We sent out one of our writers to report back on the festivities...
Back in the press tent, in between live streams and 3D pressed lattes, the discussion weaved between the competitors, the food and the weather. But at a certain point, the unavoidable question was raised to and by each and every journalist: How do you feel about the politics? How is it to be here, in Israel, home of the one of the world’s most contentious ongoing situations? Is there pressure between the grandiosity of the event and the gravitas of the conflict? And is Eurovision the solution?(!?)
“The politics and moreover diplomatic games are nothing new at Eurovision,” explains Dean Vuletic, an academic historian specializing on the event, “it’s been used by people ranging from dictators to drag queens.” Sebastian Diaz and Etienne Waïotte of Wiwibloggs, a top Eurovision blog, express similar sentiments: “It’s ‘not’ political...but it so is,” Sebastian says, “and the political drama is part of the excitement. It’s like the Olympics of music - more than 200 million people watch it, it's one of the biggest TV shows in the world, countries competing from across the globe, so of course, politics comes into play.”
Part of the politics comes from countries that, while geographically speaking lie outside of Europe, feel connected to its culture and want to participate. And in order to participate, they must join the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) and follow its rules. But unlike Israel, some don’t play by the rules. “Last year, China was kicked out for censoring gay and tattooed performers,” Etienne says, “I literally watched the EBU approach them, during the contest, and give them the boot.” “Think about it,” Sebastian adds, “Eurovision was created post World War II in order to bring everyone together. To exclude some is not doing that. So I guess Eurovision is political - but progressively political, to include all.” But the drama extends to regional conflict, as the Wiwiblogg-ers both coo while explaining the 2016 drama between Ukraine and Russia: “There was soooo much tension in [the Ukrainian representative] Jamala’s performance, which ended up winning,” Sebastian excitedly explains, “Russia and Ukraine’s conflict was still ongoing and they were head to head for first place. This kinda stuff is what makes good drama!”
Israel’s place within Eurovision is no stranger to conflict. In 1978, as Jordan was trying to enter the contest, they first had to follow the EBU’s rules and broadcast the event without hiccups. Unfortunately for them, 1978 was Israel’s first win: Izhar Cohen’s A-Ba-Ni-Bi. Jordan refused to broadcast the Israeli performance, and were promptly refused entry. And of course, Dana International's win in 1998 was the first performance by a performer who had undergone gender reassignment surgery, a drama truly ahead of its time.
But this year’s contest is intertwined with a different kind of Israeli plotline. With rockets flying from Gaza just the week prior, many domestically feared the event would be cancelled. And some countries spoke of ideological boycott, while a few representatives visited the territories during their stay. The initial talk of hosting the event in Jerusalem, where Israel’s previous Eurovision events were, was quashed. Unlike twenty or forty years ago, when war with Israel’s neighbors was tangible, Jerusalem itself is the heart of the present-day conflict.
The decision to host in Tel Aviv, though, came to the joy of the Wiwiblogg-ers. “Every Eurovision fan wanted Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem,” Etienne explains. This may have had something to do with the LGBT presence, as the Wiwiblogg-ers referred to Eurovision not just as the Olympics but “the Gay Olympics”. But it is also due to its more relaxed atmosphere. “In Tel Aviv, you don’t notice that we’re so close to a war zone,” Dean says, “You see security, guns, but it's just the norm here.” Moreover, no one believes that politics deterred neither reporters nor fans from coming. “People weren’t scared to come because of the conflict,” Dean says, “they were more scared of the prices!” “The prices are crazy,” Sebastian explains, “tickets were literally three times more expensive than last year.”
In spite of the political pricing, both Dean and the Wiwiblogg-ers were certain of one thing: “We love Israel!” Sebastine and Etienne nod in agreement, “Tel Aviv is just so buzzing!” “I actually studied abroad here about twenty years ago, and it was the first time I saw Eurovision,” said Dean, “and coming back, I was surprised by the amount of local fans of the event.” Though the Wiwiblogg-ers, supposedly neutral, explain confidently that “truly, some countries don’t want to win. Eurovision is a tourist event, so for, let's say, Israel, why do it next year? It’s expensive, internal politics, etc. Hand it off.” (Meaning that next year we’ll get the excitement, drama and dirty laundry of the politics of another country.) Stay tuned.