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Is Tel Aviv in Trouble? Both Sides of the Eurovision 2019 Boycott Debate

Politics…in Eurovision?!

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The Grand Final of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest is now only 20 days away, set to be hosted in the city of Tel Aviv after Netta Barzilai's song 'Toy' achieved the 4th highest number of points in the contest's history (under the newly reformed voting system). But, in the lead-up to the World's most watched non-sporting event, the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) has come under fire from many parties calling for the contest to be boycotted.

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Israel won ESC 2018 nearly 100 points ahead of runner-up, Cyprus Source: Wouter van Vliet

With 186 million viewers last year, the contest cannot escape being an international platform that, despite the EBU's best efforts, is politicised to varying degrees every single year. This isn't the first time a country has been criticised prior to hosting the much-loved competition either.

Azerbaijan, which hosted in 2012, was heavily criticised for its poor Human Rights record that saw citizens evicted to make way for a purpose-built stadium, the Baku Crystal Hall, as well as police inquests into its own citizens who voted for Armenia, its rival state, back in 2009. But the fact still remains that, like Netta, the Azeri duo Eldar Qasimov and Nigar Jamal won the competition and therefore, as per the rules, won the right to host the competition the following year in the country they represented.

So, the question still remains: Where does the boundary lie when it comes to ethics versus following protocol? Despite the criticisms of Israel, should the EBU have the power to deny a nation the right to host an 'apolitical' event on political grounds?

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Tel Aviv at night: the city set to host this year's contest . Source: Galid Avidan

Over the last few months many of the performers that are set to represent their countries have spoken of boycotting the competition due to concerns over legitimising what is perceived by some as a genocidal/apartheid state. Although it should be noted that this perception of Israel is not held by most governments and international bodies, including the United Kingdom and European Union. Iceland's participant, Hatari, one of the current favourites, openly criticised the Israeli state over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in an interview at the recent Pre Party in Madrid. They will still be competing despite their personal views on the matter.

'Eurovision is, of course a very beautiful thing because it is founded in the spirit of unity and peace…but it is currently being hosted by a country marred by disunity and conflict, which is quite absurd. We want to continue a critical discussion.'


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Hosting Eurovision is a small component of a much greater issue Source: Alisdare Hickson

The criticisms go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a volatile debate in its own right . Tel Aviv is world-renowned for being a highly LGBT-friendly city that hosts numerous large-scale events throughout the year. Israel though, as a whole, is not seen in quite the same light. Though homosexuality was legalised in 1988, same-sex marriages are not performed in the country. They are however recognised if obtained elsewhere, and same-sex couples are allowed to adopt. However, that's not to say that discrimination does not exist nor that there is no more progress to be made.

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Israel is most likely the most LGBT-friendly nation in the Middle East Source: US Embassy Jerusalem

Some have labelled their hosting of Eurovision an act of 'pinkwashing', essentially presenting the country as far more progressive, modern, and tolerant than it actually is in order to commercially exploit LGBT+ people. With Madonna recently announcing that she will be performing 2 songs at the contest, it is understandably a valid concern. Eurovision is notably an event that attracts a large LGBT+ viewership, and so attempts to be superficially 'appealing' to this particular demographic are questionable.

However, Israel is yet again not the only country to have been questioned over disparities between its treatment of LGBT+ issues inside and outside of the competition period. The issue of pinkwashing is therefore not inherently an 'Israel-only' issue, but remains an issue nonetheless.

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Protests over pinkwashing in Israel Source: TMagen

There are clearly concerns with Israel hosting the contest that some deem reason enough to boycott the event, but is it that simple? Not entirely. There are arguments to be had in defence of the country being permitted to host.

The EBU has stated, as it always has, that Eurovision is meant to be free from politics, having previously banned songs, like Georgia's 2009 entry, considered to be making antagonistic statements. Despite the blatant inconsistencies in enforcing that ethos, what with bloc voting, countries withdrawing entries, and many other songs being far more politcal than Georgia's, the EBU has never banned a country from entering the contest on political grounds.

It didn't ban Azerbaijan back in 2012 in the face of Human Rights violations, nor did it ban Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It didn't ban Spain either on the two occasions that it actually won the contest in 1968 and 1969 during Franco's Regime. Of course, every case is individual and complex, but the EBU is, rightly or wrongly, holding fast to its self-proclaimed apolitical stance.

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The Eurovison stage in 2016: as political as much as it is musical Source: David Jones

At the same time, before a country hosts the contest, EBU representatives are sent to the nation's potential host cities to assess their capacity to successfully deliver Eurovision. This does not just address its financial capacity, but ensures that certain promises are made to protect those who will be visiting the country during the contest, such as ensuring visas and safe travel are guaranteed regardless of individual stances on political issues. Freedom of Press is also an important assurance that is made. The EBU, when it has the power to do so, tries to 'vet' a potential host country. Whether it is rigorous enough is still up for debate.

One thing is certain: Eurovision is being hosted by Israel this year. There are many more arguments both for and against, with no clear answer in sight. Does the repsonsibility for addressing issues such as these lie solely with the EBU? Can Eurovision ever escape the politics that comes with it? Should it be allowed to? What we can be sure of is that this debate is far from over and will certainly frame next month's contest.

Cover Image Sources: MateuszFret1998