The twinkling lights and sparkling dresses of the singing competition were meant to be a respite from another day of depressing, hostage-filled news on Israeli television.
However, a somber atmosphere hung over the final of “Rising Star”, the show which selects Israel’s representative in the Eurovision Song Contest, as it pitted four young pop singers against each other on Tuesday evening.
This year’s winner, Eden Golan, 20, dedicated her performance of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” to the more than 100 Israeli hostages still held in Gaza. “Everything will only really be okay when everyone goes home,” she said.
As the winner, Golan will travel to Malmö, Sweden, in May to represent his country at Eurovision, a high-profile spectacle watched by tens of millions and decided, in part, by a public vote. This is not an obvious indicator of war. But as the number of civilian casualties in Gaza rises, calls are growing for Israel to be excluded from this year’s event.
Several high-profile artist-led campaigns argue that recent decisions to exclude Russia and Belarus set a precedent and that Israel should be banned for human rights violations. Eurovision officials reject such comparisons, but when Golan performs in Malmö, it seems certain that many voters will be thinking of something other than his singing.
The campaign to exclude Israel began in December, after Iceland’s decision Association of Composers and Lyricists released a statement on Facebook saying that Israeli aggression in Gaza made the country incompatible with an event “characterized by joy and optimism.”
In Iceland, a petition has collected around 10,000 signatures – the equivalent of almost 3% of the country’s population – calling for the expulsion of Israel. If Israel is allowed to participate, the petition says, Iceland should boycott the event.
In recent weeks, thousands of musicians Norway, Denmark And Finland signed similar letters. And a Swedish open letterincluding among the signatories the pop star Robyn, stressed that the organizers of Eurovision had banned Belarus in 2021 on his government’s suppression of media freedom.
The following year, Russia was banned after beginning its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Allowing Russia to remain in the competition would “bring the competition into disrepute,” Eurovision organizers said at the time.
Eurovision officials say the cases of Israel and Russia are different. “Comparisons between wars and conflicts are complex and difficult and, as a non-political media organisation, it is not our place to make them,” said Noel Curran, director general of the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the competition, in an email.
“We understand the deeply held concerns and opinions surrounding the current conflict in the Middle East,” he said. However, he added, Eurovision is “not a competition between governments”.
This is not the first time that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has resurfaced at Eurovision, which Israel first participated in 1973 and has since won four times. (Some other countries outside Europe, including Azerbaijan and Australia, also send entries to the competition.)
In 2019, Palestinian activists called on potential participants to boycott the show, which was which will take place in Tel Aviv that year. No one withdrew, but Hatari, an electronic band representing Iceland, displayed a Palestinian banner during the finaland during a competition interlude, Madonna, a special guest, sparked controversy when two of his dancers carried Israeli and Palestinian flags on their backs.
But the debate over Israel’s involvement has never been more heated than today, said Stefan Eiriksson, general director of RUV, Iceland’s public broadcaster. Eiriksson said his country would choose its Eurovision candidate next month, also via a televised singing competition. But it will be up to the winner to decide whether they participate in May or heed the call not to participate in this year’s competition, he said.
Among the favorites to represent Iceland are Bashar Murad, Palestinian musician who has aroused the anger of the Israelis after speaking out against the destruction of Gaza in December interview with thema queer online magazine.
If selected, Eurovision rules will require Murad to stop making political statements, although sometimes comments about Gaza made before an act was chosen have been unearthed and scrutinized. Bambie Thug, a singer who will represent Ireland, told the Irish Examiner newspaper before being selected, Eurovision should not have one rule for Russia and another for Israel. And Olly Alexander, who will represent Great Britain last year signed an open letter which described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide”.
After the BBC, which chose the British entry, selected Alexander in December, the nonprofit Campaign Against Antisemitism called on the broadcaster to rethink its choice. A spokeswoman for Alexander said he was unavailable for comment, and a BBC spokeswoman reiterated that Alexander signed the letter before he was cast as a British actor.
Even if the conflict in Gaza has calmed by May, it will likely still play an important role, said Dean Vuletic, who has written and edited books about Eurovision. Voters increasingly view the ballot as “a forum to make political statements,” he said: In 2014, they showed their support for LGBTQ people by vote for Conchita WurstAustrian singer and drag artist, and in 2022, voters massively supported Ukraine’s action, Kalush Orchestrain opposition to the Russian invasion.
Eurovision fans have widely varying opinions on the conflict in Gaza, he added, and while some will refuse to vote for Israel, others may vote out of sympathy.
Still, some Israeli fans are worried about what could happen in Malmö. Nir Harel, the president of OGAE Israelthe Israeli branch of the Eurovision fan club network, said in an interview that the furor over his country’s participation was “frustrating and disappointing”, not least because “Eurovision is a bubble – a friendly bubble – and politics should not enter into it.”
In May, Harel said, he expected the public to boo the Israeli candidate. “Of course it worries us,” Harel said, adding that he also expected that many Eurovision fans would not vote for the Israeli entry, no matter how good Golan’s song was. .
Nevertheless, he said he would be present in Malmö with other members of his club. “We already have our tickets,” Harel said. “When we land in Malmö, we are Eurovision fans,” he added: “We are there as fans of the Israeli candidate, not as fans of the Israeli government. We will support everyone.