisions to watch the live broadcast as though it were a tribal bonfire, while snatches of song could be heard through the open windows of apartment buildings that lined city streets. Whether Israel’s entry won or not, most of the songs it entered in the contest became national hits and are still in the canon of classic songs one hears on the radio during pre-holiday broadcasts. There is hardly an Israeli alive who cannot recognize and hum the choruses of “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” “Hallelujah,” “Diva” — or any number of songs that became hits in Israel even if they didn’t place in the top three at Eurovision.

But Israel’s participation has been marked by controversy since Ilanit’s 1973 debut. At every contest, the security detail works overtime. For years, there was a rumor — now debunked — that Ilanit wore a bulletproof vest under her voluminous, caftan-like dress while singing “Ey Sham” in 1973. In 1975, security guards informed the singer Shlomo Artzi, just as he was about to go on stage to perform the song “You and Me,” that there was a plot to shoot him. Artzi went ahead and performed without incident, but in a documentary film interview, Eldad Shrem, who conducted the orchestra for Israel that year, remarked, “When Europe hates Israel, Europe hates Israel. It is reflected in everything.”

In the same documentary film, Izhar Cohen talked about the controversy over his 1978 victory at Eurovision in Paris with the song “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.”

“It was national; it was nationalistic,” he said. “When I won the competition, Jordanian television cut the transmission short and broadcast pictures of flowers instead.” The dark-skinned Cohen added that when he came on stage to accept the award for Israel, “People didn’t even know there were Jews that looked like me!” In a more recent television interview that followed the controversy over “October Rain,” the song the EBU rejected for the 2024 Eurovision because it was too political, Cohen said, “When I won, the Foreign Ministry told me I was doing the work of 2,000 Israeli ambassadors.” Cohen later experienced debilitating panic attacks due to the pressure of representing his country. “Izhar was nonexistent,” he said. “There was only the State of Israel, the flag … I slowly felt trapped.”

In more recent years, Israel submitted controversial songs that had distinctly political references — and got away with it.

In 2000, the techno group Ping Pong submitted a tongue-in-cheek song called “Sameach” (“Happy”), which depicted an affair between a bored Israeli woman on a kibbutz and her lover from Damascus. The video, which is upbeat and satirical, shows some sexually suggestive movements with cucumbers and man-on-man kissing. Ping Pong said they submitted the song as a joke, but it won the popular vote and became Israel’s official entry. When, however, the band waved Syrian flags during rehearsal, the IBA pulled its sponsorship of the song and de-endorsed it, telling Ping Pong they could pay for their own trip to Stockholm, the city that hosted the 2000 Eurovision, and that they would represent only themselves, not Israel. Ping Pong’s producer Eytan Fox, who has directed several popular Israeli films, including one that depicts an illicit gay love affair between a Jewish Israeli man and a Palestinian Arab man from the West Bank, defended the song, saying it was about love and peace. The techno band went on to perform at Eurovision but scored only seven points, placing 22nd out of 24 entries.

In 2007, the pop band Tea Packs (rendered in Hebrew as Tipp-Ex, a brand name for correction fluid) employed its signature clever lyrics and cartoonish antics to comment on the threat of terrorism and nuclear war with the song “Push the Button.” Written after Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad called for “the annihilation of the Zionist regime,” the song was chosen by popular vote in a phone-in television competition, in what The Guardian described as “a choice that perhaps owed more to the public mood than to any cute lyrical hook or novel musical riff.” Kobi Oz, the songwriter and frontman for the band, chose Hebrew, French and English lyrics to describe the fear of going “kaput, kaboom.” Over its four decades of existence, Tea Packs has championed multiculturalism and the blurring of borders (symbolized by the name of the band), but it did poorly at the 2007 Eurovision, placing 24th and failing to make the finals.

Two years later, in 2009, Mira Awad, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, represented Israel with Achinoam Nini (a Yemeni-Israeli, of course). The duo performed a song about coexistence called “There Must Be Another Way,” with lyrics in Arabic; it placed 16th. That was the year of Operation Cast Lead, one of a series of Israeli military incursions into Gaza over a period of several years.

In 2018, the singer Netta — employing eccentric vocal antics and an unusual musical instrument called the looper — became the first Israeli of non-Yemeni heritage to place first and bring Eurovision back to Israel. This time, there was significant pushback from the culture and entertainment world to the idea of Israel hosting the song contest.

In an open letter, approximately 140 cultural figures — including film director Ken Loach, musicians Roger Waters and Brian Eno, and “Life of Pi” author Yann Martel — demanded a boycott of the contest “if it is hosted by Israel while it continues its grave, decades-old violations of Palestinian human rights.” The artists’ statement continued: “We understand that the European Broadcasting Union is demanding that Israel find a ‘non-divisive’ location for the 2019 Eurovision. It should cancel Israel’s hosting of the contest altogether and move it to another country with a better human rights record.”

The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement called for a boycott of the 2019 Eurovision. It specifically urged Madonna, who was scheduled to perform at the contest, to stay away. The pop superstar, who planned to launch her album “Madame X” at the event, while also marking 30 years since the release of “Like a Prayer,” told Reuters: “I’ll never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda, nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”

Despite the controversy, the 2019 Eurovision did take place in Tel Aviv and Madonna did perform. At one point in her act, as she finished singing the song “Future,” two backup singers standing on the stage with their arms wrapped around each other showed that one had an Israeli flag on their back and the other a Palestinian flag. But the EBU did not take any steps to punish Madonna, although it said the flags on the dancers’ backs ran contrary to Eurovision’s nonpolitical mandate.

The Icelandic band Hatari, meanwhile, displayed a Palestinian flag as the announcers read out their score. Hatari recorded the Israeli producers demanding that the band members hand over the flag, while the EBU fined the Icelandic broadcaster for breaking rule 2.6 of the competition: “Participating broadcasters shall ensure all necessary steps are undertaken within their respective delegations and teams in order to make sure that the ESC shall in no case be politicized and/or instrumentalized.”

As Israel comes under increasing criticism for its military tactics in Gaza, Israeli news outlets have been giving prominent coverage to Eden Golan and the Eurovision controversy. According to recent reports the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, has advised the young singer against leaving her hotel room while she is in Malmo. Meanwhile, police in Malmo have told pro-Israel demonstrators that they may not wave Israeli flags near the contest venue.

Given all the political controversy amid the ongoing war in Gaza, even if Golan were to receive “douze points” from enough judges to win the contest, it’s difficult to imagine Israel hosting Eurovision next year. But the young singer with the powerful voice and the slightly foreign accent is now famous in Israel and has already been offered advertising opportunities worth millions of dollars. So while she might not become a national icon or the cultural ambassador who rehabilitates Israel’s international image, she will certainly become a financially successful pop singer. Far less certain is whether Eurovision will continue to function as a forum for Israel to showcase the positive aspects of its society — the ones it wants the international community to see. It will need more than top-of-the-line songwriters and Spotify-friendly hooks to regain its credit on the global stage.

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