A festival of kitsch this year comes with controversy

As singers from 42 nations prepare for the Saturday finale of the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, a familiar refrain is once again being heard: cultural festivals in Israel these days almost always come with calls to boycott the country for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Palestinians call for boycott of Israel ahead of Saturday’s Eurovision song contest final in Tel Aviv

Portugal's Eurovision entry Conan Osiris performs during the first semi-final of the song contest in Tel Aviv. The international cultural event has come with controversy this year, with Israel as the host country. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Where air raid sirens blared over Tel Aviv's Mediterranean beachfront earlier this year there is now the sound of power ballads and pop anthems, as artists and music fans from across the globe gather in Israel for this year's Eurovision Song Contest. 

But as performers from 42 nations gear up for the final performances in the kitschy contest before a winner is crowned Saturday night, many Palestinians and their supporters are hoping to steal the spotlight, to highlight — in front of a massive global audience — what they say is Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians.

Eurovision is the latest cultural event hosted in Israel that has become a battleground in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Israelis say they have every right to put on an international festival.

But Palestinians say that simply amounts to a "whitewash" of the Israeli occupation.

Recent rockets and airstrikes

Eurovision 2019 comes just over a week after a ceasefire ended the most recent flare-up of violence between the two sides, the most serious since the 2014 war in Gaza.

Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas, which controls the strip, launched more than 600 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel. The Israeli air force responded by striking hundreds of targets in the blockaded coastal enclave.

More than 600 rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel in early May, which led to hundreds of airstrikes from Israel's air force in retaliation. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

A ceasefire ended the violence that killed 23 Palestinians and four people in Israel. But there are concerns this truce could break down, leading to wider conflict.

Israeli tourism officials had expected Eurovision would bring some 10,000 visitors, which would have added up to a $13 million boost to the country's economy.

But Israeli media report that local businesses, especially bars and restaurants in hip Tel Aviv, are not seeing that expected influx.

Tel Aviv's expensive hotels and pricer-than-usual Eurovision tickets are believed to be a big factor that has kept some fans away.

Still, thousands of die-hard fans of the colourful and camp song contest did travel to Israel, well aware of the security issues.

"We felt safe the whole time here," said Briton Catherine Osbourne. "We've been OK being out on our own, and we've seen some police around, but there isn't really sort of a heavy security so we haven't felt nervous at all."

Madonna in the mix

Canadian-Israeli billionaire and philanthropist Sylvan Adams is trying to boost Eurovision attendance by bringing in a pop star who is no stranger to the controversy that surrounds playing gigs in Israel.

Madonna, the Queen of Pop, is expected to play Eurovision's grand finale on Saturday night.

Adams is paying about $1.3 million to bring her to Tel Aviv.

"I thought to expand our reach and also to add a little glamour to the event by bringing an international superstar here," Adams told CBC News. "I'm hoping that this will be the most successful, most widely watched Eurovision in the Eurovision history."

Next year Jerusalem?

Israel has hosted Eurovision twice before, in 1979 and 1999, both times in Jerusalem. But the city's complicated status (both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital) led contest organizers this year to hold the event some 60 kilometres away in Tel Aviv, the country's main cultural and business centre.

Sylvan Adams at his condo above Tel Aviv's beachfront, which this week is home to the 64th Eurovision Song Contest. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

That move has not dampened protests by Palestinians and their supporters.

"No one has the right — including singers and artists — to whitewash Israeli crimes by organizing the Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv, on the land which was stolen from our grandfathers and grandmothers," said Basem Naim, an official with Hamas, a political party and militant group that is considered a terrorist organization by Canada and other governments.

Inspired by anti-Apartheid groups in South Africa, Palestinian activists have used the international attention surrounding Eurovision to promote their Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, movement to call on Madonna to cancel her Saturday guest performance.

Demonstrators called for a boycott of the Eurovision song contest this week in Tel Aviv. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

In response, Madonna said she will "never stop playing music to suit someone's political agenda, nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be."

Pressure from BDS activists, however, has led some artists, including Lorde and Lana Del Ray, to cancel their shows in Israel.

The winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, Netta Barzilai, who stormed to success with the dance-pop number Toy, said of the competition: "I don't think that politics should be a part of it. Ever.

"This is one stage where you stand together, no matter gender, no matter ethnicity, no matter colour or sexual preferences," Barzilai told CBC News. "You stand equal, and clean, with a message of love."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.