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Eurovision as a (Small) Victory Against the Netanyahu Government

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On Saturday night, the grand final of the 2019 Eurovision song contest was held at the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds. The winner was the Netherlands with “Arcade”, sung by Duncan Laurence, while Israel’s representative, Kobi Marimi, singing the heartfelt ballad “Home”, placed third from the bottom. Apart from that, however, the evening—the entire weeklong affair, comprising the two semi-finals and multiple events for locals and tourists at a dedicated “Eurovision village” in the south of the city—can only be described as a triumph. As a technical, logistical, and artistic achievement, Eurovision 2019 surpassed the hopes (and allayed the fears) of Israelis who remember all too well the many occasions on which this country faceplanted on an international stage, through a combination of amateurism, “trust me” culture, and misplaced pride. Instead, the Israeli Eurovision felt perfectly judged, pulling off an extremely complicated production to near-flawlessness, paying homage to beloved past acts from Israel and abroad, and celebrating the ethos of multiculturalism and acceptance (especially towards queer culture) that has become associated with the competition.

On my twitter feed on Saturday night and Sunday, celebrations of Eurovision in general and Israel’s achievement in particular were interspersed with frustration and disgust, at the apparent failure of the BDS campaign against this year’s competition. Eurovision in Israel seemed to offer BDS a juicy target, not to mention an audience of allegedly progressive young people who might be more susceptible to the argument that celebrating acceptance and tolerance in a country that has been occupying and oppressing another people for decades is unacceptable. And yet, while ticket sales and tourist numbers were undeniably lower than organizers had hoped—a result that has been ascribed more to high prices for tickets and hotel rooms—Eurovision’s success, and the rosy picture it has painted of Israel (including in the gorgeous “postcards” introducing each competing act as they frolicked in various picturesque locations throughout the country), can only be described as a blow to BDS’s efforts.

I’ve made my views on BDS clear on this blog on more than one occasion—I believe the only people it actually helps are the Israeli right. And in this specific case, I can’t help but view the belief that BDS could impact on an event as popular as Eurovision as deluded. One thing that BDS organizers and the current Israeli government have in common is the desire to exaggerate the movement’s breadth and reach, as this past week definitively demonstrates. But I also think that Eurovision in Israel’s success is significant as a step—a small one, but nevertheless a real one—towards exactly the future that BDS claims to want. I want to talk about how this weekend’s event represents a real blow against the current Israeli government, and perhaps creates a tiny fissure in the us vs. them mentality with which it has cowed the Israeli public into acquiescence with its policies.

One of the problems with BDS’s tactics is that they tend to treat Israel as a single, undifferentiated entity, upon which they can work as one might apply pressure to an individual. Leaving aside the question of whether this type of pressure and punishment actually works on people, in the case of Israel and the Eurovision, this was a particularly misguided approach. No one would have loved to see Eurovision fail more than Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. No one has done more to achieve that goal over the last year than Netanyahu and his ministers. At every step, they have shuffled as close as they could possibly get to stabbing the production in the back without getting blood on their hands, whether it was dawdling on providing the production with the financial guarantees required by the European Broadcasting Union, manufacturing meaningless scandals over the location of the event (why not Jerusalem?) or the requirement to hold it on Saturday (a particularly pointless obsession given that the event itself began at 10PM local time, so there was no “public desecration of the Sabbath”, as the religious parties insisted), and even reacting with alarming equanimity to the possibility of a new round of missile fire from and to Gaza only a week before the event was to take place.

To understand the hostility towards Eurovision from the Netanyahu government, we have to go back to 2011. That year, the Arab Spring protests in Egypt inspired people’s protests across the world, and Israel was no exception. An impromptu tent city appeared along one of the Tel Aviv’s most affluent boulevards (the aptly named Rothschild street), and for several months it played host to protests (which quickly spread across the country), speeches, and workshops, all in an effort to raise Isrealis’ consciousness and suggest the possibility that things could be different here. That government could work for its citizens, and that the ever-present “situation” was no realistic impediment to that goal. Many people on the left (including myself) viewed the protests with ambivalence. On the one hand, they represented a popular uprising the likes of which none of us had ever seen, or imagined possible in our country. But on the other hand, the steadfast refusal to acknowledge the elephant in the room left us wondering whether this movement, too, wouldn’t flounder in the same way that every other talk-about-the-economy-not-the-Palestinians effort had before it. Still, there was no denying the unity of purpose between left and right, center and periphery, that characterized those months, and which felt like a genuine political force that we could build on.

This Netanyahu could not have, and over the next few years he methodically set about making sure that he could never be threatened by such organizing ever again. His tactic was two-pronged: attack and disable the media, and foment division and hostility within the Jewish population that briefly came together to threaten his government in 2011.

On the first count, Netanyahu’s success has been dismaying to behold. In 2011, Israel had three Hebrew-language daily papers. One of them, Ma’ariv, has since folded. The second, Yediot Aharonot, is deeply embroiled in one of the corruption cases that the PM is currently scrambling to avoid prosecution for. Netanyahu is accused of colluding with publisher Noni Moses to exchange favors for favorable coverage. (No one bothered attacking Ha’aretz, because the people who read it aren’t Bibi voters anyway.) The reason that print journalism is so beleaguered is, of course, Israel HaYom, the free daily bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson whose blatant pro-Bibi stance has become something of a joke, but which nevertheless dominates public discourse and endangers what’s left of the free press in this country.

Things aren’t much better in TV news. Israel has only had commercial television (and thus, commercial news corporations) since the early 90s, and in as small a market as this one, they were always a dicey proposition. Over the last decade, Israel’s commercial channels and their newsrooms have staggered, merged and split, with little support from the country’s institutions except to increasingly weaken their capacity to criticize the government. Along the way, Netanyahu made attacking the “liberal” press a go-to tactic for his entire party, long before it was popularized by Trump, and with extremely similar results—the media has become cowed and afraid to call out the government, and the audience has become ever more disdainful and distrustful of those occasions when the press actually does its job and speaks truth to power.

But Netanyahu’s greatest blow was reserved for public broadcasting. The 2019 Eurovision was produced by Kann, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation. Kann also celebrated its second birthday last week. Those of you who know a bit about Eurovision history might be a bit puzzled right now. While many Eurovisions are currently produced and aired by commercial channels, when the contest started, only public broadcasting corporations were allowed to enter (despite the obvious confusion, Eurovision is not a contest between countries, but between broadcasters; in fact the idea for it only came about because of the immense technical challenge presented by simulcasting a single event across multiple networks back in the 50s). So if Kann is a toddler, who has been representing Israel at Eurovision all these years?

The answer is IBA, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which until the early 80s was Israel’s only voice on the airwaves. Modeled on the BBC, for nearly seventy years, IBA produced radio and television content, delivering news, educational programs, documentary series, and entertainment. And in 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu killed it. There were pretexts, of course—IBA had never really managed to keep up with the times in the era of modern media, and its organization was bloated and inefficient. Under the guise of reform, Netanyahu killed IBA and announced Kann (then known only as “The Corporation”) as its newer. sleeker replacement. But he then immediately set about trying to defund Kann as well. He was on the verge of doing so when Netta Barzilai won the 2018 Eurovision with “Toy”, necessitating Kann’s continued existence at least into 2019.

One of Netanyahu’s chief allies in his efforts to forestall the possibility of a 2011-style challenge to his leadership ever happening again is Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture. A former army censor, Regev immediately grasped and perfected Netanyahu’s tactic of identifying figures among his ideological enemies and turning them into scapegoats to distract from the failures of his government and policies. In her case, she set her sights on Israel’s artistic and cultural community. Israel is a small country and it is basically impossible to sustain cultural institutions here without government support. The minister of culture therefore holds significant sway over the country’s artistic output, and Regev wasn’t shy about using that power, such as concentrating influence in her office to determine which movies will receive public funding, with the obvious understanding that the selections will have an ideological component.

Much of Regev’s work has been rhetorical, public posturing intended to buttress Netanyahu’s argument that Israel’s elites and intelligentsia are arrayed against him and that the common people must rise to his defense. Her go-to tactic has been to decry the artistic community as disloyal and out of touch, and wait for the fireworks to go off (to their discredit, Israel’s artists almost never fail to stoop to Regev’s level, responding to her provocations no matter how cheap or blatant). When Shmuel Maoz’s film Foxtrot was selected as Israel’s representative for the foreign language Oscar in 2018, Regev announced, sight unseen, that the film cast Israel in a bad light. When Israeli expat Nadav Lapid won the Berlin film festival’s top prize for his film Synonymes this year, Regev put out a statement in which she withheld her congratulations until such time as she could determine if the film was sufficiently loyal to the state. She has repeatedly inserted herself into public events, and used them as bullhorns for the purpose of her own aggrandizement, as well as cementing the perception of Netanyahu as ruler for life—for example when she made changes to the country’s official Independence Day celebration, nominally an event conducted by the Knesset in which the government and PM have no place except as spectators, that gave Netanyahu minutes of national air-time.

And then came Messi. Or rather, didn’t. In June 2018 Israel was getting ready to host a traditional pre-World Cup exhibition match between the local and Argentinian national teams—the latter, of course, featuring superstar Lionel Messi. Regev immediately shoehorned herself into the event’s organization, moving the venue from Haifa to Jerusalem (this was at the height of Netanyahu’s efforts to pretend that increased recognition of Jerusalem as falling entirely under Israeli sovereignty constituted a major foreign policy accomplishment) and announcing that Messi and Bibi would meet, perhaps for a photograph on the turf (with Miri prominently placed, of course). It’s not clear what the exact sequence of events was (there was, in addition, a corruption scandal when it transpired that the ministry of culture had earmarked a batch of tickets for employees), but within days, the match was cancelled. It might seem pathetic to say this, but this was one of the biggest faceplants of Netanyahu’s administration, and certainly of Regev’s tenure. With Netta’s win still fresh and next year’s Eurovision looming, a consensus immediately formed—Miri Regev, and by extension Netanyahu, needed to be kept as far away from this production as possible.

This allowed Kann to quietly, and with very little fuss, make decisions that acquiesced to the EBU’s demands without turning them into weeks-long scandals with no solution. I’ve already mentioned the decision to hold the event in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem, where Israel’s two previous Eurovisions were held, in silent acknowledgment that 2019 isn’t 1999 or 1979, and that Netanyahu’s own attempts to establish total Israeli control over the city (not to mention the increasing sway that Orthodox politicians have over its Jewish neighborhoods) make it unsuitable to the contest in its present form. Similarly, the kerfuffle over holding rehearsals on the Sabbath was met with calm equanimity—and while it is unfortunate that the frontrunners to represent Israel, Shalva, a musical ensemble whose members are all people with disabilities, chose to drop out of the pre-Eurovision contest when it was made clear that the rehearsal requirement couldn’t be lifted, people making choices for themselves in accordance with their conscience is the way this sort of thing should work (and Shalva have nevertheless benefited from the experience, appearing at this year’s Independence Day ceremony and at the second semi-final). Even the postcards presenting Israel to the world were all filmed within the green line, in accordance with the contest’s rules. Kann’s management of Eurovision has been a tantalizing glimpse of how this entire country could run if we stopped letting religious fanatics and white supremacists make all the decisions. And it’s a reminder that Europe’s expectations of us, if we want to participate in their events, really aren’t that onerous as far as most Israelis are concerned.

As well as attacking the media, the second tactic Netanyahu deployed in his efforts to prevent the 2011 protests from happening again was to foment division between the very groups that came together to challenge him—religious and secular, right and left, Jewish and Arab. To be fair, this has never been a long trip for Israelis, but the sheer amount of inciting language and hateful rhetoric directed at the people Netanyahu views as his enemies—and whom he wants the Israeli public to view as theirs—has been horrifying to behold. His clear and blatant purpose has been to make Israelis feel constantly beleaguered, and to present himself as the only one strong enough to withstand Israel’s enemies from within and without.

In that sense, BDS has been a tremendous godsend for Netanyahu. The minister he appointed to “combat” the issue, Gilad Erdan (another one of Netanyahu’s creatures, the group of profoundly unimpressive failsons and daughters he brought in as part of his efforts to clear Likud of anyone who might oppose his leadership), has, like Miri Regev, directed almost all of his efforts towards highly publicized, meaningless disputes that do more harm than good even when he “wins” them. The most famous, recently, has been the case of Lara Al Qasem, a Palestinian-American student on her way to begin a Master’s program at Hebrew University who was waylaid at Ben Gurion airport and held in an immigration detainment facility for several weeks while Erdan argued that she was a BDS activist. Since Al Qasem literally had nothing to lose from loudly and publicly taking her case to the courts, Erdan and the state were placed in a position of weakness. But regardless of Al Qasem’s eventual win in court, Erdan’s actual purpose was achieved—to further entrench the Israeli public in the perception that “the world is against us”, that enemies are among us, and that no one can be trusted except right-wing Israeli Jews.

Kann’s choices in producing Eurovision were clearly slanted towards combating this mentality. Throughout the broadcast, it incorporated messages of unity and camaraderie between Israel and the other competing nations. The post-competition act, in which famous past winners, including Conchita Wurst and Verka Serduchka, sang one another’s winning songs and then joined 1979 winner Gali Atari to sing a version of “Hallelujah” with English lyrics, obviously plays up to Eurovision’s standard themes. But those themes play differently in a country that has spent the last decade convincing itself that it stands alone and that everyone outside it is an enemy. Look, Kann’s production seemed to be saying: they like us; they really like us.

Another important decision made by the production was the choice of Lucy Ayoub as one of the competition’s four presenters. The product of a mixed marriage, descended from both Holocaust survivors and Palestinian refugees, Ayoub represents the worst nightmare for both the settler right and the religious right. When she greeted the broadcast’s international audience with “Bienvenus, welcome, bruchim ha-ba’im, marhaba” (and the fact that she was given the task of offering that greeting can’t have been mere chance) it was a shot across the bow of the Netanyahu government’s efforts to delegitimize Israel’s Arab citizens as well as Arab culture (which is shared by many Israeli Jews). This may seem like a small thing, but in a country that is still lying to itself about the implications of last year’s nation-state law (which, among other things, lowers the status of Arabic among Israel’s other official languages) putting Ayoub front and center sends a powerful message.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of what happened here this weekend. The fact that Eurovision came off, and made several extremely pointed jabs towards the values of inclusion, tolerance, and multiculturalism as they might express themselves in Israel’s context, doesn’t mean that all our problems are on the verge of being solved. After all, despite the broadcast’s smart decisions, the simple fact that only a few hours away, millions of people are living without rights or the basic conditions of a decent life was mostly ignored (unless you count an anodyne call for peace at the end of Madonna’s performance, or the Icelandic team holding up Palestinian flags during the points announcement). But the importance of Eurovision’s accomplishment is in suggesting that things could be different. For the last ten years, Netanyahu has spun his failures—both on the international stage and on the simple, day-to-day executive level—as a reflection of the harshness of the world which he alone can protect Israelis from. Kann’s Eurovision proves otherwise. It proves that when smart, hardworking people roll up their sleeves and actually work, as opposed to posturing for the cameras and fomenting outrage, amazing things can get done in this country. And it proves that the horror stories we’ve been told about the hatred that awaits us in Europe are nonsense (not to mention cover for Netanyahu’s increasing coziness with actual Nazis, just because they share his authoritarian tendencies). These are messages that the Israeli public has desperately needed to hear, and maybe for some people, they got through.

Does this mean we’re on the right path? Absolutely not. Among other things, on Sunday morning Netanyahu greeted Kann’s triumph by announcing his intention to slash their budget next year. It also doesn’t mean that cheerful acceptance is the only or best tack foreigners can take when trying to influence Israel and Israelis towards a more sane policy. Though I remain persuaded that BDS is useless at best, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that sunbathing on our beaches and singing and dancing at the Eurovision village are a tool towards justice for Palestine. But this Saturday’s events were a real loss for people who want nothing but war and hatred to rule this country, and a real win for people who believe things can be different. We can only hope that they aren’t the last flicker of normalcy before the dark.

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