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Gaza: under the spotlight, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shakes up the Eurovision contest

Eurovision management tries, in vain, to remind people that the cultural event is “apolitical” and asks artists – and the public – not to brandish symbols linked to conflicts.

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Gaza: under the spotlight, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shakes up the Eurovision contest

Eurovision management tries, in vain, to remind people that the cultural event is “apolitical” and asks artists – and the public – not to brandish symbols linked to conflicts. The French Minister for Europe, Jean-Noël Barrot, judged on Friday evening "unacceptable" the "pressure on artists" called for a boycott of Israel during the final on Saturday evening. “Politics has no place at Eurovision,” he said. But the reality is quite different. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exported to the European scene and is shaking up the competition. Several controversies have exploded in recent weeks around several candidates, including the Israeli singer.

Eden Golan, 20, faced criticism after qualifying for the final on Thursday evening. Numerous calls from Scandinavian artists and associations had called for Israel to be excluded from the competition, in the same way as Russia which was banned from the competition in 2022 after the invasion of Ukraine. Nearly 12,000 people demonstrated, along with Greta Thunberg, in the streets of Malmö, Sweden, where the musical event takes place. A new gathering is already planned for Saturday.

Faced with fears of an attack, security had been heavily reinforced. Because concern is growing in Sweden after the Koran burnings which took place in 2023, making the country a target of Islamists. The inhabitants of Malmö are very mobilized for the Palestinian cause. Every weekend since the Hamas attack, Palestinian flags have flown from the windows and in the streets of this city classified politically on the left.

This demonstration sparked reactions as far as Germany, where Culture Minister Claudia Roth described calls for a boycott against Israel, “in Europe and in Germany,” as “unacceptable.” She also spoke on X of a “terrifying” strengthening of security measures to protect Israeli nationals and Jews. “Anti-Semitism, hatred and violence have no place in such an important musical event,” she added.

But the candidate from the Jewish state first made headlines because of the lyrics of her song. If Eden Golan qualified with her title Hurricane, her initial piece was titled October rain, an unequivocal reference to the deadly Hamas attack on October 7. The Israeli Broadcasting Company (KAN) responsible for Eurovision in Israel had demanded changes to the text. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes the Eurovision contest, prohibits words that could be assimilated to political positions.

But Eden Golan is not the only candidate to have been called to order. Swedish singer Eric Saade, of Palestinian origin, was reprimanded after wrapping his wrist with a keffiyeh during the opening concert. Just like the Irish singer, Bambie Thug, openly pro-Palestinian, who had to remove the inscriptions of support for Gaza, “ceasefire” and “freedom for Palestine”, from her costume. The candidate describes herself as a “queer ouija pop star” – a board believed to enable communication with spirits – and is nicknamed “the witch” by Irish media.

Bambie Thug was also encouraged by more than 400 Irish artists to withdraw from the competition, as a sign of protest against Israel's participation. These artists declare in their letter, that “by participating in Eurovision, Bambie Thug stands on the side of the oppressor”. They also add that the Palestinians asked the artists to boycott this competition. Bambie Thug should therefore choose to be “on the right side of history,” they continue. According to them, this competition would be a way of “whitewashing” “genocidal” crimes against the Palestinians. Added to this letter is another signed by more than 16,000 Irish viewers. And they go further. They are asking the director general of RTE, Ireland's biggest channel, to withdraw the country from Eurovision.

But event organizers ruled out Israel's exclusion in mid-February: "The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political musical event and a competition between public service broadcasters who are members of the EBU. This is not a competition between governments.” Regarding the comparisons with the exclusion of Russia, “[they] are complex and difficult and it is not for us to make them,” continued Noel Curran, director general of the EBU.

The tensions surrounding the conflict between Hamas and Israel are even felt behind the scenes of Eurovision. Particularly between Eden Golan and the Dutch candidate Joost Klein. At the end of the semi-final on Thursday evening, the 26-year-old expressed his disagreement with being placed next to Israeli representative Eden Golan, notably covering his face with the Dutch flag on several occasions.

Another incident, during a press conference which brought together them with other participants this Friday, May 10, the Israeli singer was asked a sensitive question by a journalist: “Have you ever thought that by being here, Are you putting other participants at risk and danger?” The young woman imposed a silence of several seconds, before a member of the tele-hook team explained to her that she is “not obliged to answer if [she] does not want to”.

Two chairs away, Joost Klein, who was slumped in his chair and had placed a red sheet over his head, immediately woke up to shout “Why not?” Is this the reason why, also this Friday afternoon, the EBU announced the suspension of the candidate from the Netherlands who “will not repeat again until further notice”? There is no certainty at this stage, the organizers having just justified their decision due to an “incident”. According to public television SVT, the “incident” mentioned by the EBU was a confrontation between Joost Klein and a photographer.

Eden Golan finally answered the question by stating that the candidates are all there for “one and only reason” and that the organizers are taking “all necessary precautions to make this place a safe and united place for all”. “I think that’s the case for everyone and we wouldn’t be here,” she added.

Joost Klein is known to be pro-European. In his song Europapa, he sings the colors of the EU flag. “Europe, let’s unite! It's now or never ! I love you all!”, he shouts at the start of his song, one month before the European elections. Words that resemble the motto of the 27: “United in diversity”. In his clip, the singer with peroxide bangs appears like a politician in a blue blazer with oversized shoulder pads, in front of microphones and in front of European flags.

An allusion which recalls that last autumn, the nationalist party of Geert Wilders, against immigration and eurosceptic, came first in the legislative elections in the Netherlands with a historic score of 23% of the votes. In his piece, Joost Klein, on the other hand, praises the abolition of the borders of the Shengen area: “I want to leave the Netherlands but I lost my passport. Luckily, I don’t need a visa to be near you.” “Music is an iceberg that people only see the tip of. I don’t blame them but I invite them to look below the surface,” explains the singer to 20 minutes.

Also read: Stéphane Bern: “I deplore the politicization of Eurovision”

The politicization of Eurovision is not new, explains Oranie Abbes, teacher-researcher at the University of Lorraine and Eurovision specialist, on France Musique. “Despite being officially apolitical, the Eurovision Song Contest has always been politicized. For example, in 1990, five songs were dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred a little less than a year earlier,” she explains before adding: “In 1980, Morocco referred to the shock oil tanker of 1979. More recently, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has come up numerous times in Ukraine's performances.” In 2022, the Ukrainian group Kalush Orchestra won the competition with a title referring to the Russian invasion.

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