JERUSALEM (AP) — As host of this year’s Eurovision, Israel has tried to use the hugely popular song contest to present itself as a tolerant and cosmopolitan country that is winning increased acceptance on the world stage. But despite Israel’s best branding efforts, the kitschy festival is clouded in political conflict and controversy.
Palestinian militants bombarded southern Israel with hundreds of rockets during a bloody round of fighting last week, raising concerns that the contest could be disrupted by violence. The Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel has been urging tourists and artists to stay home. Even an Israeli promotional video for the contest appears to have backfired, drawing accusations of anti-Semitism and misogyny.
“There’s definitely more controversy around Israel’s contest than past ones,” said John Kennedy O’Connor, who wrote the official history of Eurovision.
Eurovision debuted in the wake of World War II to heal a divided continent. Over the years, the earnest show of European unity has mushroomed into a campy, over-the-top spectacle that brings together acts from 41 countries, including those with little or no connection to Europe, such as Turkey and Australia. In the final round, TV viewers choose the winner by casting votes via text messages.
Israel earned the right to host after Israeli singer Netta Barzilai carried off last year’s prize with her spunky pop anthem “Toy.” Perhaps anticipating controversy, organizers decided to hold the contest in Tel Aviv — Israel’s freewheeling cultural capital known for its beaches and gay-friendly lifestyle — instead of contested, conservative Jerusalem.
O’Connor described hosting Eurovision as a “golden opportunity” for a small country like Israel trying to sell itself as a holiday destination. “Israel can take control of its image and say ‘look, we’re bringing nations together and putting on a great show,’” he said.
But almost immediately, the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which promotes boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, began calling on performers to pull out of the contest over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Dozens of European artists, led by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, signed a letter calling for the contest to be moved elsewhere. Demonstrations erupted outside television studios at a number of national finals. Boycott activists stormed the stage during France’s semi-final round. Iceland’s performers have vowed to leverage their platform to show the “face of the occupation.”
Although none of the national broadcasters or performers have quit the competition, the BDS movement has drawn international attention to topics that Israel had hoped to avoid.