TEL AVIV — Eurovision is Europe’s longest-running and best-loved music contest, drawing few big names but plenty of flamboyance and the cheesiest of pop songs. But with the competition taking place in Israel this week, the usually festive atmosphere is tinged with politics.
Amid calls for a boycott from pro-Palestinian activists, Israel and its supporters are determined to showcase the country in a positive light, even bringing on board the Queen of Pop to draw in Americans.
Madonna arrived in Israel on Tuesday and is scheduled to perform at the contest’s grand final on Saturday night. The bombastic live show, including supermodel Bar Refaeli as one of the announcers, is expected to attract an international television audience of about 200 million viewers.
Madonna made clear she would not bend to political pressure from any side. In a statement to Reuters, she said, “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.”
The idea to include Madonna came from Sylvan Adams, an Israeli Canadian businessman who calls himself an “ambassador at large for Israel.” He is paying the veteran star $1 million to appear, saying she would give both Eurovision and Israel more visibility, “as well as adding glitz, glamour, sizzle and sparkle.”
“To host the biggest song competition in the world is a wonderful opportunity. These types of opportunities don’t come along for Israel too often,” he said.
Israel won the right to host the competition after Israeli singer Netta captured the public vote in the contest last year with the song “Toy,” a high-energy reference to the #MeToo movement, replete with chicken sounds.
When Netta’s victory was announced last year, pro-Palestinian activists involved with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel called on Eurovision organizers to find an alternative venue.
The BDS movement advocates, among other things, a cultural boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and the Israeli occupation of lands the Palestinians hope to make a future state.
“Insisting on holding Eurovision in an apartheid state like Israel, despite decades of its crimes against the Palestinian people, is a political decision and a very immoral one at that,” said BDS founder Omar Barghouti. “Art should never be manipulated to whitewash any grave human rights violations.”
In advance of this year’s contest, BDS activists held widespread protests across Europe and campaigned on social media, calling on participating countries to pull out of the contest.
None did, though Icelandic entry Hatari, a risque act that dons full bondage gear onstage, has been sharply critical of Israel and made a point of visiting the Israeli-occupied city of Hebron.
Nor did BDS boycott calls dissuade the European Broadcasting Union, the body responsible for organizing Eurovision, from holding the event in Israel. In a media statement, the EBU said that, under Eurovision rules, Israel won in 2018 and therefore it had the rights to host this year. It also said the competition strove to stay out of politics, focusing instead on celebrating “diversity and inclusivity.”
“The EBU is extremely proud of the Eurovision Song Contest, the world’s largest live music event, it is designed to bring audiences and countries together,” the statement said.
Eytan Schwartz, chief executive of Tel Aviv Global, an initiative to promote the city, said it reflected Eurovision values. The BDS movement had little impact, he said, estimating that some 10,000 tourists had arrived for the show and 1,500 foreign journalists would report on it.
BDS activists said their efforts had reduced the number of visitors, pointing to the more than 90,000 tourists who were in Lisbon for last year’s Eurovision. Schwartz said Tel Aviv never expected to see that number of tourists.
Started in 1956 with only seven nations participating, Eurovision has grown over the years to include newly independent states created by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the East Bloc. Israel, which joined in 1973, has won a total of four times. It is one of only two non-European countries, along with Australia, that participates.
Today, the competition boasts more than 40 countries, with two semifinals yielding 26 acts that vie for the Eurovision title in the grand final.
Speaking to members of the international media earlier this month, Netta, who has become a Eurovision icon but also faced BDS protests as she performed across Europe this year, said the contest was established in the wake of World War II to “heal a torn continent.”
“Being on the same stage, no matter what your religion or ethnicity or color, from all these countries, from all these cultures, this is a festival of light,” she said. “For people to boycott light is spreading darkness. It’s the exact opposite thing.”