There were loud boos in the Tel Aviv Expo Centre on Saturday night, and not just when it was announced that voters in Greece and Cyprus had once again awarded each other the full 12 Eurovision song contest points in their annual display of allegiance. When Hatari – the Icelandic entrants – waved Palestinian scarves solemnly to the cameras as their results rolled in, my fellow audience members in the Israeli city made their dissatisfaction clear. It was the first time those assembled in the room were confronted with the controversy that had surrounded Israel hosting the event, and many just didn’t like it.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises the contest, sent out the statement: “This directly contradicts the rules … the consequences of this action will be discussed.”
Earlier in the show, two of Madonna’s backing dancers in the final moments of her performance walked together, one with an Israeli flag stitched on to their back, the other with that of Palestine. The EBU’s response was: “This element of the performance was not part of the rehearsals … the Eurovision song contest is a non-political event and Madonna had been made aware of this.”
So why is the mere idea of displaying the flag of a nation state in an international singing contest considered inappropriate? Throughout the night, both in the crowd and in televised segments from the green room, flags from European nations and beyond were waved proudly and without criticism – as were rainbow and trans pride flags in a display of solidarity with the contest’s large LGBTQ+ fanbase. Nobody batted an eyelid: of course they shouldn’t. And yet when an official realised that Iceland’s representatives were preparing to express solidarity with another oppressed and marginalised group – the Palestinians – attempts were made to confiscate their property.
Neither Madonna nor Hatari waved anti-Netanyahu placards: these actions weren’t even a comment on the West Bank and Gaza, or Israel’s ongoing occupation. The fact any investigation, reprimand or punishment for those involved is even being considered highlights the fundamental flaw in the line that organisers this year had always taken: that holding Eurovision in Israel is not political. With all eyes on Israel, Palestinians were erased from the conversation. For the last seven days, I’ve been in Tel Aviv, meeting activists from inside the city and beyond who cited this as a major concern; it’s why Palestinian groups were so unwavering in their demand for artists to boycott this year’s competition.
Consider momentarily the short video clips shown between the acts, the ones referred to as “postcards” – in which each country’s contestants danced around at a famous Israeli landmark – and the opening sequence, which saw, among other things, cyclists with lit-up wheels darting around the contested city of Jerusalem. Sure, this kind of thing happens in Eurovision every year. But when the host nation’s sites are part of a live, international territorial dispute, it’s ignorant and misguided to claim the clips wouldn’t cause offence.
Israeli organisers had four hours to present their country as they so wished. Palestinians, who also have a claim to the very same land, apparently couldn’t even be afforded 30 seconds.
All of this is just another reminder of how far we are from finding a lasting and peaceful resolution to this conflict. What does it say about public opinion in Israel when even a liberal, queer, party-going crowd react so harshly to the red, green and black national colours of their nearest neighbours?
Organisers of the competition should now be thinking carefully about what to do should Israel win again before the political situation has changed. I, like Hatari, headed to the West Bank this week, to visit Hebron and see first-hand what life is like for Palestinians living under military occupation. One can only hope, in the aftermath of last night, that Eurovision’s high command opt to do the same.
• Michael Segalov is an author and contributing editor at Huck magazine