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Israel reaches for the glitz of Eurovision against the backdrop of rockets

CM 20/05/2021

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 While some Israeli Eurovision fans worry that the current war will hurt the chances of Israel’s contestant, Eden Alene, to win the song contest – the finals for it will be held on Saturday night in Rotterdam (and which will be broadcast on Kan 11) – veteran Eurovision fans say that politics will not be a major factor.

“Eurovision fans are in kind of a bubble, they’re not too political,” said Yoav Ginai, a television presenter who wrote the lyrics to “Diva,” the song by transgender vocal artist Dana International, which won Eurovision in 1998.
“They are more interested in the presentation of the song, the dancing, the look,” he said. He noted that half of the contest score comes from fans voting around the world and half comes from a panel of judges. The war will not factor into the fans’ appreciation, he said, “but the judges could be more problematic” in terms of allowing the political situation to color their outlook and potentially snub Alene.
But Israel’s chances for victory on this field looked brighter after Alene performed in the semifinals on Tuesday night and advanced to the finals. Alene, the first Israeli contestant of Ethiopian descent, gave a flawless performance, which was televised to about 200 million viewers around the world. The pressure on the 21-year-old had mounted over the past year after the event was postponed from its May 2020 date due to the coronavirus. But Alene, an accomplished singer with an appealing presence who was raised by a single mother and who grew up in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, showed amazing poise as she sang the tune, “Set Me Free,” by Amit Mordechai, Ido Netzer, Noam Zaltin and Ron Carmi. She danced with a group of male dancers and wore a sexy black-and-white costume by Alon Livné, who has created performance costumes for Beyoncé, which was made of braids that matched her hair. She told Wiwibloggs – one of dozens of Eurovision-oriented sites — that the braids are “representing my freedom. It was my idea to do this, so it’s my own [way of saying] set me free.” Although protesters outside the auditorium called for “the occupier” not to be allowed to participate, Alene was able to hit the highest note ever achieved at Eurovision. The audience – smaller than usual due to pandemic concerns but still sizable — went wild after she achieved this feat and she thanked the crowd in Amharic, Hebrew, Arabic and English. She wrapped herself in an Israeli flag and recited the “Shema Yisrael” prayer as she waited for the results of the voting. When she heard she had made it to the finals, the jubilant Alene gushed, “I feel like I’m going to explode because of the excitement. I’m so happy for my country because we deserve this. We’ve been through so much… I love my country, and I’ve been through so much. And I’m so happy!”
But while she flashed a big smile and made her polished performance look effortless, she was acutely aware of the difficult situation back at home. She posted a message on Instagram earlier this week referring to the war with Gaza saying, “I am in Holland now, but my heart is with you every minute, hurting, loving, strengthening, and following with worry everything that is happening in Israel.”
The outbreak of the current hostilities with Gaza makes the always over-the-top song contest – known for its wild, colorful, even garish costumes and staging and intensely emotional performances – seem even more surreal than usual. The commentators on Kan, the network broadcasting the semifinal event on Tuesday, mentioned that it had not been an easy decision to broadcast the semifinal in light of the ongoing war and said that if necessary, newscasters would break into the Eurovision event to broadcast about the conflict. As the 16 semifinalists performed, at times the right side of the screen lit up orange with the news of missile barrages headed for different parts of Israel.
BUT WHILE many on social media called for Israel to be ousted from the event, Eurovision has long had an intense grip on the Israeli psyche because it is one of the first international contests in which Israel was able to participate and excel. Israel began taking part in Eurovision in 1973 and took home the top prize in 1978 and 1979, with wins for Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta, with the song “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” and Milk and Honey, with “Hallelujah,” respectively, and then again in 1998 with International’s “Diva.” While for decades the top prize eluded Israel, Israelis continued to be devoted Eurovision fans and to cheer on Israeli contestants. Finally, in 2018, Netta Barzilai became Israel’s fourth Eurovision winner with her rousing rendition of “Toy,” a self-empowerment anthem.

The last Eurovision contest was held in Tel Aviv in 2019 because it is held in the home country of the previous year’s winner. Dutch singer-songwriter Duncan Laurence won the 2019 contest with the song “Arcade,” so this year’s event took place in the Netherlands.
Ginai confirmed that Eurovision is popular with LGBTQ audiences in Israel and around the world, who see it as “a place where you can be and do what you want, the musical numbers and costumes are very colorful, dramatic, extreme.” There have been many LGBTQ winners and contestants over the years.
This year’s controversy is not the first time politics have reared its head at Eurovision, he pointed out. Arab countries do not participate because they would be required to broadcast the Israeli singers, he said. There has been a movement to include Palestine among the participants in the past and in 2016, buttons saying, “Palestinian Eurovision” were given out at the contest, but so far Palestine has not taken part, although it is part of the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the event. In 2019, at the finals in Tel Aviv, the Icelandic group, Hatari displayed scarves with Palestinian flags when the results were announced and were fined because political displays are banned.
In 2000, the Israeli act, PingPong, broke this rule as it waved a Syrian flag during its performance of the song, “Be Happy,” in a routine directed by Eytan Fox and the Israel Broadcasting Authority severed its connection to the performers, although did not stop them from competing. In 2013, Fox made the film, Cupcakes, about a group of friends and neighbors who write Israel’s winning song for a Eurovision-like contest and go on to perform in the finals in Paris. Cupcakes is currently being remade in the US, a sign that Americans are beginning to show some interest in Eurovision. “I had this connection to Eurovision growing up,” Fox said in an interview when the film was released. Last year, fans starved for Eurovision during the pandemic had to make do with the affectionate parody starring Will Ferrell, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga on Netflix, which featured several previous winners – including Barzilai – in cameos.
Israel was represented this year in a different way as well, because Russia’s song, “Russian Woman,” performed by Manizha, was written by two Israelis, Ori Avni and Ori Kaplan. “Russian Woman” also advanced to the finals.
Passionate Eurovision fans all over Israel will be rooting for Alene on Saturday night, but Ginai emphasized that politics aside, an Israeli victory is far from assured. “There are many songs that have gotten a lot of attention this year,” he said, mentioning Malta’s entry, “Je Me Casse” performed by Destiny Chukunyere, who is from a Maltese-Nigerian family, which is considered to be one of the strongest contenders. But for many Israelis, it will be a thrill just to hear Alene hit the high notes again, particularly if her performance is not accompanied by a column of missile alerts in the corner of the screen.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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