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How a president's intervention set the stage for the most contentious Eurovision in years

The buildup to the competition has been overshadowed by the debate over Israel’s inclusion – so what can we expect in Malmö?

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Ireland's Eurovision entrant Bambie Thug, the Israeli singer Eden Golan and Eurovision Executive Supervisor Martin Österdahl. PA WIRE / EBU PA WIRE / EBU / EBU

MODERN DAY MARKETING for the Eurovision pitches the contest as a uniting force for people across Europe and beyond – more of a movement than a mere entertainment event, and one that’s above the fray of petty regional politics. 

In the face of controversy over Israel’s participation in Malmö this year the European Broadcasting Union, which stages the contest, has repeatedly stressed that the three-night extravaganza is a non-political musical event for public broadcasters and not a competition between governments. Inclusivity, equality, “and celebrating diversity through music” are central to its values, according to Song Contest supremo Martin Österdahl.

Calls for participating acts and Eurovision fans to boycott in protest at Israel’s involvement have only intensified in recent weeks as the death toll in Gaza has climbed to almost 35,000 people. The boycott campaign started late last year following the start of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in the wake of the 7 October Hamas attacks.

So how did we get here? And what can we expect in Malmö in the coming days as fans arrive and the semi-final shows begin? 

Years of controversy 

As non-political events go, Eurovision has had to contend with an array of minor and major political controversies in the past decade or so – its recent history mirroring the various tensions and conflicts in the continent and wider region. 

Back in 2016 Ukraine’s victory with 1944 – a politically-charged ballad about Crimea – was said to have heightened tensions with Russia. The contest was held in Kyiv the following year – but Russia was forced to withdraw after it emerged that its singer had once toured the annexed peninsula.

Israel’s win in 2018 led to widespread calls for a boycott of the following year’s event, which was held amid high security in Tel Aviv (the government had pushed to host in Jerusalem, but eventually had to settle for the alternate venue). On the night, Icelandic entrants Hatari and interval act Madonna got into hot water for acts of protest that involved displaying the Palestinian flag

The Journal / YouTube

The Covid pandemic put paid to the 2020 contest, and while 2021 may be best remembered – among Eurovision fans at least – for the emergence of Italian rockers Måneskin, there was controversy that year too after Belarus was disqualified for fielding lyrics deemed to be too political.

The most notable decision the EBU has had to make in recent years came in the wake of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The broadcasting union initially stated that Russia could remain in the lineup, but made an about turn within 24 hours in the face of protests from other members - including threats to withdraw. A surge of viewer votes meant Ukraine won the contest by a mile that May and Russia hasn’t returned since. 

In spite of the tumult of the previous few years, the EBU was again insisting it couldn’t be drawn into politics during last year’s contest after rejecting Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request to address the Grand Final. “Political or similar statements” could not be made as part of the contest, the EBU said.

The event was being held in Liverpool as the UK hosted on behalf of Ukraine. The EBU’s decision to turn Zelenskyy down managed to unite Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in their condemnation. Boris Johnson joined in for good measure.

What’s happened this year? 

Politics has loomed large throughout the buildup to this year’s contest. In Ireland, at least, coverage has been dominated by the debate over Israel. RTÉ – which, as the national broadcaster, oversees the country’s entry – had already received hundreds of emails calling on it to boycott by mid-December, more than a month before the selection of this year’s act.

Asked by The Journal for their response to calls for a boycott on the eve of the national final, two of the acts – including winner Bambie Thug and pre-event favourite Erica-Cody – said they didn’t think Israel should be taking part. Leo Varadkar weighed into the debate saying he wouldn’t back a boycott campaign. Some opposition TDs disagreed.

Elsewhere in Europe, artists in Finland and Iceland were among those calling for Israel to be excluded. In Sweden, Robyn and First Aid Kit were among more than 1,000 acts adding their voices to a call for an Israeli ban. Many of those calling for Israel to be excluded cited the approach taken to Russia in 2022. In the UK, while there were also calls for a boycott from various groups, well-known figures like Helen Mirren and Boy George added their names to a letter rejecting the boycott calls and supporting Israel’s inclusion. 

In Israel itself, meanwhile, the 7 October attacks were strongly referenced during the run of the weekly ‘Hakochav Haba’ (Rising Star) show used to select the country’s contestant. The eventual winner – 20-year-old Eden Golan – clinched her place in Malmö in February by performing a cover version of Aerosmith’s ‘Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ surrounded by empty chairs as a tribute to the hostages taken by Hamas.

Within the space of a few weeks, however, Golan’s participation in Malmö was thrown into doubt after it emerged EBU officials weren’t happy with apparent references to the Hamas attacks in her song’s lyrics. A standoff ensued, as the Israeli broadcaster Kan said it wouldn’t be changing them.

As both sides dug in, the Israeli head of state made an unprecedented intervention in the row. The contest was too important for Israel not to be represented, President Isaac Herzog insisted. The lyrics must be changed.

Kan said the President had emphasised “that it is precisely at a time when those who hate us are seeking to repress and boycott the State of Israel” that the country “must raise its voice” in international forums.

Why the intervention?

Historically, Israel’s participation in the Eurovision has been a major cultural uniting factor within the country. Although Middle Eastern and North African countries who are part of the European Broadcasting Area have always been entitled to take part, Israel were, essentially, the first ones to think of it.

Other states in the region have had brief flirtations with the competition over the decades, but on the most part they’ve sat it out – largely due to Israel’s presence. Israel has won the contest an impressive four times – three short of the record now jointly held by Ireland and Sweden. And while it’s difficult to quantify the depth of interest in the contest within the country in any given year, widespread coverage across Israeli media means its Eurovision act is always a household name. (To underscore that point, look no further than this unconventional piece of advice from former premier Naftali Bennett, who suggested that Israelis could flush out Hamas militants who were posing as IDF members by asking for the name of the current Eurovision singer. He was certain “the terrorists will not know”).

While Herzog, as president, occupies a largely ceremonial role, his intervention settled the matter for Kan and Israel. His rationale for insisting on participation is clear – unlike Russia in 2022, Israel hasn’t been excluded from other international cultural and sporting groups and associations. There was a risk that exclusion from the Eurovision could play into the hands of those wishing to cast Israel in the role of pariah state. 

The Late Late Show / YouTube

Why hasn’t the EBU acted? 

On the pro-boycott side of the debate accusations that the Netanyahu government was using art as a propaganda tool intensified. In the wake of further calls for a boycott, Bambie Thug and a host of other Eurovision acts, including the UK’s Olly Alexander,  released a statement confirming that they would take part, but calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

A few weeks later Bambie Thug declared on the Late Late Show that they stood with those choosing to boycott, reiterating that they had decided to stay in the competition to ensure pro-Palestinian views were represented. Yet another pro-boycott letter followed, this time with Eurosong finalist Erica-Cody among the hundreds of signatories.

While there was criticism of a perceived hypocrisy in Bambie Thug’s stance, a number of pro-Gaza voices from the Irish music scene defended their position. 1994 Eurovision winner Charlie McGettigan said the Cork singer was now in the perfect position at the contest “to voice Ireland’s disapproval of what’s going on” in Gaza. On Prime Time, Steve Wall of The Stunning argued that “it shouldn’t be put on poor Bambie Thug’s shoulders” and that it was up to the EBU to act, as it had in 2022.  

Chris West, author of an authoritative book about the history of modern Europe told through the Eurovision, argues that – at this juncture – there is no straight analogy between what happened in 2022 and in 2024, at least from the EBU’s point of view.

“In 2022 two countries actually said they were going to pull out – at which point the EBU pulled Russia out,” West said in a phone interview with The Journal

“At the moment nobody has threatened to pull out and I’m not even sure anyone has formally approached the EBU.”

The broadcasting union was pushed into taking action against Russia – “perhaps very willingly” – by its members, West stressed. 

“Until the EBU – which is an organisation made up of public service broadcasters – until people start putting pressure on it, it’s not going to do anything. And in a way if members can’t be bothered to make a stand, why should they?”

malmo-sweden-may-1-2024-banner-with-the-text-boycott-israel-eurovision-song-contest-malmo-2024-in-the-anual-first-of-may-demonstration-in-malmo-sweden-on-may-1-2024-photo-johan-nilssonttcode A banner with the text "Boycott Israel. Eurovision Song Contest Malmö 2024" in the annual 1 May demonstration in Malmö. TT News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo TT News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

What to expect in Malmö

Authorities have promised a “visible” security presence during the week of the contest, including police with submachine guns. Reinforcements from Denmark and Norway are being drafted in. As of last week, at least half a dozen applications had been submitted for various protests, including one to burn the Koran – an act which is not currently illegal in Sweden.

The main pro-Gaza protests are set to take place on Thursday, when Israel compete in the second semi-final, and on the day of the Grand Final on Saturday. 

“We don’t think a state that is carrying out genocide in Gaza should be taking part – we want Israel stopped from taking part in Eurovision,” Yomn Kadoura, a Palestinian woman living in Malmö and one of the organisers of the protests told The Journal

She said she was expecting thousands to turn out for the protests in the city, which has a sizeable Palestinian population. “They will be peaceful protests.” 

Eurovision fans from Israel are being advised to exercise caution when out and about in the city. Security officials have warned Malmö will be “an unfriendly area for Israelis” and members of the Jewish community within the city have spoken of their fears ahead of the contest. 

So far the only visible indication of Eurovision-related unrest has been the vandalism of a large digital sign back in March.

All in all, however, and particularly for an event that prides itself on inclusivity, it makes for a very different atmosphere compared to recent contests.

A large number of Irish fans are still expected to travel – amongst them Cork teacher and lifelong Eurovision fan Sinead Halpin. Halpin was in Liverpool last year – her first outing to watch the contest in person – and managed to snap up tickets to the final this time around.  

“Honestly, I’m wary,” she said of the security concerns. While she expects to be safe during her visit “when we’re travelling we’re making sure we’re very, very careful”.

Halpin, who is also a candidate for the Social Democrats in the upcoming local elections, has been campaigning for the Irish delegation to be allowed to speak freely on the matter of Gaza while in Malmö. That campaign has included writing to arts and media minister Catherine Martin and to RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst. On the basis that the contest is one between broadcasters not nations, she’s raised specific criticisms about Kan and its coverage of the bombardment of Gaza

There has been talk within Eurovision fan Whatsapp groups of organising a “targeted boycott” of Israel’s appearance next week, Halpin said. In the arena, that could take the form of the crowd refusing to wave their LED wristbands in the air as the cameras pan the arena, or even leaving their seats.

“I did actually completely boycott the 2019 contest. There’s a gap in my knowledge about Eurovision because I know absolutely nothing about 2019.”

While she’s planning to attend the final, Halpin says it’s important that Song Contest fans “don’t have blinkers on and are aware of the politicisation of us by the Israeli broadcaster and Israel”. 

Referencing the diplomatic row that developed around the Ireland v Israel basketball qualifier back in February, Halpin added:  “Nobody was saying to the basketball team, you personally should not play – they were saying to the organisers it’s not fair to force them to play.”

Bambie Thug shouldn’t be singled out by campaigners backing a boycott, she said.

“This is a failure of the EBU and a failure of the various broadcasters to protect their acts, to make it so that their acts can freely talk.”

OGAE Ireland – the Irish Eurovision fan club – released its own statement during the week expressing its disappointment at the “politicisation and propagandisation” of the contest carried out by the Israeli broadcaster and the country’s delegation. 

file-the-completed-eurovision-stage-at-malmo-arena-is-shown-at-a-press-conference-in-malmo-sweden-on-april-25-2024-organizers-of-the-eurovision-song-contest-say-theyre-willing-to-remove-any-pal Final preparations at Malmö Arena. Johan Nilsson / TT News Agency via AP, File Johan Nilsson / TT News Agency via AP, File / TT News Agency via AP, File

Where are we now? 

The highest profile protest yet calling for Ireland to withdraw was staged at RTÉ’s Dublin 4 campus just last Thursday. The demonstration included a ‘die in’ staged by campaigners from the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign. 

“Ireland has been associated with the Eurovision forever … people know what it means to us,” singer Mary Coughlan said, calling on RTÉ to “do the right thing”. 

Over in Malmö, meanwhile, the contest has its official opening tonight as the Eurovision acts take to the Turquoise Carpet to meet the media. Malmö Arena will be packed out tomorrow night as the first live show – which serves as a dress rehearsal for Tuesday’s first semi-final – gets under way. 

None of the 37 singers and groups slated to take part has hinted at pulling out – but that’s not to say there won’t be some attempts at acts of protest within the arena, either on the part of the participants or by audience members. 

In Ireland, meanwhile, most people – to the extent that they think about it at all – will only now be starting to consider whether to tune in or not.

No opinion polls have been carried out to determine the depth of support or opposition to calls for a boycott.

However, a report on the proceedings at a Cork City Council meeting last month may go some way towards indicating the state of public sentiment on the issue.

A motion was proposed calling for the EBU to ban Israel. Amid the debate, a Green Party councillor’s effort to bring an amendment backing Bambie Thug’s stance was criticised as contradictory and voted down.

The original motion went through with 12 votes in favour, nine against and one abstention. 

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